In Rwanda, PIH helps a young genocide survivor overcome poverty and his past.
By Aubrey Davis, PIH/IMB External Relations Coordinator, Rwanda
Private Njyenawe was 12 years old when the genocide took his family, his home, and his childhood. He witnessed unspeakable acts and unfathomable violence. And in order to survive, he found the courage to handle himself in situations that no child should ever be in.
After the violence passed, Private was alive but alone and without a home. So he left his village of Rwinkwavu and joined the army, which was absorbing many of the orphaned boys left in the genocide’s aftermath. After spending years as a child soldier, Private participated in the massive demobilization effort that traded guns for education — for him, some vocational training in electrical engineering.
Private tried to find work in the capital city of Kigali, but life there was difficult, and he wasn’t able to earn enough to support himself. Ashamed of his failures, he eventually decided to return to Rwinkwavu. He didn’t know where else to go.
A difficult homecoming
Private returned only to find that most of his family’s land had been given to another family. A common occurrence after the war, the government often gave away land to returning refugees when they believed the land had no surviving titleholders.
With no money and no job, Private’s only choice was to take shelter in the crumbling ruins of his childhood home. Over time, the building had deteriorated so badly that there was only one small room with four walls remaining, and no roof.
Every day, Private woke up and stepped outside his room wondering how he would afford food. Looking across his yard, he would see a nice, big house on the land where he grew up, but he couldn’t sleep there. He could see the orange tree that his father planted, but he couldn’t eat from it. Occasionally, he would get work digging in a nearby mine — the same mine where his family and thousands of others were slaughtered.
Struggling to cope with his memories and his daily suffering, Private would often wish that he had died with his family.
Addressing poverty through preventative medicine
In April 2011, Private gave his testimony at a genocide commemoration in Rwinkwavu. A number of staff from PIH’s Rwandan sister organization, Inshuti Mu Buzima (IMB), were present, and heard his story. They knew that they had to help this member of their community — a man in misery no more than a mile from their hospital headquarters.
Although Private wasn’t an IMB patient, the poor conditions he lived in threatened his health daily, and he could have very quickly become one of IMB’s sickest patients. Good health systems are made up of more than doctors and hospitals and patients, and IMB believes that building houses for people like Private is a form of preventative medicine. Standing in solidarity with the poor isn’t limited to the poor who happen to walk through the doors of our hospitals or clinics.
With this in mind, IMB acted quickly, resolving the very next day to intervene. They worked with Private and the local government to get some of his land back, and began constructing a new modest but sturdy house — with a roof.
Chasing mice together
In the local language of Kinyarwanda, the word for housewarming is “Kwirukana imbeba.” Translated literally, it means “chasing mice,” which signifies helping to make the new home comfortable and clean. In October, with the new house complete, IMB staff, local government representatives, neighbors, and community members all came out to help Private chase the mice out of his new home.
Proudly holding the keys to his house, Private told those gathered, “It’s beyond what I expected. At first I thought it would be impossible to have a house. But now, because I have a vision for the future, I have a lot of hope.” He feels strongly that it’s his job to find a direction for his life, a direction guided by his heart and desire to help others like him. With his new house, he plans to provide shelter to people who don’t have a place to live, and to sick travelers on their way to the hospital.
Recently, IMB received a generous donation for Private to further his vocational training and hone his art skills. And he says with all the space he has in his new home, he hopes to fill it with a big family. In a way, it’s only fitting. After all, his last name, Njyenawe, literally means “me and you.”