When our car pulled over to pick up Yvonne, I was at once struck by her elegance. In this small village in remote Nyagatare District, she stood out in her vibrant patterned pants and her deep blue cotton poncho lined with faux fur.
Yvonne is one of Rwanda’s nearly 30,000 Inshuti z’Umuryango, or “IZU” as we call them colloquially, meaning “Friends of the Family” in the local language Kinyarwanda. IZU are some of Rwanda’s most dedicated volunteers, specifically tasked with preventing, identifying and referring child protection concerns in their communities.
Each IZU – one man and one woman in every village in Rwanda – is elected by their community and is recognised as a trusted and exemplary citizen by their peers. UNICEF helps train the IZU to conduct community awareness meetings, provide family counselling and psychosocial support to children in need. UNICEF also provides job aids and educational materials to the IZU, like guidelines for referring cases to authorities.
I have noticed that Yvonne and other IZU possess an unwavering devotion to their work. As volunteers, they are unpaid, but find personal rewards through helping children and their families.
“I have a heart,” Yvonne said, “and I always want to better understand the problems of my neighbours, so I can put myself in their position and help solve it.”
A few weeks ago, we heard from colleagues at the National Commission for Children, the government body responsible for managing the IZU, that there was a unique story here in Nyagatare. And there was: Yvonne had discovered a homeless family living in a half-constructed house that was not their own.
Eric, just 10 years old, had dropped out of school and begun stealing food and small electronics to sell so he could help support his family.
“The family is very poor, and the mother is mentally unwell, so her children are vulnerable to violence. I first helped the parents get health insurance, but I knew I had to do more.”
Yvonne found Eric and his family while visiting another house. She noticed Eric and his 7-year-old sister sitting outside on the dirt.
“They were afraid of me at first,” she chuckled a little. “Eric thought I was going to take him to jail since I knew he had been stealing.”
Yvonne was modest, and I had to push for more specific answers. “How did you help them?” I probed. “Slowly by slowly,” she would say.
Finally, I uncovered the details. First, Yvonne approached local authorities and members of the community to advocate for the family. Neighbours contributed money to buy Eric’s school uniform, replace his old shoes and buy books so he could write his lessons.
“These are our children,” she would tell them.
Eric began studying and is now doing well, but Yvonne’s advocacy was tireless. Recognising the family’s inability to provide for their children in the long term, Yvonne mobilised more neighbours and approached a charity organisation, which agreed to sponsor Uwase, Eric’s young sister, all the way through secondary school.
The longer we spoke, I found myself growing more attached to Yvonne. Everything about her is genuine, and I fell in love with the warmth of her personality, her dedication to helping others and to creating a more cohesive community. I wonder if anyone realised at the beginning just how perfect the title “Friend of the Family” really was.
“During last month’s village meeting, I stood up in front of the leaders again and advocated for this family,” Yvonne continued. “They still did not have a place to live, and as long as they remained homeless, the children remained vulnerable.”
I was shocked to hear that during this meeting, someone offered to donate a piece of land for Eric’s family. “They are even trying to build us a house,” said Claude, Eric’s father.
I have visited every district in Rwanda, but Nyagatare is one of my favourites. Most of Rwanda is comprised of impossibly steep hills blanketed in terraced farms and banana plantations, but the relatively flat, open plains of Nyagatare have a starkly contrasted beauty. The land feels wider, the sky more open, the roads straighter.
Now that I have met Yvonne, felt the love behind her volunteer work, and saw how she brought a community together, Nyagatare feels even just a little more beautiful.
Recent data shows that in 2018, Inshuti z’Umuryango like Yvonne have provided over 200,000 children with psychosocial support and other services like family counselling. In 2018, IZU conducted over 150,000 home visits across Rwanda to help prevent and follow up on child protection cases like abuse, neglect, abandonment or violence.
Veronica Houser is a Communication Officer in the Communication, Advocacy and Partnerships Section at UNICEF Rwanda. She has been with UNICEF for over three years and is originally from the United States.