Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The 23-year-old with 24 kids: Genocide orphans form their own families

By Sally Hayden, for CNN
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
In Rwanda, young genocide survivors are forming "artificial families" to help each other emotionally and financially. In Rwanda, young genocide survivors are forming "artificial families" to help each other emotionally and financially.
HIDE CAPTION
Praying together
Helping each other
A nation mourns
Scarred by war
Remembering the dead
Commemoration events
Walking together
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Young genocide survivors are coming together to form "artificial families" in Rwanda
  • They help each other financially and offer emotional support
  • 20 years after the genocide, many young people still carry scars from the past
  • The country is currently in the middle of 100 days of mourning

(CNN) -- It's a sunny April afternoon at the University of Rwanda College of Education in Kigali. Some students huddle in groups conversing in hushed voices; others hurry between buildings carrying books. Exams begin in a week.

On a grassy knoll behind an office block, Jean Claude Nkusi is giving his 24 children a talking to. "Study hard everyone," he says. "If you work hard you can improve your life and make it better."

This isn't your typical family. Nkusi is 23. None of his "children" share his DNA. In fact, the only thing linking them is that they're all genocide survivors -- ethnic Rwandan Tutsis who lost their families in the 1994 violence that killed 800,000 people.

Family photos of victims of the 1994 Rwanda genocide hang inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in the country's capital of Kigali on April 5. Family photos of victims of the 1994 Rwanda genocide hang inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in the country's capital of Kigali on April 5.
Rwanda 20 years later
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
Praying for forgiveness in Rwanda Praying for forgiveness in Rwanda
Can 'African Craigslist' turn a profit?

'It's because of history'

Creating "artificial families" to help young genocide survivors cope is the brainchild of an organization called the Association for Student Genocide Survivors (AERG). Originally founded by 12 University of Rwanda students in 1996, they've expanded to 43,397 university and high school students from across the tiny east-central African country today.

AERG initially creates families from members based on the secondary school or university they attend, after which the newly-formed family meet to democratically elect a willing father and mother from among their ranks. Though they don't all live together, they do help each other out financially and attempt to pool their resources.

In the University of Rwanda's College of Education alone there are 21 such families, with hundreds more being set up across the country.

"(We) Rwandans, we used to have big families but during the genocide many people were killed," says Daniel Tuyizere, AERG's second vice coordinator at the University of Rwanda.

We have to build artificial families so that we can go back to the way we were
Daniel Tuyizere, AERG

"To fight against that, we have to build artificial families so that we can go back to the way we were," he adds. "That's why you can find a father with 25 children -- it's because of that, it's because of history."

AERG National Coordinator Constantine Rukundo explains that the concept stems from a basic necessity.

"You need someone to care about you," she says, adding that the aim is that the families will stay together for life. "When you get married your family will be there; they'll be the first to help you."

Scarred by war

UNICEF estimates that 95,000 children were orphaned as a result of the genocide. Seventy per cent witnessed murders or injuries, while many were victims of violence and rape themselves.

Their problems continued after 1994. By 2001, an estimated 264,000 Rwandan children had lost one or both parents to AIDS, a disease which was partly spread through the use of rape as a tool of war.

Today many of these young people suffer disproportionately from poverty, homelessness, trauma and legal issues, including having had their deceased parents' land taken away from them when they were too young to claim it.

Bringing light back

Rwanda is currently in the middle of 100 days of mourning. The 20th anniversary commemorations have been upsetting for many of the young people who still carry both physical and mental scars from the past.

It's when something was dark, and now it is bright again.
Jean Claude Nkusi

Kelsey Finnegan, Project Officer at Survivors Fund, says that trauma permeates into many different aspects of their lives: "Many for example have difficulties studying, maintaining relationships, or have issues with drugs and alcohol."

Kevin Mugina, 21, says that being in a family environment helps young people to deal with their emotions. "Some people used to be very angry." He says that together they discuss their feelings and how to control them enough so that they can live peacefully with their neighbors.

Yet, he adds, trauma among his peers is still a huge issue. "We have kids who have been so shocked from genocide that they have a permanent shock -- that is one of our big problems."

But overall, it seems that they are in good hands. Augustin Nsengiyumua, 27, calls up his artificial mother for all sorts of small things. "For example if I don't have a pen, or I don't have soap," he says.

Younger than several of his artificial offspring, Nkusi says that fatherhood is a lot of responsibility but he relishes it. "You have to know every situation that your children are in -- if they're studying without any problem, if they're eating, everyday life. If one of them is sick I have to be the first one to know it."

He has named their family Urumuri.

"Urumuri," Nkusi says, "means to light something up. It's when something was dark, and now it is bright again."

READ THIS: Intimate images capture the new Rwanda

READ THIS: Orphaned siblings create Rwanda's Craigslist

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Through a variety of exhibitions including one signed off by the artist himself, Nigeria is presenting J.D. Okhai Ojeikere to the world one last time.
updated 7:39 AM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
With the help of an army of Tanzania's finest senior citizens, one woman is on a mission to put traditional foods back on the menu.
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
U.S. response to Ebola is key for setting global example, writes global health advocate Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 8:39 AM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
ALHAJI MUSTAPHA OTI BOATENG
Using his deep-rooted knowlege of herbs, savvy entrepreneur Alhaji Mustapha Oti Boateng had an idea to help his fellow Ghanaians.
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
One of the most debilitating medical conditions in sub-Saharan Africa isn't fatal. In fact, it's easily curable.
updated 10:00 AM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
Nigerian architect Olajumoke Adenowo reveals her tips for success, mentorship and what she'd like to do next.
updated 6:19 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
updated 6:19 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Developers, designers and big thinkers gather together on the rooftop of the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos to discuss ideas.
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
updated 5:48 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
Amos Wekesa has seen a lot of changes in his country. Today, the self-made millionaire oversees Great Lakes Safaris, one of the largest tour operators in Uganda.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
updated 1:48 PM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Athi-Patra Ruga,
For anyone that needs convincing that African art is the next big thing, they need look no further than 1:54, the London-based contemporary African art fair.
updated 9:35 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
He's one of Malawi's best abstract artists and now the 40-year-old dreamer is revealing his journey in to the world of art.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT