Dressed in a pair of faded grey trousers, an old black coat and old cowboy hat Jonas Rwabukwisi’s hands energetically gripped onto his sewing machine as he carefully tailor his customer’s clothes.
He seldom looks up when working, he is wrapped up in his thoughts and he only nods his head to attend to a client’s interruption.
A gentle poke on his shoulder slowly attracts his attention. When he finally turns to talk to the intruder, Rwabukwisi eyes are sharp but later fade into a humble stare that speaks volumes; there is enough evidence that shows through them. There is more to this old man’s life than what meets the eye.
Rwabukwisi, a 71 year-old has a shocking story, the kind that is normally goes untold.
It was shortly after 8:00 a.m and Rwabukwisi was seated under a tree on a short stool just a few inches away from the roadside. The warm resplendence of the rising sun shone down on him.
Rwabukwisi is one of the repatriated refugees who came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the mid nineties. His exodus back to Rwanda is one he has never forgotten.
His only brother was killed as the family fled from the rebels who occupied eastern DR Congo.
“My brother was shot during the struggle as we fled from Congo and he died three days later leaving me to take care of his family,” Rwabukwisi said.
He begins to narrate his painful experience and says, at that time he felt like he had been struck with a sharp sword.
“It was August 21st 1996 when it happened,” Rwabukwisi vividly remembers the day he entered Rwanda through the Western Province boarder through Gisenyi in Rubavu district.
When he arrived, he was immediately transferred to a temporary refugee centre and later to Kiziba refugee camp in Karongi district where he has since lived. The camp has become one large home shared by over 18,000 other refugees from DR Congo.
Currently, Rwabukwisi’s only possession is a sewing machine which acts as his sole source of income. The money he gets from sewing is what he uses to feed his five children.
These include two children adopted from his deceased brother. He says he is the sole bread winner at home because his ailing wife is not strong enough to do extra income generating chores.
“My wife is younger than me but she is suffering from a chronic disease and her health is deteriorating every single day that passes. Life is very hard and uncertain,” Rwabukwisi said with a twinge of little hope in his voice.
The trials have made this old man adapt in order to beat life’s challenges. Rwabukwisi said he learnt how to sew from the camp and over the years he has become a skilled tailor.
Besides the humming noise of his sewing machine, his only company at work are his comrades, the old men with nothing much to do but smoke their tobacco pipes.
On a good day Rwabukwisi earns between Rwf200 and Rwf400 from his tailoring job. However, there are days when his market is so low that he goes home empty handed without a penny. Inspite of this, Rwabukwisi said this is not the worst part of his life.
He has tried in vain to alleviate the pain his wife goes through with all sorts of medication but he says there are no signs of improvement.
“There is nothing more I can do; she can’t even move out of the house anymore,” he says.
Rwabukwisi is a tired man who is clearly pushed to the edge.
And true to the wider expectation, life in Kiziba refugee camp is indeed hanging on the platform of poverty. Hope is a dream that they long to wake up to.
Several people especially women and young children are seen loitering around dressed in filthy clothes portraying abject poverty. They wake up with no real purpose in their lives. There is no land to cultivate because they lost it all when they fled the country during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
But amidst all this uncertainty, there is a ray of hope, an opportunity that cannot just be taken for granted.
That over 18,000 Kinyarwanda speaking people from another country get the chance to stay together in one big family and in a place where there is little to laugh about is indeed good news.
Survival is their reality of life, and the inhabitants of Kiziba refugee camp are no longer just dreaming but hoping for a better life.