Celebrating mothers: The unsung heroes

Foreigners have often marvelled at the incredible qualities of some of our leaders. My answer has always been: You should have met their mothers. Only women like that can raise men like that!

In Rwanda, February is a month in which we celebrate our heroes. March 8 is the United Nations designated International Women’s Day (IWD), but throughout the month of March, we celebrate achievements in the advancement of rights and the empowerment of women. As we celebrate our heroes and press for further progress, it is fitting to remember and celebrate some pillars of our society that are often not recognised for the un-apparelled impact they have on our lives: our mothers.

This article will dwell on a specific group of mothers, who to many reading this article, will be grandmothers or great-grandmothers. Celebrating these mothers does not in any way imply that other mothers are any less heroic or courageous, or that fathers have played a less important role. Their stories may match or even go beyond; but that is a story for another day.

This generation of mothers lived through extremely trying times; times of persecution, exile, deprivation and an attempt to erase their identity. Many saw their homes burned, livestock and other prized possession looted. Many lost all the men in their lives and were then forced into a life of exile in foreign lands, where they neither spoke the language nor understood the customs and culture. Many had to take on responsibilities that they had never been trained for or expected to assume. Some will remember make-shift refugee settlements in the most inhospitable locations in neighbouring countries; tsetse fly-infested borderline game parks. Many of them had to endure several sets of exiles, from one country to another as Africa descended into the chaotic post-independence period. They had to deal with new diseases and afflictions they had never known before, whose treatment herbs they had no idea about.

One woman recalls how, when her father succumbed to cholera in the make-shift refugee settlement, the mother looked at his inert body and said, ”You coward, so now you want to leave me to raise these children all by myself in this hell of a place?” She was not being sadistic, just desperate. The woman went on to raise outstanding citizens of this country.

Many had to learn, overnight, tasks they had never carried out before. When I asked a friend what she admired about her mother, this is what she said:

“I remember and admire my mother for being so hard working! It is only when I grew up that I realised what sacrifices she had to make to bring us up in dignity. She had never traded or sold anything in her life, while still in Rwanda. But because she was determined that her children would not go hungry or have to beg, she would wake up very early to go and sell milk to fishermen at a nearby fishing post. When she did not get buyers, she would exchange the milk for bananas (ibitoki) or fish. She learnt to cook fish, even though she never ate any herself, for her entire life, but her children were not going to have kwashiorkor while she was still able-bodied.

She was always the first to wake up and last one to go to sleep. She worked even when she was sick and when any of us got sick, she would not hesitate to carry us on her back to the health centre some six kilometres away. Even though we were poor and struggling, she always had food to feed the hungry who came to our home or money to give to those she deemed needed it more than us. She always had something to give to a needy person.

Another had this to say:

“Our home was like a transit camp.  People just streamed in and out of our house constantly, especially young men. Some stayed the night, others one day or two. Our house, if you can call it that, seemed to have magical powers of expansion, so did the food. I never heard my mother complain, not once. All I ever heard was her quiet musings ‘oh, those brave souls’.”

Yet another recalls visiting her widowed mother in a rural area from town where she worked. She had saved up some money to buy a cow to add to her mother’s herd of two cows, so that the numerous grandchildren she was looking after may have some milk to drink. Imagine her fury when she was told that the mother had sold the cows “to contribute to the cause”. “Everybody had something to contribute. Was I going to be the only one with nothing to give?”

A sense of true self-worth: kwiha agaciro

These stories are as many as the mothers and cannot be told here. What is important are the lessons we draw from the lives of these brave women. They taught us to always keep the sense of our own self-worth and the conviction that we were able to live in dignity. We were never allowed to ape or hanker after the lifestyles or possessions of the communities around us. Our mothers taught us to be patient, to work hard and be satisfied with the little we had until we could acquire more, and they assured us we could. They taught us that we were worthy and should never allow ourselves to be disgraced or disgrace our people. They inculcated in us the sense of our own identity, constantly reminding us of our culture and values. Children were taught cultural dances and songs, told heroic stories from our history, and always reminded that we came from somewhere and we were worthy people. They instilled these values in us, often with an iron hand. Sometimes their methods bordered on arrogance and a sense of superiority. We will be forever grateful, better arrogance than the victim or beggar mentality. Many will be aware of their incredible sacrifices and contribution during the liberation struggle, many sending their only bread winners to the front; and never a complaint.

It is my strong conviction that these values we learned from our mothers are central to the liberation of our country and continue to play a part in its reconstruction and development.