On the evening of Saturday April 29th, Ange Theonastine Ashimwe made her maiden appearance on a poetry stage. The occasion was the 7th edition of the monthly poetry forum, Kigali Vibrates with Poetry. It was held at the Impact Hub in Kiyovu. The event pits poets and poetesses in a slam contest that features poems in Kinyarwanda, English, and French.
As she was led onto stage on her wheelchair, little did she know that she would be the night’s shining star. Ashimwe delivered a moving English poem titled “Tomorrow will I be recalled?, which won her three accolades at the competition; one for Best English Poet, Best General Poet, and another for Best Popular Poet.
It was the biggest win for an individual from a single poem since the forum’s inception. Yet it came against a backdrop of innumerable odds that she had to beat:
For starters, she is a Person with Disability (PWD), a cripple who is permanently confined to a wheelchair. For the poetry contest, she had to travel down to Kigali, all the way from Gakenke district in the Northern Province. Theonastine is a Senior Five student at Cyabingo High School in Gakenke, and is studying History, Economics and Geography.
The third challenge is that it was her first time to grace a poetry stage.
“Someone saw it (the poem) on my website, liked it and advised me to apply in Kigali Vibrate With Poetry. I applied and they accepted my application, and that is how I ended up there, with no hope to win,” she revealed, adding;
“But “I practiced like I have never won and performed like I have never lost”, that is how I ended up winning three categories.”
After her win, Ashimwe was swarmed by both journalists and fans alike, and she gave back-to-back interviews until she could take no more questions.
She was born on 30th May 1999 to Marie Claire Kantarama and Théonas Tugengwenayo. She has one sibling, an elder sister.
Interestingly, she was not born with any disability.
“I was born normal like any other child, I completed all stages of growing and when it was time for me to start walking I started walking but later I started to become weak until I could no longer walk. My disability occured due to sitting in a wheelchair for a long time. It’s been twelve years... I started using a wheelchair when I was five. I tried different hospitals but they couldn’t find the problem so I stopped looking for a cure and started looking at how I can live with it instead.”
Her whole life, she says, “has been about expressing, not impressing”.
Currently she is president of the media club at Cyabingo High School.
“This is a group that is based on helping people who have different talents. In this club we have 10 different departments which are modeling, designing, debating, dancing, and others,” she explains.
She is particularly active in the school’s debating, painting and modeling activities.
About modeling in particular she says;
“Many people ask me how I do it while sitting in a chair. I just instruct someone on how to dress me and then I go on stage. I do it mainly to show the world that people with physical disabilities are also capable and can do a small thing in a greater way. I also do it to establish hope and confidence in all the people living the same life as mine.”
As a Person With Disability who is confined to a wheelchair, attending school for her has been a nightmare in itself:
“In Rwanda the schools that I can be able to afford to attend do not have the capabilities of having me as a person who uses a wheelchair and needs another person to support me in moving, going to the bathroom and other activities. This is because the school buildings and laboratories are too small to fit in my wheelchair, and lack the technology to facilitate us have the same education as the normal students. Many times opportunities come for me to study in good schools but I can’t because of the way they’re built so I give up and look for the one that can support my wheelchair.”
For this reason, her life-long dream has been to study from abroad after high school, “but even if I get a chance to find a scholarship, I don’t know how I’d study there without going with someone to help me so all this discourages me.
Theonastine describes herself as “a visionary, ambitious, courageous, result oriented, and proactive girl who wants to accomplish many things in life.”
Asked what she would want to do with her life in future she explains;
“I want to be a journalist but apart from that I will do poetry. I want journalism to be my career but poetry is my life. I don’t just do poetry, me myself I’m a poem, people just have to read me I can change them.”
She would like to see a general shift in attitude toward persons with disabilities:
“I would love to see them (PWDs) treated like normal people. Sometimes as people with disabilities we get too much attention and it makes us feel like we’re not like others because they look at us as if we’re animals in a zoo, they just have to look at us like they look at others. I don’t agree with people who say that we need too much attention, we just need to feel human.”
Currently, her biggest wish is to land an opportunity to study abroad:
“I would have said my wish is to stop using a wheelchair but no, what if there is no cure? I just need to fulfill my dreams in the name of proving to the world that disability is not inability.
I want to advocate for people with physical disabilities and help them get the same high education as normal people. In my leisure times I like reading books and carrying out research about things happening in the world. However, studying for us has been hard due to the economic situation of my family.”
Her parting words:
“It hurts to have dreams and die without even accomplishing a quarter of it. For my big dreams of getting a higher education in order to help others including my family which has suffered a lot in order to bring me up to this level, I need help so that I may study in America where I can access new highly developed technology to help me in my studies and future life. This is because education is the only thing that will help me achieve my goals.
I know it is hard to step in my dreams but I also know it is possible because even the word impossible means ‘I’m possible’. I also know God’s will comes first.”