Vleugels van Hoop

Vleugels van Hoop
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“It remains an emotional meeting
again with my country of birth”

INTERVIEW (by Elke Mussche)

The story of François Gacas (60) takes place in two countries, Rwanda and Belgium. Greek and Rwandan blood flows through his veins. Till the age of eleven he stays in orphanages, first in Rwanda and afterwards still a short time in Belgium. Then he becomes a part of a Flemish family in Veurne. But he never lost the bond with his birth country. He is closely involved in the not profit organization “Wings of Hope”, and tries to travel as much as possible to Rwanda together with his ‘colleagues’ of non profit organization, to visit the projects they support and  to travel around in his birth country. Despite this he was not always open minded about his roots. He for a long time had a hate-love relation with Rwanda.

From Rwanda to Belgium.

How does it come you have Greek blood? Weren't it especially the Belgians who ‘ruled’ in Rwanda?

Yes, but there were many nationalities, also Portugeses and Greeks who tried to run a business. My father was a Greek who moved to Rwanda to earn a lot of money. He arrived with empty hands and started a chain of shops.. You do not have to compare that compare with a shopping mall as we know, certainly not, but according to African standards it was really large. He already had daughters with several Rwandan women, and I was his first son. I carry also his name, Gacas, but he has never officially accepted me as his sun. Otherwise I would have probably been very rich now (laughs)!

How did it happen that you ended up in an orphanage? Couldn't you mother take care of you?

She could but I was bastard child, one of the many, and we were not that loved, not among the black population neither among the blank population. One always tried to hide that we existed, because we were the proof of the wrong steps of the blank colonials and traders. My mother had to give me away. As a result, I ended up in an orphanage in Byimana. This is situated between my birth place Kavuma Nyanza and the capital Kigali.

How did you then end up in BelgiumFrancois

A Sister-nun of the orphanage in Save has taken care of that.
They believed that we, before the independence of Rwanda, had to
go to Belgium, to be able live in better circumstances. She has been putting pressure, because in Belgium they did not look forward to our arrival. She of course knew very sensitive information: she knew that many children were ‘created’ by Belgian colonials. In Belgium they did
not want something like that to become public. Therefore we were
allowed to come to Belgium.

Do you still remember something of the trip to Belgium?

That we arrived here on naked feet! We never had been wearing shoes!
In the beginning I found shoes not really comfortable. Later on I have been doing athletics and I ran bare foot till shortly before my army service.
Nobody’s exact birth date was known, a birth register was hardly kept up in Rwanda. Here they just made a guess on how old we were. They thought that I was 13 years old, so my identity card states that I am born in 1947. Initially I ended up in an orphanage at seaside. I stayed one month Nieuwpoort, in villa Mireille. Afterwards I ended up in villa Bambino in Schoten. On Sundays families came to visit us to choose a childe to take home as foster child. On a certain day a family from Steenkerke was interested in me. With Christmas I could go on a visit. If I would say mummy and daddy to them, I could stay, and I never returned to the orphanage. I could study and am there I very grateful to them. They have accomplished their task very well.

Back to the roots

When did you start to want contact again with your Rwandan roots?

The moment our first son Jan was born, in 1980. I was in the birth clinic and the parents of my wife Bernadette were standing next to the baby bed. At that time I realized that my real parents never would see this child. Arriving home in the evening, leaving behind my wife and son I got emotionally overwhelmed. I felt guilty not to have started the search for my family before. So I started searching, but without any results.

I really started to take action when our second son, Axel, was born. Actually it was more Bernadette who pushed me. On TV we had seen movies in which Georges was the cameraman. We always saw his name popping up. I remembered that name. I stayed in the orphanage in Rwanda with his half-brother Paul. This gave us a starting point. Bernadette told me worst case to explore the full phonebook to find their address. We send them the birth announcement of Axel and shortly afterwards we met again.

Did it end by seeing again your friend Paul, or did you learn to know more people from your Rwandan childhood?

That was a strange story. On Radio 2 a call had been broadcasted from a certain Ms V. She herself adopted a Rwandan little girl and she launched a call on the radio for a reunion of all mulatto children who arrived in Belgium early 60’s. I didn’t hear it myself, but a colleague informed me. We excepted the invitation and it was really a very big party.

Did you recognize people from your life in Rwanda?

Yes, boyfriends (Byimana) and girlfriends (Save) with whom I grew up in the orphanage. The strange thing was that nobody still managed to speak the Rwandan language. We had been spread, on purpose, around in Belgium. The one spoke Limburgs, the other one ended up Bachten the Kuppe, there were also some from Walloon. In the orphanage we all spoke Rwandan and French, but if you do not speak a language that long, you forget it. I know still but some words Rwandan.

You just told that after the birth of your son you started to search for your mother, but that your search was not successful. Have you ever retrieved her?

On of the mulatto gatherings a man approached me, Jef D., who asked whether I found my mother already. Paul and his half-brother already found their mother and already traveled to Rwanda. Jef told me: If you mother is still alive, I will find her.

Which link did Jef have with Rwanda?

He had a factory in Kigali and knew a lot of people. (sits totally in front of his chair) I still remember very well the day: on December 7th 1988 I got a call at 6 a ‘clock in the morning. I remember I thought: who is waking me up so early! And it was Jef, calling from Kigali. A woman, who had data on me,. And he asked me if I had scar above my left knee and foot, signs of a dog bite in my right leg and of a tick on my shoulder and behind my left ear. That is fully correct. My mother was sitting next to him. That was incredible, I had to sit down… (leans back on the couch and is just silent).

Then Bernadette and I decided to start to save money, so the next summer, in 1989, we could go with our boys to Rwanda. The being gathered again was very emotional. Where we had agreed to meet 50 women were sitting together, but instinctively I directly went over to my mother and she approached me, although we didn’t see each other for 30 years. That was particularly emotional. In 1992, we returned, and in that same year she has unfortunately died. On those travels we indirectly got to know who my father was. I have even seen pictures of him in a restaurant which he frequently visited. But he had already died, he was much older then my mother.

‘Wings of Hope’ 'Vleugels van Hoop' vzw

Did your return to Rwanda has something changed in you?

Yes, then the desire has arisen do something with my past. On the festivals of the mulatto community it already was touched on a couple of times. We were all adult, we had a good life, we had a job. Why wouldn’t we do something for the country where we were born?  In the beginning for me this was a love-hate relationship. For me it felt as if my country, Rwanda, abandoned me. It was a slow process.
With a small group of friends we started 'Vleugels van Hoop' vzw what means 'Wings of Hope'
We started very small-scale. We together go for it and one after the other got really engaged.

Where is the purpose of  your non profit organization?

'Vleugels van Hoop' =  'Wings of Hope' supports the development of people in the area of the big lakes in central Africa. The best manner to do so is giving direct financial support to projects in the region of the big lakes. In this way, besides realizing these projects in the most efficient and fastest way, we also stimulate the local economy and we offer help to the local population to take own initiatives. In the long run we strive for support in a way that seeding by the population of the big lakes results in a beautiful harvest.

How do you tackle that?

Our core group exists out of 8 persons. Together with our life partners and several volunteers we can count on a lot of helping hands. We search for sponsors, sell cards door to door, organize barbecues and performances, knock at the door of municipal authorities, the province,…
In 2007, we started `become a Wing of Hope'. By becoming a ‘wing’ and to offer monthly support people can engage themselves on a longer term and take a step further then a onetime contribution. The guarantee of fixed financial resources allows us of course to better plan the projects. We can also start larger projects without the fear we have to stop them early because of a lack of budget.

How do you see the future of “Wings of Hope”?

Since the start of our non profit organization several projects are already ongoing.
For Twese Hamwe in Kigali we support several training courses and a project to channel the rain water. In the elementary school of Munyinya they can collect the rain water.
In Mabayi (Burundi) a `sewing education'- project is running.… We hope this list only becomes longer.
Our `wings' stand for the permanent support, but that’s not enough. We organize a lot to support our projects. We will again organize a large midsummer party on August 16th in our village… and I hope a lot of people will be present, because the absentees are ‘wrong’ and miss
a big chance for the benefit of the good purpose.
Still a lot of work to be done! But first I leave for three weeks: a working visit, a family visit in Burundi, a short tour and taking a bit of holiday in Rwanda. It remains an emotional gathering with my country. Perhaps once I’ll spend the winters there. Some of my orphanage friends of the old times are doing it, why wouldn’t I?

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