Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Andrew and I have been sponsoring a boy in Rwanda through Compassion International for the past thirteen or fourteen years.  I started in college, and we continued after we married.  The oldest letter I found in my file was from November of 1997.*

His name is Habineza.  We get letters a few times a year.  We would write back and sometimes send photos or, when he was younger, stickers.  In all the years, our letters never really changed.  We talked about the weather, about school, about crops.  I never felt we connected well, but I knew that our money was doing something good for somebody else. 

We sat down tonight to pay bills, and we saw that our Compassion statement said we didn't owe anything.  On the back, it said simply, "Child left program-funds on hold."

Habineza is 20 now, but I knew he could choose to stay in the program until he was 22.  I also knew that the last two letters we had received had been written by someone in the program and not by him.  I didn't know the reason.  I called Compassion after seeing the note on the bill, and they looked up his record, said they didn't know much and that they would call if they received any additional information.  What did their records show? Simply that Habineza had left the program because he had joined the military.

He joined the Rwandan military.

Let's pretend that I'm not a tree-hugging vegetarian with Buddhist leanings.  Let's even pretend that there hasn't been genocide in Rwanda within Habineza's lifetime.  Let's just look at him as an individual.

In June of 2009, Habineza wrote:

"I had started studies in S-1 but I did not continue because of sickness.  From where I went for treatment at first, they sent me at the hospital of University of Butare and it is where I am treated from and I have been examined, I have not get drugs.  Doctors told me that vessels in the heart and in the head do not function properly.  I normally have weakness but I hope with prayers that God will make me feel well.  As I am writing now I am still sick."

In April of 2010, he wrote:

"I am fine in Rwanda though I am a little bit sick.  As I write for you I am at the hospital.  I am sick."

That's all I know about his illness, and in the April letter he went on to say that he had bought a goat and two rabbits to raise.  He said they would help him when he was no longer supported by the program.

What the hell happened?  I don't think I'll ever know.  I don't know why he decided to join the military.  I don't know how his health is.  My guess is that we will have no more contact.

There's nobody to blame here.  Compassion is a good program, although I probably won't support another child through them.**  We made a difference in his life and in his family's lives, and he made a difference in ours.  Habineza reminded us how wealthy we are, we who live squarely in America's middle class who often forget that we are indeed rich. 

Soon, I will do research and find another charity to which to send that money.

But not today.

Today I'm sad that I never knew if he wrote us because he had to or because he wanted to.  I'm sad that his family isn't going to have that income coming to them.  I'm sad that he faces illness and quite probably doesn't receive the kind of medical care that I would receive for the same condition.  I'm sad I'll never get closure, and I'm sad that he has joined the military.

I'm not looking for anyone to say we did the right thing.  Yes, our sponsorship made a difference.  Yes, it is equally true that what made a tremendous difference to him was not a real sacrifice in our lives; this is the inequality of riches in our world. 

I'm looking to somehow acknowledge, however feebly, a part of my life that has been with me nearly since I became an independent adult that has now ended.

Today I am sad.

*I logged on to my Compassion account to see if it said when I started sponsorship.  His record has already been disconnected from mine.  It was as if he was never there.

**Compassion is pretty conservative.  I used to be.  Now I'm not.  There are other charities that would be a better fit for me.


  1. When you find a new charity (or go try KIVA), let us know, I am always up for a good cause.

  2. Your story makes me sad, too. I'm sorry you probably won't learn more about what happened to him. It's a little surprising that the organization doesn't seem to have more information to give you, considering how many years you supported him. I'm sure someone within the organization probably does know more, but it's frustrating they don't seem to have better ways to share that information.

  3. That is sad, very sad. When I have some spare pennies I send it to Animals Asia, who help the Moon bears, cats and dogs in China, and they're superb, your money would be going to a great cause, because they are really making a difference. There is the bonus that none of the subjects would join the military too! I feel your pain and upset, it must have been very shocking. I'm very sorry. Love Vanessa xxx

  4. The one positive I'd like to mention here is that the Rwandan army has (generally) become a force for good. Rwanda has made efforts to assist other countries in the midst of turmoil, has the highest % of female political leadership in the world (in part, because of the dearth of males due to the genocide) and has made incredible economic progress.

    Rwanda has quickly moved from a failed state to a land of peace and burgeoning opportunity. My hope is that Habineza is simply attempting to find the steady path to upward mobility that the military often offers but agriculture rarely does.

    If nothing else, you and Andrew should know that you've helped provide him a lifeline allowing him the chance to make adult choices. That's a gift most Americans take for granted but was not promised to Habineza. It's a gift he'll use every day.