August 8, 1994 started like any other day for Alphonsine Mukeshimana. She woke up and went about her usual work. At only 16 years of age, life was just starting for the teenage girl. But what started as a normal day ended tragically leaving her incapacitated for life.
Mukeshimana lost both her legs after she was hit by a landmine near her home in Rwatabirwa village, Nyarugenge district. It’s a day she recalls with a lot of agony and asking her about the circumstances of the fateful day gives her teary eyes, writes Doreen Umutesi.
“It happened really fast. I don’t want to be reminded of the pain...... I underwent several phases of treatments and was home most of the time,” Mukeshimana struggles to explain the tragedy that changed her life, shortly after she had just completed her primary education and was looking forward to joining secondary school in pursuit of her dream to become a nurse.
“As a child, I always wanted to be a nurse but that dream was shattered after the tragedy. So I decided to learn other skills. One day I saw someone braiding hair, after observing for some time, I felt I could do it too, since the tragedy had atleast left me with my two hands and the brain. Today I plait hair for a living,” says the wheel chair-confined 36-year-old Mukeshimana.
Mukeshimana says that on a good day she can serve three customers and at the end of the month she makes Rwf80, 000 that many able bodied people don’t make because they don’t want to work.
“I earn about Rwf80, 000 which pays my rent and takes care of my aging parents who stay upcountry,” she says. She says the challenge that she encounters at times is when clients don’t keep time because it affects her planning schedule.
When I visited Mukeshimana at her two-roomed home in Nyamirambo, I was humbled by the humility and confidence with which she carries herself. The home also doubles as her work station. While I expected to find a woman buried in self pity and lamenting how life is unfair, it was the opposite. She was full of life and went about her work like there is nothing missing on her body.
“I wake up at 6:00am, I clean the house, shower and prepare a meal and by the time the first customer comes in, I’m ready to braid them, especially if their choice of hair style will take a whole day to complete. I usually ask my neighbours to go shopping for food for me but I do it myself if there is someone to push me around. House chores are like a sport for me, if I don’t do them myself, I will gain too much weight and become obese. Doing house chores is my way of exercising,” she says.
Asked how she was able to overcome self pity after the accident, she says: “I lost my legs but I didn’t lose my hands and brain. I had to find a way to take care of myself and my family. I aimed at having a bright future and I didn’t let my misfortune take that away from me.”
Mukeshimana is the first born in a family of four. She is a daughter to Janvier Munyangondo and Drocella Nyiramajoro of Rwatabirwa village, Nyarugenge.
From her meagre earnings, Mukeshimana still supports her parents and siblings. But she had to take a decision to leave her parents’ home for this to happen.
“I decided to leave home because there is no way I would get clients to braid at my parent’s home because it’s a remote village. If I decide to go back home, most of my clients would not come there. The other reason was that I did not want to grow old at my parent’s home. Many people are surprised about why I stay alone and how I’m able do house chores. But my neighbours have been so good to me because they fetch water for me and help me in so many other ways,” she says.
Mukeshimana was recently awarded by Women of Will Africa for her role in women empowerment in Rwanda.
“I was so happy about the award and it has motivated me more. I will always work hard. My wish is to see young Rwandan women achieve their dreams and not let any barriers limit them,” Mukeshimana says.
Women of Will Africa organised the 1st Edition of Women Festival which was held at Serena Hotel on March 16, 2014 to celebrate women and young girls that have been able to empower themselves 20 years after the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.
The festival was organised by WoW-Africa in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion and the National Women Council.
WoW-Africa is a local non-governmental organisation that aims at promoting the spirit of entrepreneurship, self confidence and socio-economic emancipation with the aim of ensuring better welfare for women.
Mukeshimana’s advice to women
As a motivational speaker, Mukeshimana advises young Rwandan women to always believe in themselves in whatever they do.
“When I talk to young women, I discover they have one particular problem- which is focusing on their boyfriends or the men they will marry as the only source of living a good life. This is a very bad and dangerous trait. They spend more time looking for the man who will perfect their life in terms of economic empowerment and they don’t work or look for a way to earn a living,” Mukeshimana reveals
She says working hard is a value any young woman should wish to possess because it’s fruitful and guarantees one a brighter future. Trusting in one’s ability to make it big in life despite the small steps they are taking is something I advise young Rwandan women to put into consideration in all they do. I don’t earn a lot but I know at some point in life I will achieve incredible things because I’m working hard and I don’t know if anyone would take that away from me.”
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE SAY ABOUT HER
Zuzu Zoulaika Mwenedata, Director of Women Of Will Africa (Wow-Africa)
“She is an extraordinary young woman who is self reliant despite her situation. We discovered that some young women turned out to become beggars yet they are not handicapped in any way. She is also a motivational speaker. When we have seminars regarding women empowerment she gives motivational talks. She has empowered many young Rwandans through motivational talk shows, showing them that despite being handicapped, she has not lost hope for a bright future. It’s not surprising she was awarded for her role in women empowerment during the festival.”
Francine Uwiragiye, Mukeshimana’s work colleague
“I have known Mukeshimana for several years. I usually work for her. Mukeshimana charges customers Rwf15, 000 which includes buying hair extensions. When I complete the day’s job, she removes the money for the hair extension and we share the balance equally. In the braiding business, she is the only person I know who does that. Usually other hair braiders will not give you the same amount of money they get since the client is theirs.”
“I sometimes arrive a little late for work but it’s amazing to find that she has already prepared what we would have for lunch. She is an organised person who doesn’t have any kind of self pity which is something so motivating.”
Evangelique Niwenyina, a customer and in charge of social welfare in Umuhoza Village, Nyamirambo Sector
“I got to know Mukeshimana years back through a friend. I had gone to a salon where the hairdresser plaited me so badly that the hair extensions looked horrible. That friend of mine advised me to go to Mukeshimana’s home so that she could re-do it and from that day, no one else touches my hair.”
She adds that even when Mukeshimana has other clients she is working on, she will patiently wait.
“She is good at giving advice. When you talk to her about life when she is braiding your hair, you discover that she always looks at the brighter side of everything and that she has a vision in life despite her situation. She is hard working and great at keeping time.”