By Greg Jenks
“Don’t talk to me about God,” Angelique sobbed quietly. “If there is a God he doesn’t love me.”
Those were the words of a young Rwandan orphan three years ago as she spoke with my colleague Epiphanie Mujawimana, ZOE Ministry’s Africa coordinator.
Like millions of children across Africa, Angelique’s 15 years of life had been filled with tragedy and pain. When her mother passed away, just six months after her father’s death, Angelique and her siblings moved in with her elderly grandfather. Soon, the grandfather also died and Angelique became both mother and father to her 12-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister. Despite having no time to grieve her losses, Angelique had to find a way to feed her family. Even when her parents were alive, life was difficult, but now providing for her siblings was nearly impossible. She soon learned that even the good Samaritans in her village were already overwhelmed with hundreds of desperate children just like her.
Her suffering was compounded when the mud hut she was living in collapsed under the heavy Rwandan rains. Suddenly, Angelique and her siblings were not only orphans, they were also homeless. She began going through her village begging for a place to live. No one would take all three children together, so they each ended up in different homes. Although the brother and sister were given a place to sleep, Angelique was still expected to provide their food. Angelique was relieved when some of their neighbors did offer her a place to sleep. Even this, however, was not offered as an act of compassion. Angelique had to work two days a week in exchange for a bed upon which to sleep. The rest of the week she spent working for food in the fields of other neighbors so she could feed herself and her siblings.
The most tragic part of the story is that the bed she was given was in the same room as the twenty-four year old son of the couple in whose home she was sleeping. After three months of continual abuse, Angelique became pregnant. With no other options, Angelique remained in the home and continued to suffer attacks. She was pregnant with a baby she did not want, responsible for a brother and sister she could not feed, and grieving the loss of parents who could no longer support her.
As Epiphanie looked into the eyes of this child she saw the pain and hopelessness that she has seen in the eyes of so many orphans. Epiphanie saw the fear of a child who had been betrayed by those she trusted. She saw the shame of a teenage pregnancy and the isolation that poverty brings. Yet she could see also something that Angelique could not. Epiphanie could see hope. She began to softly reassure Angelique that she was loved by God and that God still had a future for her. Although Epiphanie knew that Angelique could not yet believe those words, she spoke these words from her own experience.
Epiphanie Mujawimana knows what it means to have the world on your shoulders as a child. Growing up in Rwanda, Epiphanie was only nine years old when her own father died in a tragic accident. Her mother suffered with a physical disability and could not work. She soon learned what it meant to be poor and to go to bed hungry.
Epiphanie was a resourceful child. Gifted with stubborn resilience, she began finding solutions to improve her life. She worked small jobs and started growing and selling vegetables which earned enough money for her to stay in school. When she reached secondary school, the fees were too much for her and she borrowed money from a fund established at a local church to assist poor students. Epiphanie completed her education and became a very popular school teacher. With her first paycheck, she returned to the church to repay her loan. The church leaders were shocked; Epiphanie was the first person who had received funds from the church and ever returned to repay the loan.
In 1994, when the shadow of the Rwandan genocide of the Hutu majority on the Tutsi minority descended upon the world, Epiphanie had to rely on her deep Christian faith. Fleeing from the 100 days of killing with her husband and two children, Epiphanie, a Tutsi, barely escaped. Hutu teachers helped to hide their beloved colleague. Miraculously, Epiphanie and her family did survive, and she decided to dedicate her life to helping her country recover.
Epiphanie began where the resources were and went to work with a well-known Western relief organization. She threw herself into this work for several years, but eventually became disillusioned.
“I watched as these generous people came to my country, to give things to my people that they desperately needed,” she recalled. “I then watched as my people became so good at receiving that they forgot how to do anything. Then when the grants dried up, or the focus shifted, my people were left worse off than before.”
The children she had served through her relief work ended up right back on the streets after having been temporarily propped up by handouts. Epiphanie feared that more harm than good had been done. It was clear that the children had only learned to wait to be given money, food or clothing rather than how to provide for themselves.
Driven by a call from God to care for children, Epiphanie became gripped by the vision that more was possible. She began to truly believe there had to be a way to help orphans escape the cycles of poverty and dependency in which they were trapped. The key, she found, was not in listening to the strategies developed by adults, but rather in listening to the dreams that survived in the hearts of these orphans.
Epiphanie watched as orphans struggled in her community. As she visited with them, she learned that they would either beg for handouts or work for food. Rising early in the morning, they would carry water, shovel out animal pens or work on their neighbor’s farms until the evening. For this backbreaking labor, they would be paid just a few potatoes.
Epiphanie asked them, “You have some land your parents left you, why don’t you grow your own food?”
“We are only orphans and do not have anything,” they replied. “We do not have a hoe to till the soil, and if we had a hoe we have no seed, and if we had these things we would still need an animal to provide fertilizer so the land would yield.”
All that stood between these children being exploited as opposed to caring for themselves were simple start-up materials like hoes, seed, and an animal. Then Epiphanie had, well, an epiphany. The key to actually helping these children for the long term was not to be found in the standard model of relief; the key was empowerment.
Epiphanie began designing a new way to help these children. Eschewing orphanages, Epiphanie was committed to keeping the children in the villages in which they had grown up. Helping them establish support groups among themselves, she began connecting them with local churches and reintegrating them into schools. Then she began to provide basic resources and training which would equip the children to pull themselves out of poverty in only two to three years. Today, by using a culturally appropriate system, Epiphanie’s methodology provides these children with not only farming skills for food security, but also with micro-grants and micro-loans to start and grow small businesses, training in health and hygiene to prevent illness and disease, adequate housing, reintegration into schools or vocational training, and spiritual nurture with connections to local churches. Within only two to three years, more than 90 percent of these children never need charity again. The percentage is so high because the orphans become like family to one another, and within their groups they refuse to let each other fail. It is difficult to believe that African orphans are able to care for themselves with such limited assistance.
In 2007, I met Epiphanie and was overwhelmed by the power of her model. Over the past four years, ZOE Ministry has been in the process of transitioning out of traditional relief work to fully implementing Epiphanie’s empowerment model. ZOE now has over 12,000 children in the program or recently graduated from it, and has expanded from Rwanda into Kenya and then into several other sub-Saharan African countries. Children are coming to know God’s love and are living full lives resounding with dignity and hope.
I met Angelique two months after that day that she had wept with Epiphanie. A team from the United States was visiting Rwanda and helping to construct a home for her. Even then, still pregnant, she was sad and suffering. She wore a jacket in an attempt to hide her pregnancy and was unable to look anyone in the eye. The hood from Angelique’s jacket was constantly pulled over her head as she sought to conceal her shame. Only once did I see a thin smile coaxed out of her.
It was a year and a half before I saw Angelique again. United Methodist Bishop Earl Bledsoe and his wife Leslie accompanied me as I went to Angelique’s home to visit with her. When we arrived, I could hardly believe the transformation. She greeted us at the door with a Bible in her hands. When we entered her home she opened the visit by reading Scripture to us and then praying for us.
Then, as a friend held her baby, she told us her story and shared her newfound faith, hope and dreams. She rejoiced that her younger siblings now lived with her. In 2008, I saw a girl, frightened and ashamed. Less than two years later, what I witnessed was truly amazing.
Angelique was bubbling over as she talked about what God had done in her life. She shared her joy at being reunited with her siblings; she described how she was making enough money to survive through her small business of selling sorghum drink; she explained that her next goal was to start selling used clothes through a “boutique” in the local market. Then, an astonishing thing happened. As Angelique described all the good things happening in her life, this 17-year-old girl got a case of the teenage giggles. She began laughing so hard that she could not speak. Finally, in a moment of joyous exasperation, she covered her face with her Bible to hide the smiles!
Once Angelique composed herself, we visited her small business. When we returned to her home, she presented each of us with a gift. Each person received a Biblical promise written on a small slip of paper. This girl, who once felt rejected by God, was now ministering to us through the promises that had come to mean so much to her.
After we left, Epiphanie told me the rest of the story. Not only was Angelique caring for her family, but Angelique was also caring for other orphans in her community. Two boys who had no one to care for them were coming to her home every day. Every day, Angelique was feeding them. Because of ZOE, many thousands of African orphans have stories just like Angelique’s. God is at work in Africa.
I had engaged in relief work for nearly three years before meeting Epiphanie. I had fed children, given them clothing and medicine, and told them of God’s love. I knew the joy of giving charity, but I never understood the power of walking with a child as they are cared for in ways that allow them to support themselves. It is truly transformative to watch them grow into the men and women God wants them to be. I challenge you and your church to think beyond charity when reaching out to the least, the last, and the lost in the name of Christ.
Greg Jenks is founder and executive director of ZOE Ministry, and a United Methodist clergyman. If you would like for a ZOE representative to speak with you or your church, please contact the Rev. Gaston Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 919-414-4167. You can learn more about the ministry and how to support it by contacting Rev. Warner and/or visiting the ZOE website at: www.zoeministry.org. All photographs were provided by ZOE Ministry.