GITARAMA, RWANDA — Sylvine Uwanyirigira became a parent before her time.
After her mother and father died in quick succession, she was left head of her household, responsible, at 18, for raising her four younger brothers and two younger sisters.
Ms. Uwanyirigira is one of an estimated 85,000 teenage heads of households in Rwanda, a phenomenon mainly the result of the country's civil war and 1994 genocide, but also driven by the growing number of AIDS deaths here.
In most African cultures, orphaned children are taken in by surviving aunts, uncles, or grandparents. But because of the social upheaval caused by the genocide in Rwanda, an unprecedented number of youngsters is solely responsible for their younger siblings.
"When my parents were still living, I was like other children. I didn't worry about having responsibility," says Uwanyirigira. She says she didn't feel prepared for the task of parenting, but adds, "I accepted it because of the situation."
Life for the typical Rwandan peasant family is tough enough, let alone life for a family with a teenage breadwinner. "It's a huge problem the country is facing," says Victor Addom, country director of the aid agency Food for the Hungry International (FHI). "The international community doesn't seem to know a lot about it, and I really don't know why."
Many international donors and aid agencies rushed to assist orphaned children with their emergency needs in the wake of the genocide, which saw Hutu extremists kill an estimated 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group.
Fewer stuck around to work on the long-term problems these orphans would face in their day-to-day lives.
FHI is one agency that has. Its program for child-headed households in and around Gitarama trains the young "parents" in skills for earning an income, brings them together in mutual support groups, and matches them with respected adult mentors called nkundabana, which translates literally as "one who loves children."
Pierre Nsabimana is a nkundabana for children in Mata, a rural area a few miles outside Gitarama town. A skinny, balding father of eight, he smiles easily, and so do the teenage heads of households when they're in his presence.
Asked how he got involved in the program, Mr. Nsabimana replies: "It was not my idea, it came from the children. They chose me. I used to visit some of them and help them. It's my nature, I like children."
His fellow nkundabana, Nicandre Munyurangabo, says that of the children in his group, one family particularly touches him: six Tutsi siblings, the oldest of whom is mute, leaving the second-eldest to be the one in charge.
Notably, both men are Hutu. Mr. Munyurangabo says through group work and discussion of issues, Tutsi and Hutu children are becoming friends where before they were reluctant to talk to each other. "It should help our country to reconcile," he says.
Their group's most recent meeting featured a lesson on growing mushrooms. The children are learning how to grow a kilogram of seed into about nine kilograms of mushrooms - which will sell for about $20 at the local market.
FHI started its program by filling the children's basic needs - like hoes, seeds, and school supplies. Over time, the program has evolved into longer-term training in such skills as carpentry or hairdressing.
"Most of the heads of households have had to drop out of school," says Mr. Addom. "What we can give them are vocational skills so they will be able to earn money and take care of their younger brothers and sisters."
Uwanyirigira is trying to do this by farming. "Before the program, it was difficult for me to get food for all of us," she says. "Now that we have seeds and hoes, we don't have so many problems with food."
In addition, she helped herself by making wise choices. Her father's last paycheck arrived after his death, and she used it to buy a cow. More than two years later, the cow still munches contentedly in the pen next to their neat little house.
When pressures weigh on her, she seeks solace and advice from the other young heads of households during their group sessions.
"Sometimes my brothers and sisters don't understand the situation we're living in, and I get tired and grumpy," she confesses, pointing out her little brother Methode, a 12-year-old who sports a suit vest over his bare chest, wide-wale corduroys, bare feet, and an almost visible attitude.
"Sometimes he leaves the home early in the morning when he's supposed to go and do something like collecting grass for the cow," Uwanyirigira says. "And he doesn't come home until 7 p.m." By that time it's dark, the family has locked their small compound, and Methode is forced to climb in over the wall.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society