52-year-old Selin Bjarne, a Swedish national and partner at Intrasenze, a digital safety company, first heard about Rwanda in 2003 from a friend, Fabien Manirebanimpuhwe, a documentary filmmaker.
Manirebanimpuhwe went to Sweden after a group of journalists who had come to Rwanda to shoot a documentary on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi realised he was not just a good driver and translator but also, has an eye for shooting films.
“Fabien was also a good cook and he often talked about his country. He told me so many nice things about Rwanda and we planned to come here together. I came and fell in love with the country,” Bjarne says.
Bjarne and Manirebanimpuhwe, because of their love for running, founded the Sweden-Rwanda running team which has since grown to about 30 members.
“We started the group because we loved to run but then we also have people who enjoy poems, or expressing their feelings and emotions,” Bjarne says.
Something for the Kinyinya people
Bjarne’s frequent visits got him accustomed to the country and he influenced his colleagues to reach out to various communities.
While on a country tour, his colleagues from the Sweden Rwanda running team took bicycles which they distributed vulnerable people in Kinyinya, Kigali to boost their livelihood.
“I love to talk to people, and very soon we realised the need to do something rather than just be on vacation. We lent bicycles to guys to support their families, they had to pay back just half of the sum and then slowly, buy their own after half a year,” he says.
Currently, the project consists of 13 bicycles that the beneficiaries own.
Bjarne was introduced to Marirebanimpuhwe’s nephew,31-year-old Olivier Maniragaba, whom he kept referring to as ‘brother’ throughout the interview.
Maniragaba introduced Bjarne to his aunt Didacienne Hakahabeshimana who lives in Majerajera and takes care of children and women that are victims of domestic violence.
“We heard so many stories about women and children that were abused and I know that happens everywhere in the world but when some women told me that they were being beaten, I got so mad and as a man, I thought something had to be done,” he says.
The idea of helping the children in the rural areas came up and together with the running team; we saw an opportunity to work together.
“When you have kids you have to interact with them and not just take them to school. You have to go through more than that. We thought we need to start something like this because then, we can help everybody directly,” he says.
The ‘Learning by Doing’ project (LBD), is a non-profit initiative in Mageragere District, outside Kigali, that empowers young women and at the same time, teaches job skills like hair cutting, tailoring, sewing and drilling.
“All the work done is to help women and teenagers learn to live independently and give them the chance to fulfill their dreams and ambitions,” says 37-year-old Ireena Pribova, who is one of the sponsors of the project and also part of the running team with Bjarne.
“Our first idea was to focus on the women that are victims of domestic violence but we talked to Didaciene and we saw the bigger need for children and parenting,” she says.
The initial idea to focus on domestic violence was adjusted to include parenting skills and provide education to young teenagers to help them support themselves economically.
“Both children and parents are high priorities and because Didacienne has experience with children and parenting, we thought we could help the parents with their children,” she adds.
Bjarne chips in: “There is still a long way to go but we have the vision and so the rest will follow. Didacienne dedicated a part of the house to the project and we only pay for the machines and there is a day-care for the kids and the fathers come to play with the kids.”
This is Bjarne’s 5th time in Rwanda, this time round it was for gorilla trekking, but even though Bjarne has been in Rwanda a couple times, he has reason to keep coming back.
“I often carry my family with me and they loved it from the beginning because it’s very open and the people are very friendly. I will keep coming back and I have already booked a house for December. I’m not sure how many friends from the Sweden Rwanda running team will be coming with me.
“I was here four times and didn’t go to the memorial place, and then last year, I finally did, and I cried. I’ve read about the Genocide in books and heard stories from other people but when you are that close to the story, and it hits you, you feel the spirit of unity and passion that Rwandan people have,” he says.