If you met Norbert Haguma on the streets of Beijing, you would mistake him for a student or businessman trying out his luck in the world’s second biggest economy.
But there is more than meets the eye. His is a story about life and death. It’s a about staring death in the eye and living to tell the story.
Haguma is a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. At just 11 years of age, he witnessed one of the most horrific episodes in human history. Separated from his family on the very first day of the Genocide, Haguma had not only his life to fight for but also that of his five-year-old brother, Gilbert Habarugaba, whom he describes as ‘a cute little boy.’
Haguma narrates how their ordeal began with a visit to a family friend, Gerard Semana in the City suburb of Karuruma on April 6, 1994. What was meant to be a playful moment with Semana’s three sons turned into a nightmare.
Events that unfolded that evening meant that he and his brother were cut off from their family in Kigali’s upscale residential area in Kiyovu.
It could only get worse. Semana and his wife were killed the next day. This was the beginning of the struggle for survival.
From one hideout to another often with the aid of some neighbours, Haguma, his brother and their three friends tried to evade the killers.
“At that moment my thoughts were with my friends who had lost their parents. Their loss was more painful for me than the possibility of finding my own parents,” he says.
Haguma recalls that it was a hopeless situation. Birds could not sing, babies couldn’t cry. Every day I prayed, I prayed so hard,” he adds.
Rescued by the RPA
After two weeks in hiding, the advancing troops of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) came to their rescue.
Together with a group of about 30, they were evacuated to Byumba, about 60 kilometres from Kigali. Haguma says the journey, on foot, took its toll on the young, especially his young brother.
“As we walked that day, I realised that my brother had diarrhoea. I refused to continue much to the chagrin of other people in the group. I even received a slap from someone,” Haguma says.
He adds that his brother regained strength to continue with the journey after receiving treatment from an RPA officer who Haguma fondly calls ‘Afande’.
‘Joining’ the army
Haguma’s only desire was to join the rebel forces as a child soldier (Kadogo), despite his tender age and stature. The RPA was reluctant to take him on and he was forced to use his brother as a bargaining chip.
“One day, Afande asked about my brother. He asked me if he could adopt him. I agreed but on condition that he takes me as a Kadogo. He accepted,” Haguma says.
Haguma didn’t go to the battlefield. He lived with the Afande until Kigali fell in July.
Finding his family
After Kigali was secured, Haguma began searching for his family. He got several leads but many were futile.
One turned out positive though. His father, Silas Rugaba was spotted at his home in Kiyovu. He had ealier been thought to have been killed by the marauding Interahamwe militia and was almost unknowingly buried alive by his own family.
Going to China
Fast forward. 20 years after the Genocide, Haguma flies the Rwandan flag high in China. He is an accomplished entrepreneur, educationist and head of the biggest African association in Asia.
China was among the first foreign countries to recognise the new government in Kigali after the Genocide. In August 1994, Rugaba was appointed Ambassador to China. The family relocated in March 1995.
Haguma recalls that Beijing City was not as developed as it is today. There were few skyscrapers, public transport was archaic, and there were more bicycles than cars in the city. At one time, he demanded to know why his father had agreed to come to China. The answer still echoes in his mind today.
“He said to me; the 19th century belonged to Europe, the 20th to America, the 21st will be for China. I didn’t believe him then but today, I appreciate his foresight,” he says.
After his father’s tour of duty, Haguma returned to China in 2002 to study computer science, in Madarin.
In 2006, the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation was held in Beijing. Haguma was one of the few African translators at the event. This was his first break on Chinese soil. He made valuable contacts.
“Chinese were surprised to see an African speaking their language fluently,” he recalls.
After graduating, Haguma worked at the Rwanda Embassy in Beijing. In 2009, he shifted focus to China-Africa trade, setting up a trading company; Afrorient. He earned commissions from trading with businessmen in Africa.
Later he ventured into education. He opened an English language school about 100 kilometres out of Beijing, in Xianghe town. It was a learning experience about doing business in China.
“I realised that the Chinese worked closely with one another. When a Chinese introduced you to someone, they would work with you the same way they worked with the person who introduced you,” he says.
Haguma later headed the African department of an investment company that operates in Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Rwanda and Burundi.
Most of the projects didn’t succeed due to lack of human resource in these countries, specifically high level managers who could work with their Chinese counterparts. He saw this as an opportunity.
He embarked on a project to help African students acquire education in China. This would make them more appealing to companies wishing to hire China–educated Africans.
Today, Haguma is the CEO of Kiziga Limited (kiziga.com), a company that helps young people to apply for university admissions, get internship and jobs in China. Kiziga works with 186 Chinese universities.
He is the co-founder of Young African Professionals and Students (YAPS), the largest African association in Asia.
He is also the co-founder of Vingu Holdings (vingu.co), a cloud computing company manufacturing hardware in China and selling cloud solutions in Africa.
He also doubles as the China representative of African Leadership Network (ALN), which will have its annual event this November in Kigali.
“I have failed several times but I never give up,” says the 31-year-old.