He survived the 1994 Rwanda Genocide that claimed most of his family members and fled to Kenya through Tanzania. John Makongo lived on the streets after his step-father abandoned him. Joseph Oindo spoke to a man who has gone through hard times and is now a pastor and philanthropist
When and where were you born?
I was born in 1983 in Nyarugenge district. I was only nine years old by the time the Genocide started in 1994. I was in primary school at the time. I used to play with other children in school and back at home but even at that age, I could notice that some people hated us.
They used to call us all manner of names. When playing my favorite game of football, there was a lot of belligerence from some kids we were playing with, but I can’t recall their ethnic backgrounds because I was still young to categorize people along ethnic lines.
Prior to the events of 1994, did you know that Genocide would happen?
I didn’t know that there would be massive killings. My parents restrained us from moving around though I didn’t know why. But later the radio started calling us Inyenzi (cockroaches) and we realised that things were not good.
When the genocide exploded, where did it find you and how did you manage to escape from Rwanda?
We were just at home. They came to us with machetes, pangas and all manner of crude weapons. It was time to run away. My mother took my older brother and me and searched for a place to hide us from the killers. Although I was very young at that time, I can still remember seeing so many dead bodies lying on every street we passed. My mother carried me in her arms as we walked and walked. We were so tired. We would come to a place where my mother had to clamp her hands on our mouths so that we could not make any noise that would alert the killers about our presence.
My mother confided to me that we were escaping with a group of people through forests towards Tanzania. We passed through wilderness where wild animals attacked us. Many people lost their lives in the forests. Others could take other people’s young kids whose parents died to feed to wild animals to enable them escape. It was between life and death and my mother vowed never to leave her kids.
How did you end up in Kenya?
First we reached safe haven in Tanzania, moved to Isibania border through which we entered Kenya. We moved to Kericho where my mother got a Kalenjin man and re-married since my father and all members of my family were killed during the genocide. They went on to have three more children.
Were you one happy family after your mother had decided to chart a new life?
Life was not a bed of roses at that time. But we had no option but to stay with our stepfather, just for food and roof over our heads. Then one day, he just walked away from our lives and disappeared without a trace. We never found out where he went and his family kept us in the dark, though they seemed to know since we were told to vacate the land and find somewhere to live. I decided to run away and became a street boy when I saw how my mother and siblings were being oppressed.
To which town did you end up?
Eldoret. Life was very hard at first since this was something I was doing for the first time in my life, and I was still young. I had no choice but to adapt myself to street life, with its vicissitudes of hunger, cold, begging, scavenging for food. Life was generally a desperate daily struggle for survival. For two years, l survived in the streets and as time went by, I adapted myself to it. Even though this was not a good place, I identified with fellow street kids because all of them had escaped from one oppression or the other. This was now my new family—we were glued together by our pasts.
While in the streets did you ever think of returning home after Genocide?
No! No! No! Not at all. The events of 1994 stayed in my mind. If there’s one thing the perpetrators managed to achieve successfully, it was to alienate some of us from our country, from our fellow Rwandans. I developed an emotional distance with my country. It also affected the way I related with people. I withdrew into my own cocoon. I stopped playing with my contemporaries. I never even trusted security officers, since I had seen them back in Rwanda at the frontline, smothering people they were supposed to protect.
How did you leave street life?
One day while living on the streets, a German missionary came to preach to us. I first ignored him and his message, but cynically told him to come back and preach to us the next day. He returned the following day and preached to us again. That’s when a miracle happened.
He invited us to go with him and four of us accepted. He took us back to school and even though I was old now, I started from standard one, though the teachers allowed me to skip some classes by virtue of my age. I later enrolled in a bible college. By this time, I had taken Jesus Christ as my personal savior.
When did you become a pastor and when did you start your projects of rescuing street children?
I became a pastor in 2006 after my theological graduation the previous year and in 2010. I was ordained as a pastor of Bride of Christ Church. I established Edcare Foundation in December 2007 when Kenya was going through election violence with only 5 children I had rescued. They were very hungry and hopeless. Their parents had been slashed to death. I reflected with what I had suffered before and gave them sanctuary. Now I take care of 50 orphans and over 40 vulnerable children by giving them food, medication, a roof over their heads and future through education.
What motivated you to start helping the unfortunate members of society?
My past. I had escaped from brutal massacre from my country. I come to Kenya but ends up in the streets because of family problems. I survive in the streets with my fellow street kids and learn that it’s not their wish to be there. They come from dysfunctional families. God opens my eyes and shower me with his blessings. In this situation, the best thing I can do is to establish an organization that helps to feed and educate street children, just like the German missionary did with me. Give them hope and help them realize that God has purpose for their lives.
What can you tell those who still harbor hatred in their hearts? Have you reconciled with your past?
We should make peace with our own hearts. We shouldn’t revenge but forgive those who hurt us in the past. That’s how we can move into the future, without the baggage of the past trying to bring us down anytime we want to make a step forward. I have forgiven those who wiped away all my family members, leaving me alone with my mother and brother to live in a foreign country. But I have found my victory here. God has revealed Himself through me that He’s merciful and caring.