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Philomene
Monday, 01 March 2010 Written by Philomene Mukandoli

Philomene MukandoliMy name is Mukandoli Philomene. I was born in 1990 in a little village in the Muhanga County called Gasharu. In Rwanda, families usually have many children, at least 5 or 6, or even more. However, my parents had only two – my brother and me. This was so because my father died very young. I never met him. In fact, I have never even seen him. He died before my birth, while I was still in my mother's womb.

After this tragedy, my pregnant mother took her then two-year-old son and left the place where she had lived with her husband and which was rather distant from her birth place of Gasharu, near Gitarama. She returned to her mother's, where soon afterwards I was born.

In 1994, when I was only 4 years old, another tragedy happened in our family. Our mother died. Six of us - my brother, myself, my aunt (my mother's youngest sister) and her three children continued living with our grandmother, who, at seventy years of age, was already old. My aunt wasn't a big help. To the contrary; she was a psychiatric patient, and it is difficult to describe what it was like to live in such circumstances, and in such a crowded space.

Since I was a little child, before I even enrolled in the elementary school, I had to help out a lot - even be responsible for the maintenance of our household. While other children were playing, I stayed at home and carried water, cleaned, washed...

As in most parts of the world, children in Rwanda enrol in school at the age of seven. I didn’t manage to do that. I started school in September of 1999, when I was nine years old. I successfully completed the first year and was supposed to start second grade the next year. But I didn’t return to school - those were the circumstances. I was needed at home more. I had to stay and help my grandmother and my brother to take care of our family. My brother got by - doing various jobs outside the home to earn a couple of francs and bring some food for the family. He dug, helped build, carried luggage... And I was in charge of various jobs at home. I worked the land in the back yard, I carried water from the source, and I also cooked and gathered wood for the fire. Later, in the evening, if I had time, I used to go to the road and sell a few avocados or bananas.

Then, at the age of 14, I ventured into the city - to Gitarama - in the hope of finding a job. And I found it very quickly – in a family of three; a mother, a father and a small child. My task was to maintain the entire household; work similar to what I had already learned at my own home. I had to cook, wash the dishes and clothes, and take care of the baby. I was paid 1500 Rwandan francs a month, which is about three American dollars (about 2 euros)... very little. That is why I stayed there for only a short time - 6 months. I found a new job, similar to the first one, but with a noticeable increase in salary. Now, for 4000 francs ($8 USD), I was a housekeeper again, but this time I was employed by woman who worked in the municipality. My duties were similar as with the first family – taking care of the entire household. I stayed with her for over two years, until July 2007, when I left Gitarama and went to Ruyenzi in search for a new job.  Here, I was employed by a somewhat larger family of five, but my task was to take care of the youngest child only. There was another employee, a young man, whose job it was to take care of everything else, like water and food. And my salary increased again! Now I earned the equivalent of 10 dollars a month. However, I spent almost my entire salary on my family. I bought them food and clothing, often medicine as well, because our grandmother and my cousins were often ill.

In October of 2008, our grandma died and I returned home for her funeral. This would later prove to have been a turning point in my life. I met an older neighbour and we started talking about life, family, work... She suggested I returned to school.

I thought it was impossible. I had left school after the first grade, and too many years had passed since then. I was already seventeen! And it was completely senseless to go back to elementary school and attend classes with seven-year-olds. That is how I answered her. But she insisted, “Well do you have any idea? What do you intend to do for your future, and for your advancement?”

I told her that I was interested in fashion, sewing, and pattern making and that I had a big wish to learn to become a tailor. Still, I thought that it was too late for all this now and that it was impossible to correct the mistakes from the past – I did not even know how to read or write!

However, she persevered and she promised to help me regarding the enrolment. She convinced me that for success it was most important to be diligent and to have a desire and willingness to work!  And so it was that I prepared myself and in January of 2009, I left the job with the family where I worked. They were glad I had succeeded. We said goodbye; they wished me good luck, and soon I became a student in the tailoring department of Father Vjeko Centre! In the nearby area, I found a new family with whom to stay. January 11th 2009 - the first day of school was the happiest day that I shall remember my entire life!

I had hoped that problems were behind me, but unfortunately, I had to return home urgently. The house we had lived in with our grandmother, aunt (who died shortly before grandmother) and her children was now being occupied by uncles and the other aunt. In Rwanda it is really not easy to grow up in the house of your mother’s family. It is custom here that men inherit the land, and if the sister remains in the family house with her children, the brothers always complain because of the fear that they will “steal” the land that belongs to their heirs. They say “abishwa baca umuryango”, meaning once when they enter the family house, the children of the sister destroy the family.

And so our uncles decided to drive us away and to divide the grandmother’s estate amongst themselves!!! Terrible!!! They also divided the care of the children of our late aunt!!! My brother had already left, and I was ordered to do the same. They decided that we are adults and we had no more right to be in the house. They complained that we could not take anything from the house, as they had to divide everything – even the pots!

I had no other choice; I didn’t have a house any more, so I asked the family where I stayed during school year to allow me to stay there during holidays as well. I was lucky. They allowed me to stay, and they told me it was my home from there on!

In the beginning, I didn’t do well at school. It was difficult for me, and I learned new things slowly. But I tried my very best to make up for it by working hard, especially in doing the practical part. I slowly learned to read and write. And I managed to enrol in the second year!!! Now we are starting to learn about different patterns and materials and today my only fear is that I will have to do a lot of reading, which I’m still not very good at. But I am sure that it will not be impossible.  Colleagues and teachers will help me, just as they have been doing ever since I began!

Translated by: Bitno.hr
Edited by: Valerie K. Ken

 
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