It’s 11a.m when we arrive at Rachel Nyiramandwa’s home.
The107-year-old woman recently became a social media sensation after she was photographed greeting and whispering to an attentive incumbent President Paul Kagame on one of his campaign rallies.
VIDEO: Nyiramandwa, the 107-year-old who loves to attend Kagame's campaign rallies.
Nyiramandwa lives in Ngiryi, a small village tucked away in Gasaka Sector in the hills of Nyamagabe District, Southern Province, approximately four hours from Kigali.
The perimeter of her house is mostly eucalyptus trees.Even though she needs the support of two sticks, she was on hand to welcome us in.
“I wish you could forever remain with Kagame, our gift from God, may he live long in Rwanda Rwa Gasabo,” Nyiramandwa, who’s walking in the compound to welcome us in tow with her last born, 62-year-old Annonciata Mukaruziga, says as she greets us.
Nyiramandwa loves President Paul Kagame who is running for re-election on the ticket of the RPF-Inkotanyiand eight other political parties. She says she is grateful to him because he gave her a home and cow, and his unwavering support reminds her of her children, husband and relatives who were killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“He’s carrying me on his back as he does every one of us,” she smiles.
Nyiramandwa has shaken hands and spoken with the President – not once, but twice. Both occasions were during the presidential campaigns in 2010 and 2017.
When she first met Kagame she was 100 years old.
“That’s when I asked him for milk and a few days later a cow was delivered to my home,” she recalls. “The first one died and he gave me another one as a replacement,” she recalls.
“As a sign of gratitude, I have also given two calves away,” she adds.
Ushering us into her three-bedroom house, she gazes and points at the roof of the building and says it was another reason for her love for Kagame.
“He gave me a home, security, everything that I am today,” she says while seated on a traditional mat laid on the cement floor, below an imposing image of President Kagame hung on a wall.
In her village, she’s fondly referred to as nyogokuru (grandmother) and children from around the neighbourhood later came to greet her as they went about their errands.
She took us around her homestead and showed us her cow that was calmly resting in a neat cowshed she says was also constructed for her by the local leaders who delivered the Frisian cow to her.
Her daughter interjects: “When I came back home I was so surprised to find the cow, I feared getting close to it because I couldn’t believe that such a big cow was not hostile.”
Mukaruziga is Nyiramandwa’s only surviving child, with all her four siblings, along with her father, having perished in the Genocide 23 years ago. They stay with Mukaruziga’s husband, who is in his 70s, and the couple has no child.
“After the Genocide I was lonely and desperate, I didn’t want to live, I tried many times to commit suicide because I didn’t know why they didn’t kill me too,” Nyiramandwa said.
At that time, she recalls, she was not with Mukaruziga and didn’t know whether she had survived or not.
“The Genocide happened when we did not live together, she was staying with her husband,” says the senior citizen. “I had no idea that my daughter had survived.”
Later, mother and daughter reunited and they – along with Mukaruziga’s husband – settled far away from their ancestral village of Ndiryi because they still feared for their loves.
After Gacaca courts helped adjudicate Genocide cases and helped foster reconciliation, the family returned to Ndiryi.
“We now live at peace with our neighbours and I have even given one family a plot of land where they put up their home,” she says.
Asked about her first encounter with the President, Nyiramandwa said the opportunity came in 2010 when Kagame held a campaign rally at Nyagisenyi Ground.
“I remember I was sick but I couldn’t accept to miss out the opportunity to get to where Kagame was,” she said. “A neighbour helped me to get to the venue and I was facilitated to reach the president. I remember when I spoke to him I asked him to give me one thing: milk”.
Seen it all…
A few days later, a cow was delivered to her with milk containers and a kraal was quickly put up by those who had brought the cow.
From the money she receives on a monthly basis under Vision Umurenge Program, a social protection programme run under the Ministry of Local Government and Social Affairs, she’s able to pay herdsmen and cater for other basic necessities.
Nyiramandwa was born at a time when Rwanda was still a monarchy and she vividly remembers life under the colonial rule as well as the successive governments that took over following the Independence of 1962.
“I wore traditional clothes like Inkanda, Ubutega, Inyonga, I also put on Amasunzu (traditional hairstyle),” she recalls.
“In all those years, I never saw leadership like the one we have today. Those days we used to run away from leaders, even grassroots leaders. It was the opposite of today when leaders are welcoming; I personally have hugged the President more than once, it’s amazing,” Nyiramandwa said excitedly.
Previous governments, she said, terrorised and divided citizens, instead of protecting them. “On the contrary, Kagame has brought peace and security.”
She added: “His good deeds motivate me to go to greet him when he visits. I wish I could look at him every day and lift him up.”
When she went to meet the President for the first time in 2010, her daughter Mukaruziga was not at home. When she returned, neighbours informed her that her mother had gone to Nyagisenyi to attend the President’s rally.
“I was a little concerned because she was sick and weak. And there was a huge crowd there, I feared she could suffocate. I followed her there and it did not take long before she was led in front to address the President, I was so surprised” recalled Mukaruziga.
“She asked for a cow but I didn’t know it would be given to us immediately, yet it didn’t take a week before it was brought,” she added. “It was a relief because my mother had stopped eating solid food and even porridge; milk is the only think she wanted.”
“We started taking milk immediately and selling the surplus which helped us afford other necessities,” she said.
Unfortunately, she said, the cow died after miscarrying two times. “But she was later compensated with another cow.”
Mukaruziga said her mother grew up taking milk and loves the beverage “more than anything”.
‘I invited the President’
“She’s alive today because of milk,” she said.
Today, Nyiramandwa supports other residents. “Kagame has taught us to care for one another; I also try to emulate him in my modest way,” she says.
Deborah Nyiransabimana, 61, a mother of three and a neighbour, is one of the beneficiaries. She didn’t have her own home until the old woman gave her a piece of land to build a house of her own and the rest for farming activities.
“I have a three-bedroom house thanks to her,” she told The New Times. “Our relationship is like that of daughter and mother. I help her with small things like planting sweet potatoes and when my children are around they fetch water for her,” she added.
But Nyiransabimana is also thankful to the President. “He loves all Rwandans. If he wouldn’t have supported her, she probably would never have extended support to me, so I am also a beneficiary of the President’s support to her.”
Fabien Niyonzima, the Ndiryi village leader and a neighbour to Nyiramandwa, said the elderly woman is an active citizen who regularly attends community meetings.
“If I forget to tell her about any public event, she can even beat me with those sticks,” he says jokingly. ‘She’s a patriot.”
It is Niyonzima who helped connect Nyiramandwa to the district’s leadership that subsequently facilitated her to meet with the President during his latest visit to the area during the ongoing campaigns this month.
“She came to me and said she wanted to go and thank the President in person,” he said. “She had a brief conversation with the President.”
Nyiramandwa added: “I asked him (President Kagame) to pay me a visit one time; I told him the first cow he gave me died but thanked him because he had compensated me with another. I was holding him like this (holds this reporter’s hands). He didn’t reply but he always replies to me through his deeds. Even you (journalists) are here because he has sent you, isn’t it?”
“You young people are fortunate to grow up under his leadership,” she says. “I want you to grow old and reach my age living in the same peaceful, prosperous Rwanda.”
She said she wants Kagame to remain President until he himself decides to step down. “He should continue carrying us on his back”.