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1994 Genocide Survivor Desires to Educate, Empower Rwandan Women

Mukundwa recalls “asking her to help me help others” by providing college scholarships to genocide survivors

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Safi Mukundwa, in blue scarf at center, poses with Safi Center students displaying some of their handiwork, in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo by Christian Gakombe/Safi Center) VOA

Safi Mukundwa knows what it means to be young, fearful and desperate. Mukundwa was just 8 years old when she hid among bloodied bodies, emerging as the only one in her family to survive the 1994 genocide that swept through Rwanda, including her Western Province hometown of Kibuye. She remembers the man who killed her mother and brother.

“He was the one who cut my legs with a machete,” says Mukundwa, whose injuries have required six surgeries. She remembers the kind doctor at the local hospital who treated her wounds and concealed her during the ethnic killing spree mostly targeting Tutsis.

And she remembers praying throughout that extended ordeal. “I told God that if I can get out of this place alive, I will dedicate my life to helping others,” she said.

Now 33, Mukundwa has made good on that commitment through Safi Life, the nonprofit organization that she inspired. Its mission is to educate, empower and advance young Rwandan women.

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Safi Mukundwa, 33, inspired the Safi Life organization, which strives to advance Rwandan women. She’s shown at the center in Ndera, a village near Kigali. (E. Rwema/VOA)

Friendship first

Safi Life was formally launched in 2012, growing out of a friendship between its namesake and Devon Ogden. Both women were college students when Ogden, an American from California, visited Rwanda in the summer of 2007 and heard Mukundwa’s testimony at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. They met over lunch, and Ogden eventually asked how she might help the young Rwandan.

Mukundwa recalls “asking her to help me help others” by providing college scholarships to genocide survivors. Ogden set up a U.S.-based foundation to support Rwandan girls and women, with Mukundwa as Safi Life’s local director. Its first effort was to provide scholarships for genocide survivors.

“We’ve got two girls in school now and already have put 12 through college,” Ogden says in a recent phone call from Los Angeles, where she works as an actress. “And they’re all staying in their country to advance Rwanda.”

The foundation’s Facebook page brims with photos of college graduates such as Florence, who used a scholarship to study mining engineering. She landed a “dream job” with a company dealing in minerals, according to a March post.

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Young women enrolled at the Safi Center, near Kigali, Rwanda, learn income-generating skills such as sewing. (Photo by Christian Gakombe/Safi Center) VOA

Outreach to young women, mothers

In early 2018, Safi Life launched an outreach project to aid young women, especially those who are single and pregnant or with young children. It opened a center in the Kigali suburb of Karembure, welcoming dozens to learn knitting, tailoring and other income-producing skills. The project, called Ndashoboye, a Kinyarwanda word that means “I am capable,” also provides mentoring on how to run a business. A second center opened in January in Ndera, a few kilometers from the capital city’s downtown.

“We support teen mothers by providing them with basic skills to make them self-reliant and able to take care of their newborns” and lead dignified lives, Mukundwa says. “… We also offer counseling to them. Most of them come to us with significant levels of stress that could, in turn, lead to mental problems.”

Pregnancy outside marriage is taboo in this central African country of 12.3 million. Poor girls are most vulnerable, with pregnancy and childbirth usually prompting them to drop out of school. “Safi had met so many girls who were young, with unplanned pregnancies, and were shunned by their families. A couple of them were on the streets, working as prostitutes,” Ogden says.

At the Ndera center, Teonilla Mujawamariya says her parents kicked her out when she became pregnant at 17. “I almost thought of ending the pregnancy,” she said, “but I was fearful of losing both my life and the child’s.”

(Until last August, Rwanda permitted abortion only with a court’s approval. Now it allows the procedure, with a doctor’s permission, in cases of rape, incest or health risk to the woman or fetus. In April, President Paul Kagame pardoned 367 people jailed for having or participating in abortion.

genocide, rwanda
A student learns sewing skills at the Safi Life center in Ndera, a village near Kigali, Rwanda. (E. Rwema/VOA)

Mujawamariya credits the Ndashoboye program with giving her hope and help. Now 20, she’s enrolled in a one-year knitting program and anticipates earning enough money to support herself and her toddler son. Trainees make items such as shirts, dresses, hats, bags and children’s clothing, all sold locally.

Mothers often bring their youngsters, who rest or play nearby. Mukundwa says she hopes Safi Life one day will be able to provide child care. The program had 50 graduates last year, and “a couple of our scholarship recipients are now volunteering” to work with Ndashoboye trainees, Ogden says.

Safi Life members also volunteer for community projects, such as planting trees, she adds. “We have the pay-it-forward motto. We get the girls together to help the community. Giving: That’s what Safi’s vision always has been,” Ogden said.

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The organization’s namesake says her experiences allow her to understand Safi Life participants’ hardships — and potential. An orphan, she worked through college, married, had two children and recently earned a master’s degree in business. She wants to start an enterprise that matches college graduates with jobs.

“One thing that gives me satisfaction is the fact that my life history has enabled me to help change other people’s lives,” Mukundwa says. “Sometimes, I think there is a reason I didn’t die, and that could have been God’s plan to use me.” (VOA)

Next Story

“I was 12 Years Old when I was Raped” : Survivors of Wartime Rape Break the Silence

FILE - Bosnian Muslim women from Visegrad hold a peaceful protest of the U.N. war crimes tribunal's failure to include counts of rape in indictments against Bosnian Serb cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic, Sarajevo, July 18, 2008. VOA

Africa, July 3, 2017: “I was 12 years old when I was raped. I did not understand what was happening.”

Nelle is now 36 years old. But in 1993 when war broke out in Burundi, armed men came to her village near the capital, Bujumbura. They killed her mother and father and six siblings. She was raped, but she survived.

“I saw people were killing each other. They were running away and killing each other. I hid myself under dead bodies for five days,” she said.

Difficult story

Nelle’s story of survival was long and difficult to tell. After living through years of instability, she told VOA that she left for South Africa in 2004 when a new government came to power in Burundi.

“I was scared,” she said. “I was afraid war was coming and I did not want to go through the same thing as in 1993. I did not want to be raped again. So, I quit the country and became a refugee in South Africa.”

Nelle is one of 25 rape survivors from South Sudan, Mali, Colombia and 12 other conflict-affected countries around the world who attended a four-day retreat this week in Geneva.

They came to share their experiences and to devise strategies for the creation of a global movement to end rape as a weapon on war.

“These 25 women have suffered unthinkable things and developed remarkable powers,” said Esther Dingemans, director of the Mukwege Foundation.

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“They have experienced the cruelest violence. But the perpetrators did not succeed in breaking them,” she said.

The foundation is headed by Denis Mukwege, a renowned surgeon from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has treated thousands of survivors of sexual violence in Congo.

“We hope that this week will be the beginning of a large long-term movement that leads to a global platform of survivors,” said Dingemans, “and that their voices will finally be heard.”

Wartime atrocities

In 1992, after the atrocities committed in the Bosnian war, especially against Muslim women, rape, for the first time was recognized as a weapon of war by the United Nations Security Council.

In 2000, the Security Council adopted resolution 1325, which was the first formal and legal document that required parties to a conflict to “protect women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict.”

It also was the first U.N. resolution to specifically mention women.

Ulrike Lunasek, vice president of the European Parliament, who spoke at the ceremony honoring the 25 women survivors, said it is “important to break the vicious circle of shame and silence” that women usually feel when they are raped.

She said women raped in war must be supported, helped to heal and then “be encouraged to speak up, but also to tell the truth about what military conflict and war means for women.”

Women did speak up at this conference. Several survivors presented searing testimony about their ordeals.

Solange Bigiramana, who survived the horrors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, now lives as a stateless person in South Africa.

“My situation of being a survivor, that comes from a situation of war. It happened for me to face rape. I know what rape means,” she said.

“And I am here with a story of hope,” she said. “I once was under a shadow. I want every survivor to be out of the shadow and to be into the light.”

Yazidi girl

Another survivor, Farida Abbas-Khalaf, a Yazidi girl from the Iraqi village of Kocho, described the torment to which she and other members of her community were subjected by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in her book The Girl Who Beat ISIS.

She spoke movingly and in agonizing detail about being raped, beaten, insulted, and forced to pray and read the Koran.

“Young boys were brainwashed and sent to ISIS training camps to become ISIS fighters while women and young girls were taken as sex slaves and sold at slave markets,” said Abbas-Khalaf.

She said that she was able to heal because of support from her family, her community and her spiritual leader who she said made a statement “that the surviving girls are an important part of the Yazidi community and that what happened to them was against their will.”

She added, “It is time that survivors break the silence. But mostly it is time for the world to hear their voices.” (VOA)