Tucked away on a sharp bend off the main tarmac road from Nyakabanda Sector offices, in the Nyamirambo suburb of Kigali, Gisimba Memorial Centre looks pretty ordinary both from outside and inside.
But, as the saying goes, looks can be deceptive.
The story of its 33-year lifespan, at some point, cheerlessly intertwines with the country’s dark history – the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
During the Genocide, hundreds of children – mostly orphans – and some adults, terribly cramped and with little food, were tormented by killers for 100 unbearable days.
Inside the compound is a memorial constructed last year in memory of 18 victims – nine babies and nine adults, including two employees – killed in April 1994.
During 100 “days of darkness,” 25 years ago, Damas Gisimba Mutezintare, the current Director of the Gisimba Memorial Centre (the founder’s son) and American aid worker Carl Wilkens, against all odds helped hide and save lives.
When the genocidal forces were removed from the zone, 405 children, and adults, who had been sheltered in the then tiny compound, were rescued.
Entrance to Gisimba Memorial Centre in Nyamirambo. / Emmanuel Kwizera
About two years ago, the oldest and best-known orphanage in the country officially changed its mission. The orphans were taken in by foster families.
But the name, Gisimba Memorial Centre, was maintained.
Today, it runs a special after-school programme for underprivileged children, mainly its former residents, from homes in the neighborhood.
“After school, in the evening, the children go home, change and come here. We also occupy them in the weekends. We take over all their so-called free time. This programme was started two years ago when the orphanage was closed and kids sent to families. We wanted a continuation to the education project,” Mutezintare told Sunday Times.
They also have an Early Childhood Development Programme keen on ensuring quality care and education for our country’s youngest children. All together, about 240 kids are regularly encouraged and supported to focus on studies. Art in form of music, drawing, film and acting, is being nurtured. So are various sporting disciplines.
The 58-year-old and his team of dedicated volunteers, is looking to “form and inspire the next generation of elite scholars; very intelligent children.”
“We have children who are at a very good level. It makes us so proud,” he said.
In the evenings, children gather at the compound and volunteers help them do homework. Early talent detection and nurturing is part of the project too. There is a plan, among others, to establish a well-equipped music department.
So how did the Gisimba Memorial Centre come about? What are its origins? Before answering these questions, Mutezintare momentarily looked up and glanced at the wall on the left in his office.
For a moment he remained silent, jogging his memory for what his father and others told him about events and things past. Three playful young boys of about eight or nine ran past the half open door.
He turned to acknowledge them but got distracted by his ringing cell phone on the table in front. He excused himself, held it on his ear, and then seemed lost in conversation for a while. Outside, it started to downpour.
After hanging up, he raised his voice and said: “It has always been called Gisimba Memorial Centre. Even when orphanages were phased out we still maintained this name, in honor and memory of the founders.”
It is his late grandfather, Melchior Gisimba, a builder, Mutezintare recounted, who pioneered the idea of an orphanage, nearly eight decades ago.
Mutezintare’s father, Pierre Chysologue Gisimba, only carried on with the enterprise after his old man passed on, later.
“After the Second World War, there was a time of a devastating famine, called Ruzagayura, in the country. People died in numbers and because my grandfather was wealthy, and had friends, he thought about the dire situation and worked out a plan to help deprived children and parents who were dying of hunger.”
Accounts by historians such as Alexis Kagame indicate that Ruzagayura was a very destructive famine in Rwanda and Burundi during World War II.
Between 1943 and 1944, the famine is reported to have led to a large number of deaths (36,000 to 50,000 in both territories). There was a huge population migration into the neighboring Belgian Congo, now DRC and surrounding areas.
“My grandfather brought together all the elderly and people living with disability; vulnerable people including orphans, in his compound and took care of them. That’s basically it how it all started.”
Long after the famine, Gisimba senior continued serving his community. He built schools, trained people, and did many other generous things, his grandson says.
“I never knew or saw him. I only knew his children, including my father. We owe everything, even the love for people, to our grandfather. He loved people. Many old people who knew him say this about him.”
Unfortunately, by the mid-70s the old man was battling age and illness. To make things worse, he was on his own. Nearly all of Gisimba senior’s eight children fled Rwanda during the political tensions in 1959.
“His sons had all fled to Congo, Burundi and Tanzania. There was political turmoil and killings. What I heard, when I was young, is that they were active in politics and were not safe in the country.”
Mutezintare recalls that he was born in eastern DR Congo, formerly Zaïre, in 1961.
One of his uncles, Gisimba senior’s oldest son; Chrisostome Gisimba who was a member of the pro-monarchy Union Nationale Rwandaise (UNAR) political party, was imprisoned and later killed in Ruhengeri, current Musanze District.
In the early 70s, when Mutezintare’s father – Pierre Chysologue Gisimba – heard, from friends, that his old man’s health was deteriorating, he risked and returned home.
“He did not want his father to die before he saw him. So, he took the risk and visited his father [in Rwanda].”
Mutezintare’s father also did not want the work and legacy of Gisimba senior “to die” with him.
Upon returning home, as expected, he was arrested. Friends who knew his elderly father’s deeds pleaded for his freedom. He was released but restricted from travelling beyond his district of Ngoma. Luckily, he got a job with the humanitarian aid organisation Catholic Relief Services.
Gisimba senior passed on in 1976. Ten years later, the son who picked up the baton would also pass it on to his own child, Mutezintare.
“My father then decided to walk in his father’s footsteps. His father, who is my grandfather, had done honorable things; caring for orphans, loving and caring for vulnerable people.”
In 1980, Mutezintare’s father started a similar project in Kigali.
“That is why we call it the Gisimba Memorial Centre. It was in the memory of his father. My father did it for his father.”
The name Gisimba Memorial Centre was actually conceived by Mutezintare’s father two months before he passed on, in September 1986.
“In 1986, we obtained legal personality in that name,” Mutezintare said.
His father had consulted a priest at the Kaloli Lwanga parish in Kigali. And the latter agreed.
“The first orphans were from the parish and they were brought home. My father died after he secured this plot, in 1986,” Mutezintare gestured, indicating the land where the compound seats today.
“He had appropriately conceived the construction project and had people ready to help. When he died, his friends vowed to help me carry it on.”
At the time, there were only 19 orphans, he recalls.
He then built the first real children’s home about 50 meters from their family house – where it is located up to this day. It is that small house that accommodated hundreds of hungry and terrified children in 1994.
Before the war, and Genocide, he explained, the number of homeless children was not alarming.
“In the past it was really unheard of for a child to be taken to an orphanage. It would be a last resort. Normally, families helped each other and if a father died, the next of kin would take care of his children.
There were no many homeless orphans in the past, he said, because people cared for their own.
“The number of children under our care increased in 1990 when war started. There were camps of displaced people and killings in places such as Bigogwe. These killings changed things completely. In 1994 we had up to 80 children. In April 1994, it was far worse; numbers rose rapidly.”