Kwibuka25: How the ‘One Dollar’ complex has restored dignity of Genocide survivors

(L -R) Shallon Abahujinkindi, Marie Rose Uwineza, and Odette Murebwayire during the interview. Emmanuel Kwizera.

It is a beautiful morning as glittering sunrays spread various hues of shiny silvers and golds. A clean courtyard fills with laughter as enthusiastic meetings between mostly young women, who once didn’t know each other’s name, go down.

The women are beneficiaries of ‘One Dollar Campaign’ complex. They are young, passionate, determined and with a collective spirit and a sense of hope for the future.

That wasn’t always the situation.

Marie Rose Uwineza, 30, was called to join the complex in 2013 after several life struggles that she had faced while living in different orphanages and foster families.

When the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi happened, Uwineza was barely five years old, living with her mother whose husband had been killed in 1990 by the genocide regime.  

“I wasn’t able to recognise every aspect of life at a time as I was very young, but I remember the face of my mother clearly and where she was killed. In fact, after the Genocide we went back to my village to give her a decent burial,” she narrates as we begin the conversation.

The young survivor was hidden by a neighbour after her mother was killed in a Genocide in which the lives of more than a million Tutsis in the country were decimated, and left many others homeless and without a sense of life.

Uwineza was born in a small village of Rwufi in Karongi District in the Western Province where her single mother lived together with her maternal grandmother until 1994 Genocide.

“I was told that my father was killed in 1990’s during the period in which certain groups of Tutsis known as ‘Ibyitso’ were being targeted before the main Genocide could take place in 1994,” she recalls the story told by a neighbour who saved her.

Life after Genocide was not easy for her. A neighbour who had saved her took her to an orphanage in Karongi where she lived a few years, before she was taken by a foster family in Rubavu district.

She passed through a number of foster families and orphanages before she could be picked from a small house she had been given by local leaders, where eating, dressing and studying was too hard, back in her village.

“In 2013, a group of people from AERG came to my village where I was living at a time, and they informed me that I was among the people selected to receive safer homes at a new complex in Kigali,” she recounts with a smile.

Uwineza is one of the young women whose parents and relatives were hacked to death when they were still babies. They are a generation that did not have a chance to see their parents and endured a challenging life in post-Genocide Rwanda.

In 2008, members of the Rwandan Diaspora started a ‘One Dollar Campaign’ charity initiative that could later see thousands of Diaspora members mobilise a symbolic one dollar each to raise money to provide shelter for Genocide survivors in different parts of Rwanda.

In 2014, a complex with the capacity to host more than 150 people was inaugurated in Kinyinya Sector, Gasabo District, marking a beginning of a new life for women and men survivors who were previously living in orphanages, foster families and on streets.

“I did not have a sense of direction in life before. When I got here I met people with shared history and we formed unity and built a collective spirit and passion to move on beyond the tragic history we experienced,” Uwineza says, holding her tears back.

Currently, Uwineza is a third year student of hospitality at University of Tourism, Technology and Business Studies (UTB).

Many people who donated a dollar probably have no clue about the magnitude of the impact it brought to the faces of people and in their lives beyond a physical complex that was developed out of that donation.

But it signifies what is possible when people bring together whatever resources they have for a common good, according to Emmanuel Muneza, the National Coordinator of AERG, an association of student survivors of Genocide, which currently owns the establishment.

According to him, the complex enabled student survivors to have safer homes, and particularly protected girls from different forms of exploitation.

“The truth is that the complex has ultimately protected women from different forms of exploitation. Some who were living in their foster families were being mistreated and others in orphanages could not get a decent life that they deserved,” he notes.

Odette Murebwayire, a 27-year-old who hails from Bweramana in Ruhango District, is another beneficiary. She came to the complex from Mumararungu orphanage where she had lived for many years.

“When the Genocide took place, I was the only daughter at home. I literally knew nothing at the time. I have no clue of how my mother and father looked like, but I was told that they were killed at that time,” she says.

The young lady was picked by a passer-by from where the mother had been killed, lying just next to her. She took her to a grandmother who she found out that they were related.

“My grandmother however didn’t have a lot of capacity to take care of the many kids that were living at her home, so I was taken to an orphanage in Nyanza district known as Utunyenyeri,” she recalls.

This is where Murebwayire spent a few years before being transferred to Mumararungu, an orphanage that was based in Kigali.

“Through that process life was really hard. You couldn’t feel any sense of belonging. But when we came here, we met people with the same understanding of what we were going through. It was a decent living, to say the least,” she says.

Murebwayire is a graduate of the former school of Finance and Banking (SFB).

She shares quite a similar story with Shallon Abahujinkindi, a 26 year old. The Genocide left her with her grandmother who also died few years later, making it worse for the young girl to live.

All of them are now sheltered at a complex that was built by one dollar campaign initiative.

They are examples of more than 60 young women who had completely been aggravated by a sense of isolation in the former families where they had been adopted or orphanages where they lived before.

Muneza indicates that currently the biggest challenge faced by these women is lack of what he calls “an exit strategy” – a process of securing work opportunities and starting their own businesses.

“Indeed there is a lot of transformation that has happened which we need to recognise, but there are challenges. The exit strategy when these girls finish school is still a challenge,” he says, adding that many have failed to get jobs while others have no access to capital to start their income-generating activities.

He suggests that there should be a unique scheme for women survivors to get access to capital, saying that their conditions are completely different from others who did not go through the same experience.