Harelimana defied anti-Muslim bias to excel in academics, politics

Sheikh Abdul Karim Harelimana describes Nyamirambo as the first Umudugudu (village) in Rwanda, and for a good reason.
Sheikh Abdul Karim Harelimana. (Moses Opobo)
Sheikh Abdul Karim Harelimana. (Moses Opobo)

Sheikh Abdul Karim Harelimana describes Nyamirambo as the first Umudugudu (village) in Rwanda, and for a good reason. 

According to him, it is the first place in the country “where people lived in conglomeration, while elsewhere people were scattered on the hills”.


Muslims and Nyamirambo


Harelimana recounts that initially, before 1935, the Muslim community in Kigali was concentrated in the present-day Central Business District, around where the Al-Madina mosque is located.


“When the Belgian colonial administration took a decision to divide city dwellers according to race in 1935, the area known as “the plateau of Kigali” was reserved for the Belgians, while Arabs and other Asians were allotted the area below the mosque in town. 

The plateau of Kigali describes the relatively flat area from the city hall, down to the Rwandatel offices, through to the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, up to the entrance to the Camp Kigali facility, in Kiyovu. 

He recalls that the colonial governor’s residence stood at the exact site of the present-day Marriot Hotel, still in Kiyovu. 

Meanwhile, the Muslims were now moved from the Central Business District to Nyamirambo. 

According to Harelimana’s account, Nyamirambo starts from the Al-Fat’hu mosque (near the ONATRACOM complex), down to the Intwali Islamic school, and from KN 2 Av to the corner of KN 7Av. 

“The part immediately after the police station was meant for African colonial administration clerks. Their houses were built by the then government and they stretched from immediately after the Nyamirambo police station up to the fringes of College St. Andre.”

He describes this as “the geography of Kigali as of 1935, the year when Muslims were pushed to Nyamirambo.”

Incidentally, it is also the year his father was born. 

“This is how the Muslim community ended up here, and unfortunately, the Belgians pursued this as official policy to control the movement and activities of Muslims. That is why the first thing they put in place was a military barracks between the Belgian and the Muslim quarters.”

Harelimana was born in 1955, twenty years after the Muslim community had resettled in Nyamirambo. 

“I was born at my grandfather’s home, in Biryogo, because my father married at 18, while still with his own father.” This is where he was raised for the first year. In the middle of 1956, his father moved out to his own house in Majengo (popularly known as mirongo ine). 

However, this is not where he spent the early years of his life. 

“Being African, I was brought up from my grandfather’s homestead, and I remember sleeping with him in the same bed for so many years. We were not less than forty people in the same homestead, because all of his grand children had to be here, at least for holidays, and he had his own children as well. We made our own sector as a family. I think I was the special child to him, but I never got to know why, until his death in 1972. 

His grandfather was a dedicated farmer, with a few farms scattered across the country that grew food to cater for the large family. 


Al-Fat’h Mosque. A landmark that defines Nyamirambo of today. (Moses Opobo)

“He had one garden at Sheri, in Kamonyi district, which is still there, although now owned by another family member, and another in the Bralirwa neighborhood of Kicukiro. Life wasn’t very bad by then.

He was also a livestock dealer, buying cows from upcountry markets and selling them to butcheries in Kigali. He owned and operated the very first grocery shop in Nyamirambo, and for several years, enjoyed monopoly status.

He also had a few commercial transport trucks, as well smaller cars for his personal use. 

“The trucks where used mainly for commuter public transport because by then, there were no taxis and minibuses on the roads like it is today.”

In all, he concludes that his early years were free of any major hardships: “We always had a full menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for every single day”. 

However, all that changed when “his economy was shaken a little in 1959-60”, explains the Sheikh, adding:

“Belgian soldiers and Congolese and some Rwandans came and looted a lot of merchandise from his grocery business”. 

He remembers his grandfather to have been diabetic since he knew him, till his death, in 1972.

“I never saw him consume sugar all of his life, resorting to sweeteners instead.”

Between 1960 and 1966, Harelimana attended Intwali Primary School, in Nyamirambo. For his secondary education, he enrolled at Bilal Islamic Institute, although, in hindsight he regrets that “it was difficult to complete my studies In Rwanda because of the discrimination against Muslims which was the daily practice by the then government in collaboration with the Catholic Church.”

“At that time, most schools in the country were Catholic-owned, and for you to continue in the system, you had to be baptized in the Catholic Church, something which many Muslim parents out rightly rejected.”

The disgruntled parents looked to neighboring countries like Burundi, Uganda, and the DRC instead. According to the Sheikh, the discrimination, which initially was religious-based, later spread along ethnic lines. 

“The Tutsi and Muslims were both discriminated against, but it is the Muslim identity that was first discriminated against. Prior to independence, all Muslims would only study from P1-4, then you would have to sit a national exam you were assured of failing, because the discrimination was open. By that time almost all schools belonged to the Catholic Church, which didn’t’ want students from other religious denominations to study in their schools without changing their faith.”

It is this open discrimination that would later inspire the idea for the first Muslim-owned school, in 1957.


A typical day on the street in Nyamirambo. The area has developed from a residential area to a vibrant commercial centre. (Moses Opobo)

Before the country’s independence in 1962, Muslims had already borne the brunt of colonial-inspired and Church-led discrimination at Catholic institutions of learning. 

However, the scope of this discrimination would later widen to include the Tutsi. But this was only after a change in the political status quo, as he explains:

“Rwandans were all one people before the advent of white rule, by which I mean the Belgian colonial administration. When Belgians introduced the principle of divide and rule, they declared that the Tutsi were not originally from here—that they were neither Bantu, nor pure Africans. They said that the Tutsi were capable of ruling and leading better than the Hutu.”

During the first and second administrations that followed independence, the Tutsi suffered unprecedented forms of discrimination having been stripped of all the rights of citizens. Muslims too, continued their suffering without any regret from the regimes.

Politics and Islam

Owing to this troubled history, it was only natural that the Muslim community would develop a hostile attitude to colonial authority.

“Right from the beginning, Muslims were opposed to colonialism. That is why when the Union Nationale Rwandaise (UNAR) was established to unite Rwandans to seek their independence, Muslims as an organization supported the party 100 percent. The party was formed by nationalists and political elites, and even enjoyed the full support of the then king, Rudahigwa.”

Islam after independence

“Under the first and second administrations, the ban on movement and schools continued. Muslims did not get any economic support from the government, and they lived in fear all the time, regarding themselves as second-rate citizens. You would never see a Muslim in public office, in police and military service, or in local government.”

Still, they devised means to survive, acquiring as much informal skills as they could –in welding, driving, small retail businesses, mechanics, hair dressing, tailoring, and art, a legacy that stands to this day. 

Studying abroad

After completing his secondary studies in Uganda, he went to Saudi Arabia in 1973 to pursue his masters in Arabic literature. 

Upon his return to Rwanda in 1983, he was appointed Imam of Kigali, as well headmaster of the current Al Hidaya Islamic Institute, an Islamic-founded secondary school.

“But looking at the education situation in Rwanda, particularly the challenges faced by Muslims, I and my colleagues endeavored to make a transformation. That is when we established a school known as CIESK –Centre Islamique d’Enseignement Secondaire de Kigali in the name of the Muslim community. For the first time, Muslims would now study freely and without a lot of conditions after primary school.”


Old colonial time houses are giving way to high-rise commercial structures. (Moses Opobo)

In 1989, he returned as a lecturer at the Islamic University in Uganda. While there, he assisted young Rwandan Muslims to join the university and today, most of them are serving their country in different capacities.

Knowing the RPF

He joined the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) as a “freedom fighter” thereafter, and today is a member of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), in charge of Culture and Sports. 

After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, he was appointed first prefect of Cyangugu Prefecture, following the withdrawal of French troops from the Turquoise Zone. 

But before that he served as a coordinator in Buganza Region after the RPF liberated the region from GOR genocidal forces.

In August 1995 he was appointed minister for public service, before which he had been a member of parliament on an RPF ticket. 

Between 1997 and 2000, he served as minister for internal affairs, and between 2000-2003, he was a special advisor to the president of the republic of Rwanda. 

From 2008 till now, he is a member of the East African Legislative Assembly. 

Harelimana is married to Mukantabana Zura, with who they have five children, two boys and three girls.

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