Future for the forgotten

PUBLISHED: 12:48 25 May 2006 | UPDATED: 13:30 04 May 2010

Kirsten with the youngsters of St John's Primary School

Kirsten with the youngsters of St John's Primary School

RWANDA S civil war - which resulted in the mass killing and raping of innocent people - horrified the world when it flashed across television screens. Although many of those disturbing images are a distant memory for most, the suffering goes on for those

Christina Mulindabigwi with youngsters in Rwanda

RWANDA'S civil war - which resulted in the mass killing and raping of innocent people - horrified the world when it flashed across television screens.

Although many of those disturbing images are a distant memory for most, the suffering goes on for those trying to rebuild their lives against a backdrop of immense poverty and an AIDS epidemic.

Families survive on meagre rations with no sanitation or running water and disease is rife.

Ely schoolteacher Kirsten Lake, who was born and grew up in the neighbouring Congo, has witnessed the problems first-hand, returning to help where she can.

Now she has the backing of Ely's new mayor, Cllr John Ison, in her quest to give hope and a future to the forgotten people of Rwanda.

LESLEY INNES talks to Kirsten about her tireless work to highlight the plight of people who have proved to be so resourceful against all the odds.s Tillyard, Mr Gillett, Mr Copping.

ELY teacher Kirsten Lake knows only too well the suffering of the people of Rwanda.

As she teaches her eager class of youngsters at the city's St John's Primary School it's hard not to draw comparisons with the children of the African country torn apart by civil war.

They haven't got the time or the resources to go to school. Many, as young as five, are too busy collecting water for the family or working to buy meagre portions of grain to think about learning to read and write.

Without intervention from the outside world it's a vicious treadmill which will just keep rolling. Families work to get through another day and stay alive. This is the legacy they will pass on to their children.

"My life could have been so different if I had been born on the other side of the fence," said Kirsten, 25, who grew up in the Congo, which was then Zaire. "I was so lucky to have been born white and an ex-patriot living in Africa.

"Growing up there I became quite cynical for a while about how they could possibly rebuild their communities faced with such huge problems. But the people were so resilient and resourceful. It was phenomenal and such a humbling experience.

"Families survive on just 25 kilograms of grain for two weeks. This is every meal. The children are malnourished yet they work alongside the adults to earn money just to live. There is nothing for clothing or education.

"They are fighting so hard to survive they don't have time to think about their community's future let alone their country's future. We need to break this cycle so that the children can be educated to earn enough money to feed, educate and clothe their families and in turn rebuild their communities."

Kirsten's parents were aid workers in a country which was far from stable before the outbreak of war.

Finally when she was 13, Kirsten, her two younger brothers and her parents returned to England.

But she went back to the Congo for the summer of 2002 and returned to Rwanda this year to work with the HIV children, taking parachutes and a football bought with £325 raised by St John's School children.

"A football is like gold dust for these children," she said. "Their football is a plastic bag tied in a bundle with rope. They don't know how to play team games. They have no time to be children."

Kirsten told St John's School governor and new mayor of Ely, Cllr John Ison, of the work taking place to help the people of Rwanda and he has pledged to support it during his Mayoral year.

He wants to forge links with Ely and the organisers of the Hope Project in Cyangugu in the south western corner of Rwanda.

There local people have bought a plot of land and are working to create a sustainable development.

A sewing school has been set up teaching them the skills to allow them to become self-sufficient and a literacy programme launched.

Work has also started to help the HIV/AIDS orphans and widows in the area.

"People have a right to education and hospital treatment," added Kirsten. "We have that right in the western world and, as such, we have a responsibility to help others to achieve it. I was so overwhelmed that John was going to support this project."

Cllr Ison is convinced Ely should become a "poverty pioneer" and he is proposing civic links, urging all organisations to seek ways of helping.

Anyone interested in supporting the work should contact Cllr Ison via Ely City Council in Market Street.

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