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It is Important to Start
Monday, 13 July 2009 Written by Darko Rubčić

Centar Otac VjekoFriar Ivica Perić is a member of the Franciscan province of Bosnia Srebrena and a missionary in the parish of Kivumu in Rwanda, a country which witnessed a massacre in 1994 as a result of the conflict between the tribes of Hutu and Tutsi. It is estimated that in only three months between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed. The late friar Vjeko Ćurić, also a member of Bosnia Srebrena, worked as a missionary in that country from 1983 to 1998. During the war he remained with the people of Rwanda and helped save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. He himself could have been killed numerous times. After the war he helped to rebuild the lives of both Hutu and Tutsi. Precisely because of that he was murdered. Even today, the whole of Rwanda talks about him and his great achievements.

We spoke with friar Ivica, one of friar Vjeko’s brothers, about the life of people in Kivumu, his projects in the Friar Vjeko Centre and the problems he encounters in his work.

Father Vjeko Center

Question: Friar Ivica, you are the director of a school in Kivumu. Tell us something about the problem of education in Rwanda.

Fra Ivica: The elementary education lasts 6 years, not 8 like in our country. These are children between 6 and 12 years of age. I am running a technical school where youth are educated as carpenters, builders and tailors. The parish is small - its area is barely 60 sq. km., and yet it has about 30,000 inhabitants, about 20,000 of whom are under the age of 25. Each year 400-600 children finish elementary school, which is compulsory, but we believe there are at least the same number of those who do not go to school at all. Now imagine; this is only in our parish.

We plan to build a secondary school, but bureaucracy gets in our way. It is a big problem that in Rwanda, secondary school education is very expensive, it costs 300 € a year, and a worker digging the entire day, has daily wages which is a little over half a euro. This means that they make 160 € a year, and the school costs 300 €. Because of this, young people do not go to school. The annual budget of the school I run is about 38,000 €. This serves to pay for children’s lunch, to pay the school staff and to maintain a large generator and machines.

We also have a group of children - 52 of them, whom we help out with a budget of 23,000 €. This is why it means a lot to us to build the school; because for 23,000 € a year, we could have several thousand children at school. The problem is that the schooling system in Rwanda is changing. As of next year only English will be allowed, whereas until now the official languages were French and their native tongue kinya-rwanda. People are not ready, and they have to adapt.

Question: What do your students do and how do you acquire the necessary equipment?

Fra Ivica: Our students have equipment and machines, while other technical schools do not. In our school each pupil has his/her own tools, and everything is organized. In other schools, when pupils graduate, they know the theory, whereas our children have no problem actually building a house. We make all types of furniture - chairs, tables, closets, doors, windows, and we build roofs. Can you imagine that our very school was built by youth between 13 and 16 years of age?!

When we were making the underground water tank, 22 m long, 7 m wide and 3.5 m deep, forty of them dug 450 cubic metres of earth in five days! Before, these young people did not know about many things. Now we play football, basketball, volleyball. We are restoring the old novitiate because soon volunteers from Ireland are supposed to come to teach English, so we have to prepare accommodation. All this work has been done by the youth. Our students, when they graduate from school, manage to find a job, while for others only a life of digging with a hoe is possible.

As far as educational equipment, tools and machines are concerned, I am forced to bring all that from Uganda, since Rwanda is too expensive, almost three times as expensive as Uganda. I buy everything in Uganda, tools, TV sets, etc.

Question: How are things with the teaching staff?

Fra Ivica: This is still a big problem. Those who work for me have graduated from our school. Many would like to be teachers, but I have to train them first. I pay them around 70 € a month and that is the best salary locally.

Here in Rwanda, they have a completely different system of schooling. For example, in other schools, if a child asks something, or he/she doesn’t understand something, that child is in trouble. He/she is considered stupid. I had difficulty trying to break my teachers of that habit. In our school, when teachers start a lesson, they have to demonstrate and tell the students what they will do first. If the teachers do something wrong, I deduct it from their salary.

It sounds strict, but you have to look at it from the point of view of their culture. Everything is regulated in a kind of hierarchy in their country. It is known who is in charge in the family, and who makes the decisions, and there is no argument about it. And they transfer this attitude to education and everything else. Take this example, if a teacher needs the principal, they cannot simply go to him, but, since they have mobile phones now, they send the principal an SMS message, and if the principal wishes to do so, he will call him. But everything is different in our school. If anything happens, without them telling me, I punish them.

However, the school is large, and if I am gone, and something happens in the meantime, they may try to hide it from me. I have also introduced the practice that all the teachers have to meet after classes, and say how their day went - if there were any problems - so we can improve later on.

father Vjeko's grave

Question: What are biggest problems in Rwanda?

Fra Ivica: The biggest problem is overpopulation. Rwandan territory is half the size of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it has about 10-11 million inhabitants. And when you deduct national parks, the large forested areas and lakes, there is very little surface left with many people to feed. For example, in Bosnia two to three people live in one apartment, while in Rwanda about 20 of them live in one apartment. Everything is dug by hoe here, there are no machines. The whole of Rwanda has only 20,000 motor vehicles; this includes motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses.

In my parish there is rarely a family eating twice a day, and 40 to 60 percent of them eat only two to three times a week. Meat is eaten only at Christmas and Easter, and of course only in those families who can afford it. There are a large number of people who have never even tasted meat, since it is expensive - one kilogram of meat is about 2 €. Chicken meat is the most appreciated, but a chicken costs about 5 €. This means that a man has to dig for 10 days to buy one chicken.

It is customary that food is never given when guests come, as they have none. When I once went with my friends to Uganda, which is much richer in food – they carry sacks of potatoes, beans, corn flour, vegetables on their bikes – their first reaction as we crossed the border was: “Look at how much food there is here!” Once we received aid from Germany in the form of food and it was chaos.

We don’t do that anymore. When I came here, children had no lunch at school. Then people from Dortmund came and made provision for lunches for them. Now our children are the best-fed. While in other schools they only eat cornmeal porridge every day all week, our children eat porridge twice, rice twice, and sweet potato once per week. Of course each time the sauce is beans.

Question: Is there any help from the international humanitarian organizations?

Fra Ivica: The problem of such organizations is that they are working with the government. When I went to one of those organizations asking for help, they told me it was too small an amount of money for them to deal with; they work with millions and millions of Euros. On the other hand, all their aid goes through the hands of the government from which we still have received nothing. What we did receive was mostly from German friars and from our Croats in Canada and Australia, and that is it. They help us from Germany, since they know that all the money goes toward what it is intended for.

People from Missionzentrale der Franziskaner told us that only 5 percent of what is given to the United Nations goes towards what it is intended for. The rest goes to various organizations of the United Nations. Those people drive the biggest jeeps costing $100,000 each and they have the best houses, or they live in hotels. Their monthly salary is between $5,000 and $10,000. The houses they rent; none is under $2,000 – $3,000 a month. And how much do they spend for their administration, food….. ? At least our donors know that the money they give us is spent on the right cause.

Question: What is the religious structure?

Fra Ivica: They are mostly Catholic, about 70-80 percent. After the war the number of religion sects increased; there are some Muslims and a small number of traditional believers. This traditional religion in Africa is not polytheistic, but monotheistic; they have one supreme deity, a supreme god. They have a supreme god, and then there are mediators; in some respects theirs is similar to our religion. But they see faith and religion completely differently. Ethics, moral and law are more accentuated with us, and everything is much more open with them. They have different priorities.

Their understanding of time is also very interesting.

Yes, it is a completely different world, different mentality. They do not have a relationship with time; it does not exist. When I first came here, I walked 14 km to a distant sub-parish to have a mass at 10 o’clock. I arrived, and there was no one. I waited and only at 11:45 one of them came, he is a catechist, with a watch on his wrist.

I asked him: “When is the mass?” He said at 4 – note that they calculate time starting from 6 in the morning, which means that 4 would be 10 am. So I asked him: “And what is the time now?” He said 15 to 6 (his time). I asked again: “Well, where is everyone, are we going to have a mass?” He told me: “But there is no sun!” It was cloudy. Even the bishop is late to arrive; I think he came on time only once. He is 2-3 hours late and that is normal. I was once late for mass for half a day because no schedule of masses was made, and the parish has 25 subsidiaries.

So I was to have said a mass at 1100 hrs., but I arrived only at 1600 hrs. However, they all waited for me and nobody was angry. They had already gathered, pounded drums, sang and danced. Coming to church is everything for them. It is a social gathering where they mingle and it is their only source of information as they often have no other way.

Father Vjeko Center

Question: How are you priests, missionaries accepted?

Fra Ivica: We are four priests in the parish: one Ugandan, one Burundian, one born on the island of Mauritius, but raised in England and me. It is interesting that the population appreciates us more than their own priests. But they find it difficult to understand our life of celibacy. In their language they use a word for us meaning something crazy, something missing. They do not understand that a man can have no children. Although they respect and accept our way of life, they do not understand it.

In their culture you are measured by the number of children you have, especially sons. The more male children you have, the more appreciated in the society you are. There is one anecdote involving the late friar Vjeko Ćurić. After the massacre, friar Vjeko was in charge of repairing the houses. He went from parish to parish explaining to the gathered widows what they have to do – i.e. clear the terrain first, then make blocks of earth, etc.

While friar Vjeko talked to them about what they should do and how, one older woman called out to him: “Friar Vjeko, you bring us a truck-load of men - I can sleep under a banana tree!” You see, if they have no men, there is no one to protect them. The problem in Rwanda is that there are 16-17 women for each man. Men are much appreciated and women will try anything just to get a husband.

Question: What are the conditions like today, after the horrible massacre?

Fra Ivica: They are still talking about the late friar Vjeko. I recently went to the municipality, when suddenly, someone shouted to me: “Vjeko!” To them, every white man is Vjeko. Everyone knows about him; they all came to his funeral - all bishops, the first minister of the army - a lot of people. He saved hundreds of thousands of people, and he was murdered precisely by those whom he tried most to save.

At the moment there is no conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi, but as soon as a Hutu speaks out, everything is ready for a new massacre. It is calm now, but it is a police state. For example, when I go to Kigali, which is 39 km away, I have 12 to 15 police check-points.

There is an association of widows in the parish, for whom the late friar Vjeko made terraces, that is, terraced land. Those were the first terraces made in Rwanda. Since then, each widow has her own terrace, and is working for herself. Now the government uses these practices of terracing the land all the time and all of Rwanda is in terraces. This is very good, because when it rains, the water remains, and does not wash out what is planted.

Question: How are your water supplies?

Fra Ivica: There is a pipeline system to our house, built by the late friar Vjeko. All the water from the hill reaches our cistern, and from there it is supplied to nearby villages. However, the water flow has diminished considerably since I have arrived. We never used to have to close the water off; everyone could use water and there would again be a surplus in the morning. But now we have to close off the water during the night and also in the day. We only let the water flow in the morning between 7 and 9 a.m. and in the evening between 4 and 6 p.m., for the people’s use.

Question: What other problems do you encounter?

Fra Ivica: The problem is that many children and youth have nowhere to go, so there is a lot of crime and prostitution. We want to build a school for which they will pay very little; therefore, we will have thousands of children who will be taken care of. The government forbids youth to gather, because they are afraid they are preparing a revolution. However, the young gather and mingle in secret; they usually have a little radio. At our school, we often organize gatherings until 10 o’clock in the evening because they have no cafes to go to. For communication, it is interesting that they have no shoes or food, but they have mobile phones. Their goal is to get a mobile phone - everyone wants one. The problem is, that because of no electricity, they have no place to charge the batteries, so they come to us.

Everyone will steal if given opportunity. I still have problems understanding that. Their modest houses have very small windows so that no one knows what they have in the house. Since we started with our production of furniture at the school, a lot has changed in Kivumu. Many used to sleep on mattresses of dry grass, and used to cover themselves with it. Since our teachers started sleeping in a real bed with a real mattress, everyone wants that. It is only important to start.

Translated by:
Edited by: Valerie K. Ken

Father Vjeko Center

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