The advent of viral Internet campaigns for human rights in Africa have made it increasingly easy for citizens of the West to learn about and viscerally experience grave atrocities taking place in developing countries and tune them out in the amount of time it takes to open up another tab on the computer. Sometimes even the sight of these tragedies is not enough to inspire people to advocate for social justice.
Clare Effiong is not one of those people.
During a life-altering trip to Rwanda in April 2000, six years after its historic genocide, Effiong, who is Nigerian and grew up in Great Britain, witnessed unthinkable living conditions she had never before encountered, particularly among Rwanda’s youth. Approximately 100,000 children survived the ethnic extermination that claimed as many as 1 million lives in the span of 100 days. Scores had been left homeless and hungry and were forced to leave school, with the eldest siblings, many of whom had not yet even reached adolescence, burdened with the responsibility of taking care of the younger ones. Effiong recalled that frequently, young girls were coerced into sexual encounters with older men in order to earn money, putting them at risk of pregnancy and the contraction of HIV/AIDS. She knew she had to do something for this country of so much potential. The same year of her visit, she created Esther’s Aid.
The nonprofit, religious organization is named after the biblical figure who was once an Israeli slave, became a queen and eventually saved the lives of her people from mass killings. Esther’s Aid began as an orphanage just north of the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Effiong soon realized the need to not only house children whose parents had been murdered during the genocide, but also to equip them with the necessary skills to live successful, autonomous lives.
“We have to be able to train them to get jobs and help themselves,” she said.
What began as a children’s home morphed into a primary school; later, Effiong and her team began to employ trade eduction, particularly in the culinary arts, sewing and design. Students who graduate from the cooking and baking programs often go on to positions at Rwanda’s many nearby hotels, while others earn scholarships to local and international universities.
In 2010, Esther’s Aid acquired almost five acres of land, on which they constructed a larger building to house what she calls “the Village of Peace,” a sustainable space to be equipped with dormitories, classrooms, a cafeteria, computer lab, auditorium, health clinic and numerous other facilities. A group of American engineers traveled to Rwanda to design the building for free; the challenge now is to generate funds for its infrastructure.
“We don’t have the money to do it,” said Effiong. “We do what we can with what little money we have.”
In an effort to tap into the Western conscience and spread awareness about the organization, Effiong hosted the first annual fundraiser for the organization, A Taste of Hope Benefit Gala, on Monday, Oct. 22 at the Riverside Church. The evening featured Rwandan music and art and an appearance by restauranteur and TV personality Peter X. Kelly.
Esther’s Aid admitted 120 students to its program this year; they would have accepted more, but they could not accommodate any more students because of the limited amount of space in the building. Effiong hopes that the funds raised from the gala will prevent this issue from coming up again in the future.
“Without the young people, there’s no nation,” she said.