Today, we celebrate the lives of our nation’s greatest heroes. The Unknown Soldier, Major General Fred Gisa Rwigema, King Charles III Mutara Rudahigwa, Prime
Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Michel Rwagasana, Félicité Niyitegeka and the Nyange Secondary School students are honoured today for the sacrifice they made in order to make this country a better place to live in.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hero as: ‘a man (or woman) of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his (or her) deeds and noble qualities’, and ‘a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal’.
These heroes will always be remembered for the lives they led and for their ultimate sacrifice. But they were all more than martyred children of Rwanda; they were husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends, colleagues and parents. They had likes and dislikes and quirks of personalities. In other words, they were as human as you and me.
The New Times interviewed three people who knew two of our national heroes, King Charles III Mutara Rudahigwa and Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, on a personal basis.
Ninety-one-year-old Pastor Ezra Mpyisi is one of the few Rwandans left who can remember King Rudahigwa, the man. As a member of King Rudahigwa’s Council, Mzee Mpyisi recalls the late King’s love of sports with fondness.
“Rudahigwa loved sports; he encouraged the youth to engage in various sports disciplines and also supported all the games that came up. He passionately watched sports like high jump and football among others.
“The King played football well into his 40’s. Doctors advised him to stop but his passion was too strong. He loved watching young people play and also coaching them,” Mzee Mpyisi recalls. According to the still strong nonagenarian, if Rudahigwa were alive today, he would have been in the books of one of the best footballers the country has ever had. “Back then, football had not yet evolved and the balls were made from banana leaves,” he says.
“Rudahigwa danced like a champion. He wasn’t just good at dancing. He could also play the ‘trough-zither’, locally known as the Inanga, too. When he stopped dancing at 40, he continued playing theInanga,” Mzee Mpyisi explains.
The late King was a hard worker and a motor enthusiast as well. “Hardworking was the best way to explain how Rudahigwa approached anything,” he explains. “This man was the King but he never let anyone chauffeur him! On the contrary, he drove himself and was his own best mechanic! If he ever had car trouble, he would take care of the problem himself. Actually he was a better mechanic than his own staff,” Mpyisi remembers.
The King was a great hunter, recalls Mzee Mpyisi. “King Rudahigwa hunted during his leisure time and most of the time, did it alone. In 1945, when famine struck the country, the King took it upon himself to go hunting in order to feed as many people as he could”, he says.
Born in 1912, Rudahigwa ruled the Kingdom of Rwanda from 1931 to 1959. He died in Bujumbura, Burundi under mysterious circumstances.
“She loved to dance! I can see her clearly even now, her arms held out, dancing to the beat of the drum,” recalls Félicité Mukarugwiza.
Sixty-year-old Félicité Mukarugwiza, a retired Ministry of Education official, was not only Agathe’s (as the late Prime Minster is fondly known) subordinate at the Ministry, which Agathe once headed; she was also a close personal friend.
“The ladies she came into contact with at the parties organised by the Ministry nicknamed her Urugwiro(loosely translated to mean ‘pleasant welcome’). The nickname really suited her because she was a pleasant person. She would enter a room and, even though at the office we were all above thirty, she would greet us with a cheery ‘Morning girls”, Félicité laughs as she remembers the years past.
Her cheery demeanor did not mean she was a pushover however.
“She had steadfast attention to detail. She did not ever, not even once, turn away any person who came looking for her for help. Uwilingiyimana even personally dealt with students who came to the Ministry looking for re-placement if they thought they had been unfairly placed after national examinations”, Félicité recalls. “Agathe was so generous with her time that she would rather go home at 2:00am in the morning than turn away a single complainant.
“At home, Agathe was not as close to her husband Ignace Barahira as she would have liked because of her work. This forced him to take over most of the duties at home but there was never a harsh word exchanged between them,” Félicité recalls.
Her children were her pride and joy. “The days I used to visit her, I would find her cracking jokes with her children. My daughter used to go to her place to do her homework with her daughter. Once I found her seated with the girls, arguing out a theory in science with them. They were laughing as she tickled them.”Félicité remembers, her eyes becoming moist.
“She preferred to stay home and enjoy some private time with her children as opposed to going out, but even when she did go out, Agathe was always with her family. When Agathe found the time, according to Félicité, she cooked her favourite meal, igitoke and isombe (boiled green banana and pounded cassava leaves).
At work, Agathe was extremely focused on the task at hand. “When she focused on something, she would see it through to the end. She would brook no failures or hindrance”, says 52-year-old Senator Bernard Makuza, who served as Agathe’s advisor when the she was Prime Minister.
“She was a hard worker. She rarely had any time for small talk or petty gossip,” Makuza recalls. “Her work ethic astounded me. She would call me at 2:00am in the morning to discuss what we would do during the next day. Also she did not stop for lunch if the day’s problem was not solved yet”, he remembers.
But just as Mukarugwiza, Senator Makuza remembers a woman who took her responsibility as a mother and wife very seriously. He recalls the times he would visit her home as a dinner guest and find her busy at the stove cooking. “She would serve her guests personally with a ‘gitenge’ cloth wrapped around her waist,” Makuza, himself a former prime minister, remembers.
“Agathe was a true African woman. She was an example of, if I may say, a supermom. She would wake up early to make sure her children and husband had breakfast and were ready to go to school (in the case of children). She even handled the mundane affairs concerning rations and servant duties herself,” Makuza reminisces.
Born on May 23, 1953 in the Southern Province, Agathe was assassinated during the opening phases of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi for her stance against the genocidal ideology of Hutu Power.
Agathe Uwilingiyimana had five children, four boys and one girl. The last born, a boy, was merely three years old when her mother died. Her husband, Ignace Barahira, perished with her on that fateful night of April 6, 1994 but her children survived and are currently living in Switzerland.