New found hope: Antonia Eastman in Rwanda

Sifa, a young Rwandan girl, was found in Nyungwe forest, in the far south west of the country. It was clear she had been alone for a long time – she walked on all fours, was surviving on a diet of grass and sticks, and was terrified of people. We find out how VSO volunteer Antonia Eastman has played a crucial role in helping her new carers turn her life around. 

Found abandoned in a forest

Sifa had a traumatic start in life. At just a few years old she was found abandoned in Nyungwe, a dense forest in the far south west of Rwanda. Nobody knows how long she had been there, but it is clear she had spent much of her short life surrounded by animals rather than humans. She walked on all fours, ate grass and sticks, and was terrified of people, curling into a foetal position when anyone came too close. At times her eyes rolled upwards, back into her head, and left alone she had only a vacant expression.

Staff had no training in caring for vulnerable children

Sifa was taken to a centre for disabled children, but there her life barely improved. As is the case in many such centres in Rwanda, staff had received no training in caring for vulnerable or disabled children, so did not know how to look after a child who had such complex problems. She was locked in a room – fed and clothed, but with little other care or attention.

Sifa remained in that room until the centre closed three years later. She was transferred to a similar centre, Ngwino Nawe, where the situation repeated. Now about seven years-old, she was still walking on all fours and staff had made no progress in socialising her. They saw her as a lost cause.

Sifa meets VSO volunteer Antonia Eastman

It was at this point that VSO volunteer Antonia Eastman met her. She had come to Ngwino Nawe to carry out a needs analysis as part of research into centres that include Deaf children. She remembers first seeing Sifa: “She was just huddled in the corner, very afraid. It was pitiful.”

Ignoring the staff’s assurances that she was beyond help, Antonia began to spend time sitting with her each day. She sang to her and gradually began to work at engaging eye contact – something Sifa had always shied away from. After a time, she began massaging her arms and legs to soothe and relax her. “It was human contact,” says Antonia, “something she wasn’t at all used to”.

Sifa begins to respond and staff carry on Antonia’s work

To everyone’s amazement, slowly Sifa began to respond. When Antonia left the centre a few weeks later, she urged staff to continue the things she had started. “The fact that they had seen a progression was great – they were so excited,” she says.

Six months on and Antonia has been back to Ngwino Nawe twice. With each visit she has witnessed an incredible change in Sifa. “There’s been huge strides,” she explains. “A while ago her eyes were just dull, now there’s curiosity there – like she wants to get to know you. She smiles and she joins in songs by clapping. She’s also learning to walk and is clearly trying to speak, or to make word-like utterances with her voice.”

It’s a miracle!

Staff at the centre are amazed at what they have achieved with Sifa. “It’s a miracle!” says Rosaline, one of girls who has been working with her. “Antonia realised Sifa needed time dedicated to her, and she taught us how to behave with her. We now sit down when we talk to her, and we give her things to play with so she doesn’t just lie down all the time.”

Antonia has now finished her placement, but the impact she’s had on Sifa – and indeed on the other children at Ngwino Nawe – is lasting. “Sifa is not atypical, she’s an extreme case,” says Antonia. “Disability has had a lot of stigma in Rwanda and there are very few people with the skills to care for the most vulnerable children. But the fact I took notice of Sifa and kept on going back to her, when you could see she was actually enjoying it and feeling valued – it showed them she was capable of something.”

Hope for Sifa’s future – and the future of other vulnerable children

VSO has now identified the need for a long term volunteer to continue working with the staff at Ngwino Nawe and at other centres for disabled children in the area. “The new volunteer will build on what I’ve started,” says Antonia, “the need to put each child as an individual at the centre of their own learning and development.”

As the staff gain a greater understanding of working with vulnerable and disabled children, Sifa’s future will get ever brighter. They have recently discovered she is a gifted drummer, with incredible natural rhythm. The smile that lights up her face as she plays, shows just how far she, and the staff at Ngwino Nawe, have come.

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