Emmanuel Shyaka is a true definition of the popular saying that ‘Disability is not inability’.
Although he lost his father at a very young age and later suffered another setback when he became deaf, that didn’t put him down and he is now aspiring to be the Vice Chairperson for Inclusion and Engagement on the Commonwealth Youth Council (CYC).
Led by a nine-member executive, the CYC is a coalition of national youth councils and other youth-led civil society and private sector bodies from across the 53 member countries of the Commonwealth. If Shyaka makes it to the council, it will be a confirmation that his childhood dream of one day becoming someone important is coming true.
Why he wants to be part of the CYC
“My original dream was to become a major general in the army, but that dream changed when I lost my hearing,” Shyaka says, adding that it only changed the direction of his dream and not its magnitude.
But his ambition concerning the CYC is not a personal goal.
“I will be representing Rwanda,” he says. “I want to tell Rwanda’s story. The world knows about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi but I want to show them how far we have come,” Shyaka says, adding that he also wishes to become a champion for the youth, to see them being involved in the country’s development agenda.
Shyaka further hopes to show the world that people who are physically challenged are not incapacitated.
“If he is elected to the CYC, he will be the first person with a physical disability to occupy a position on the council,” said Oswald Tuyizere, the Director of Economic and Social Empowerment for the National Council of Persons with Diabilities (NCPD).
Losing his father, his hearing and facing discrimination
The youngest of three children, Shyaka was born in a refugee camp in Isingiro, Western Uganda in 1986. His father had been part of the National Resistance Movement, a rebel group that came to power through a liberation struggle.
He later joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front but he died in 1992.
Theophile Mudaheranwa, Shyaka’s brother says that growing up with the now father of two was very interesting:“He was a very friendly and happy child”.
In 1993, Shyaka was overcome with fever. He says he shivered vigorously. A diagnosis showed that he was suffering from meningitis and it is the disease that eventually robbed him of his ability to hear.
“I was devastated,” he says. “I thought I was the only deaf person in the world.” Worse still, he immediately started to feel discriminated by his own family members. He says that while he was able to hear and therefore communicate with his families, they were very loving. As soon as he got a hearing impairment, they took a step back.
In 1994, Shyaka moved to Rwanda with his paternal relatives and he was enrolled in a school for the deaf (Centre pour les Jeunes Sourds et Muets) in Huye.
At first, he says, sign language amused him.
“I was shocked by the actions of the pupils at the school. I even wondered if they were insulting me,” he says. Still, Shyaka was glad, and even relieved to find that there were hundreds of other people like him.
The prejudice from his family never stopped. After primary education, his guardians wanted to take him to a vocational school. But he said no. He wanted mainstream education. He couldn’t see how he would achieve his dreams by going to a vocational school.
“They threatened not to give me school fees but I told them that they couldn’t decide for me,” he says.
To date, deafness is the biggest challenge that Shyaka has ever faced. He says, however, that he doesn’t only think of how this challenge affects him as an individual.
“Some deaf people are living in poor conditions. Some have not acquired education. Some are depressed because they are living in solitude,” he says.
It is for that reason that at the age of 15, he joined Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD). There, he found acceptance as a deaf person. He is now involved in advocacy, working towards helping deaf people and people with disabilities being included in the community.
In this regard, he made a contribution towards the development of a policy for the disabled while working as a volunteer in the Association of Volunteers in International Service (AVSI) in Rwanda.
Lorette Birara, the country representative of AVSI, describes him as hardworking, passionate, friendly and proficient.
Moving towards the future
In 2011, Shyaka founded an organisation, Rwanda Union for Youth and Children with disabilities (RUYCD).
Although its activities are limited by funds, the organisation’s aim is to see deaf people and those with disabilities being included in the national agenda.
He is also actively participating in seeing the inclusion of sign language as a national language.
The 28-year old asserts that his interest is not only about becoming a champion for people with disabilities.
“I want to see a Rwanda where youth are empowered with good education. Without education, a country does not develop,” he says.
Shyaka’s passion for education led him to enrol for International Relations and Diplomacy at Victoria University in Uganda. In the end, Shyaka wants a developed world where there is equality for all.