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Rwanda: Genocide Survivors’ Program Gives Children A Future

Epiphanie Mujawimana is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and founder of Zoe Ministry's Giving Hope Empowerment Project that works with children who have been orphaned by genocide and AIDS. (Lillia Callum-Penso)

Epiphanie Mujawimana is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and founder of Zoe Ministry's Giving Hope Empowerment Project that works with children who have been orphaned by genocide and AIDS. (Lillia Callum-Penso)

Epiphanie Mujawimana has 10,000 children: four by birth, four by family members who passed away, and the rest by conscience. HIV/AIDS and genocide have left a nation of orphans in her native Rwanda and, quite simply, says the petite 45-year-old, “I could not sleep until I called them to come.”

Since 2008, when she started the Giving Hope Empowerment program through the Christian- based aid group ZOE Ministry, Mujawimana has filled the role of parent to Rwanda’s 10,000-plus orphans, helping children through carefully developed life-skills programs, food-sufficiency training and most importantly, empowerment. That is key, says Mujawimana the night before a speaking engagement at Furman University, her eyes sparkling.

The program is organized around the African model of the oldest child becoming the head of the household. Nurturing that cultural norm has meant greater success, says Jerry Hill, who has worked with Zoe Ministry through his position as minister of missions and outreach at Buncombe Street Methodist Church in Greenville. The program is self-sustaining now, as the heads of the households then take responsibility and train and care for others.

Give an orphan who has nothing the power to support himself and you give him dignity, says Mujawimana, which then becomes your most powerful tool.

They have self-esteem, and they emerge in their communities as leaders,” Mujawimana says. “And they have that compassion and love. They want to help because they feel proud. They are no longer vulnerable.

Mujawimana knows what it is to be vulnerable. She survived the genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups that swept Rwanda for almost four months in the spring of 1994, but if she thinks too hard about that time she can’t sleep at night. Her mission, though, gives her hope — it is her answer to the nightmare.

It is by experiencing myself these situations so I remember once I was in that situation, and I did this and this for me to get out of the situation. That is why I believe it was not a curse from God.”

I was not disadvantaged but I was blessed to go through all of this so that I could help. And I’m ready to face more and more. It is a gift.”

It might at first seem odd, but in ways Mujawimana only now fully understands, her experience led her to where she is now — a part of ZOE Ministry and founder of the Giving Hope Empowerment Project that has changed the lives of hundreds of children since 2008. The project has taken on new meaning in the context of other world tragedies in Haiti and Chile, where thousands of people have been left homeless and thousands of children have been left alone.

In situations of disaster, we have many vulnerable groups, children, orphans. And relief projects are good, but we have to think bigger and what will happen after,” Mujawimana says. “I would rather work hungry instead of eating and doing nothing after. Empowerment takes longer than relief, but it helps generations and generations.

There is hope in Mujawimana’s life now, but the path has been long.

Mujawimana doesn’t talk readily about the 1994 genocide that took the lives of 800,000 Rwandans in four months. She tiptoes around the subject at first, as though fearful that just speaking of it will reverse time and take her back to the moment she lost hope, expecting that she or family members would be killed.

What I wanted was just to die together,” she whispers.

The day before the genocide there were rumblings. Tutsis feared for their safety. Hutu neighbors who once celebrated holidays with Tutsi neighbors suddenly became cold. Mujawimana remembers two friends from the university saying, “Oh, my God, if you protect me, someone who saves me, I will serve him or her forever.

Neither friend survived. By the grace of God, Mujawimana, her husband Joseph and their children did.

I can’t forget them,” Mujawimana says softly. “They did nothing to be killed. Sometimes, we don’t understand how we survived.”

In the 16 years since, Rwanda has changed. The country, now led by President Paul Kagame, is leading reconciliation efforts to prevent further devastation. But Mujawimana remembers understanding the need to reconcile much earlier. She credits her family, her faith but most importantly, her experience.

This is the beauty of it, is that through her past she is able to analyze,” says Hill.

Mujawimana found ZOE Ministry in 2006 when the organization she had been working with fizzled out. The issue, she realized, was in the approach. You can provide food, clothing, medicine to children, but to sustain them, they also need skills and lessons they would learn from parents.

She’s developed a system of identifying orphans, working with the oldest, which is the African way, sharing the gospel with them, sharing that they’re no longer alone and that they have now a family if they choose to participate,” Hill says. “The orphans spontaneously begin to adopt other orphans because they become food-sufficient. Before they even become income-generating, they begin reaching out. As the groups form they also identify people in trouble. There may be a mom with AIDS and they go and help.”

That is the true measure of success for Mujawimana, because it’s what will sustain Rwanda in the future. She sees her country now not as Hutus and Tutsis, but through its children.

You know the future nation of a country is with the youth of today. If we did not help those young people to grow in a holistic way, we won’t have a nation; we have a dead nation.

Seeing the children thrive is what gives her hope today.

by Lillia Callum-Penso  –


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