Orphaned at 2, Twahirwa soldiers on to see siblings through school

Charlotte Twahirwa, 22, from Kanombe Sector, in Kicukiro District, has lived under severe hardship since she was a toddler.
Caritas Nyiragakara (L) and Twahirwa during the interview. The Sunday Times/John Mbanda
Caritas Nyiragakara (L) and Twahirwa during the interview. The Sunday Times/John Mbanda

Charlotte Twahirwa, 22, from Kanombe Sector, in Kicukiro District, has lived under severe hardship since she was a toddler.

Rather than break her spirit, the dire situations she has endured since she was only two years old, instead helped prepare her to take on heavier responsibilities at an early age.

Today, she believes that for any child to be able to take cares of younger siblings, they only needs to be responsible and believe that ‘you can.’ 

Twahirwa’s father was murdered during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, when she was only two years-old. At that time, the only word could pronounce then was ‘daddy.’

No need to tell that she does not know how her father looked like.

In 1997 tragedy struck again when Twahirwa’s mother died. This meant that the whole burden of taking care of her brother (then only four), and sister who was only three, fell squarely on her shoulders.

“I used to imagine that my father would one day come back to help us achieve what our mother could not. But I ended up coming to terms with the fact that both parents were all deceased and we had to survive on our own,” said the student of Tumba College of Technology.

For 13 years, Twahirwa and her siblings depended on the goodwill of their godmother from Kicukiro who had promised to provide them with food and shelter, and some second hand clothes that her own children did not need.

They had to get used to the scarcity. In Primary school, they used to try and find a classmate to join for lunch so as be strong enough to return to class for afternoon lessons. Often, there would be no supper.

“I believe in the Mother of Jesus; my siblings used to ask me for as little as Rwf500, but I could only manage to give them Rwf300 and tell them to ask the Virgin Marry to give more,” she said.

At that time, Twahirwa used to clean homes for neighbours and escorting them to the market to carry whatever they would have bought, in exchange, she would get some food to take home.


Twahirwa’s grandmother, Caritas Nyiragakara, 83, who also survived the Genocide, was at that time living in Huye District in Southern Province, but Twahirwa did not know about her. In 2000, the old woman joined her grandchildren in Kigali, but her coming did nothing to improve the situation.

“She is another child to take care of, because she cannot do any work. It always hurt me to see her hungry. She also felt bad for not being able to feed us,” she said.

“When there is no food, we make sure she does not see us because it adds on her sufferings,” Twahirwa says of her grandmother who lost all her 9 children during the Genocide

In 2006, Twahirwa and her young sister went to secondary school. The grandmother had to stay alone at home, because the little brother in primary school also joined a classmate whose parents accepted to accommodate him.

She attended Byimana Girls High school, which to her was a miracle because she never spent a coin on it, rather, it was ‘a source of income’ for the whole family.

“Some well-wishers used to provide me with some basics like a mattress, blankets, a few plates and this used to serve us at home,” she said.

The biggest challenge was accommodation. They lived in a one-room house rented by APEKA High School in Kanombe Sector after their old house was damaged. The school had promised to rebuild their house but for two years, it had not happened.

Often Twahirwa reminds her siblings that they have to live within their means because they have no one else to rely on. She however reminds them that the future keeps many surprises for them if they keep behaving well.

As of now, to earn a living for the family, she does all kinds of work, from laundry services to cleaning houses and cooking for neighbours.

“When I help in cooking services, I can earn Rwf4, 000. And there is another advantages—I also get some food to take home.”

Despite the hardships, Twahirwa, passed her national exams and she is now in her second year at Tumba College of Technology. She is studying Electricity with bigger ambitions.