Father Ubaridi Rugirangoga, the Catholic parish priest of Nyamasheke in south-western Rwanda, is a man who believes that every human is necessarily possessed of inherent love for fellow humans. He was convinced of that after 1963, after 1973 and even after 1994. That strong conviction survives in spite of having been put to the severest test many times.
In the bloodletting of 1963targeting Batutsi, Fr Ubaridi lost his father. In 1973 as a seminarian in Nyundo, he narrowly escaped death but lost relatives and friends. Still, on being ordained priest in exile in Burundi, he decided to come back and fan the flames of that love that he was convinced existed in Rwandans.
That was in 1974 and Fr Ubaridi has been parish priest for Nyamasheke since. Save, of course, for the hiatus of 1994.
When the troubles of 1994 started, Fr Ubaridi sheltered all Batutsi of the area in his parish. He requested for protection from the area prefet, who reluctantly offered him three gendarmes.
With those, Fr Ubaridi mobilised every able-bodied man and they fought off interehamwe’s repeated attacks, even managing to kill seven of them.
However, a bigger contingent of incensed interahamwe accused him of possessing a gun and called in others so that together they could kill him.
When he saw that the prefet did not come with intention to intervene but rather seemed ready to abandon him, Fr Ubaridi ran away and went into hiding, later managing to sneak into exile. He had spread that love, however, and many in his flock saved lives.
One of them, Aloys Uwemeyimana, is responsible for helping 117 besieged Batutsi to escape.
Back from exile, Fr Ubaridi took up his parish again and continues to spread that infectious love in the cause of reconciliation, in his parish and in other parishes around the country. He says: “In 1994 we lost the battle but we have not lost the war.” Indeed, the proof of the possibility of reconciliation is showing in many intriguing ways.
Take the small example of Yankurije Donata. Donata always sat pensively in a corner of the church whenever Fr Ubaridi was preaching.
As she listened to the sermons, what nagged at her mind was the plight of her neighbour at home, an elderly widow who had no single person to help her.
Donata knew that she was connected to what caused the plight of that old lady. Her father was in prison for being part of the group of génocidaires who killed the husband of the widow.
This old lady was alone and helpless because Donata’s father and other génocidaires had wiped out all her family and relatives.
That feeling of guilt gnawed at her heart and young Donata could not live with it. After classes, she would go to the old lady’s house and help with the chores like cooking, cleaning, fetching water, firewood et al.
That felt better but still it was not fulfilling enough for Donata, as the lady was left alone in the evening.
When she finished school, she offered to stay with the lady. The lady was grateful and accepted, even encouraging her to take part of the food to her father in prison, on her regular visits.
Donata became a daughter in the home, unaware of the fact that the lady had any surviving offspring.
Then a son of the old lady came. The son, who is in the army, could not believe his eyes, seeing the daughter of the man who killed his father being treated like one in the family. When he confronted the mother, she explained how the girl cared about her more than anybody else and how she seemed to mean well.
The apparent hostility of the son did not daunt Donata and she continued to work in the house, even helping to wash the son’s clothes. On subsequent visits, the son began to appreciate the seriousness with which she had taken on her self-given duty.
The mother could not have been happier, to the amazement of the son.
As he continued to visit, the son began to wonder: who mattered in their family? It could not be her mother’s fellow survivors because they were too busy picking up their own lives to attend to the problems of the old mama. The girl, however, had dedicated her young life to the welfare of a lady who was supposed to be her enemy.
The girl was innocent as an individual and did not owe an apology to the family. So, there was no reason to reject such a loving heart. In fact, with time when her father was released, she brought him to the family to apologise. It was his turn to see that what he believed to be impossible could be reality. The family forgave him.
Today, the families are in-laws! Father Ubaridi is part of a network of small individuals who are quietly working in concert with government’s small programmes to cause a miracle to happen.
‘Umuganda’, ‘ubudehe’, ‘hehe nyakatsi’, ‘girinka’, ‘itorero’, ‘zigama’, ‘amashyirahamwe’, ‘ingando’, ‘gacaca’, ‘umushyikirano’, ‘umwiherero’, ‘mitweri’, the litany. They may sound strange but they are small homemade solutions together set to birth a united, prosperous Rwanda!