Friday, November 20, 2009

Jeanne Mwiliriza

So much happens here at Tubahumurize and in general that it is easy to forget that Jeanne Mwiliriza is the sole reason this association exists. It is time you knew more about this amazing woman.

Some of you may know that the reason Jeanne started this organization was because a dear friend of hers, constrained to a wheelchair, had called, afraid that her life was in danger from her husband. Jeanne talked with her and reassured her that it was just idle threats again. They planned to meet the next day. But by then, her friend had been murdered. Very shaken and filled with guilt, she suffered for a few months. But when she made some kind of peace with herself, she also made a decision to start a centre for traumatized women who had lived or still lived with violence. She wanted to do something so that her friend’s death would not be repeated.

But perhaps that is leaping forward somewhat. Jeanne had been married to a successful doctor, Joseph Butara. They had three children: Eloge, Valentin and Sandrine. Prior to the genocide, they had lived in Kigali, but when a new ruling Hutu party was elected, Tutsi families such as their own were no longer welcome in Kigali. They moved around quite a bit searching for a safe place to settle.

In April, at the time of the genocide, her children were ten, eight and five. During this time, the family’s story takes two paths. One results in the murder of Joseph Butera and the escape of the two boys to a refugee camp with their Aunt Charlotte where they lived for about seven months. The other results in Jeanne’s miraculous survival and that of her young daughter.

Over the course of the genocide, Jeanne was taken at gunpoint seven times to be killed, but each time (except the last) there was an argument over whether she was a Tutsi at all. (At this point in Rwanda, identity cards had become a moot point: it was all about madness and murder and how people looked.) Jeanne is not a tall woman, and Tutsi women tend to be tall; thus, the soldiers argued over her “identity.” Each of these six times she was spared and was released.

The seventh time, several soldiers came into her home determined to kill her. The leader was especially intent. He ordered Jeanne to get into the wardrobe in her bedroom so he could kill her. She refused. Her lack of fear really annoyed him and he was hell bent on her death. So instead of the wardrobe, he told her to get in the closet. Again she refused. Finally, he flung open the door to the closet and swept aside the hanging clothes. His abrupt actions caused a photograph of Jeanne and her husband on their wedding day to fall from the top shelf to the floor in front of him. Startled, he looked at the photo and paled.

He asked Jeanne if the man in the picture was her husband. When she replied that it was, he said that he could not kill her because her husband had operated on and saved his own badly mangled leg when he was a young boy. Other doctors had wanted to cut the leg off, but Joseph had wanted to heal his leg because he was still so young. “Without your husband,” he said, “I would not have been able to walk in here to kill you.” Thus, he reasoned, he could not kill her.

He left with all the other soldiers, telling them and everyone else that she was to be left alone as though dead. For the remainder of the genocide, Jeanne and Sandrine were untouched and unmolested.

Rwanda is not that big and people have connections everywhere. Through these, Jeanne finally found out that her husband had been killed, as well as her parents and two sisters, but there was no word of her two boys. She was sure that they too were dead along with her sister Charlotte. She cried all the tears she had, dried them and turned the page onto a new life as a widow and mother to young Sandrine. She also took in children who had become orphans overnight, and whose parents had been Jeanne’s friends and neighbours. Eventually, she “adopted” five orphaned children.

Only in December did Jeanne discover that her boys were alive and well with her younger sister, Charlotte. She was overjoyed to welcome them home into the family. However, Jeanne was never able to find her husband’s body, though she looked frantically for many long months. His bones were never recovered or identified, and to this day, her greatest sorrow is to have been unable to lay him to rest in the ground with a proper burial.

Jeanne is a beautiful and charismatic woman of fifty now. I can only imagine her in her thirties, even after three children. She was, no doubt, still a beauty, filled with intelligence and sparkling charm, despite her many sorrows. She met her second husband, Aaron, a few years later through the church where he was pastor. His own genocide story is of utter loss: his wife, his siblings, his parents and all seven of his children were killed. I cannot conceive of the loss and emptiness he must have felt and, no doubt, still feels from time to time.

Jeanne and Aaron married and continued to raise Jeanne’s expanding family. Memories of the genocide haunted them both, and Jeanne began meeting with other women to share stories and hardships and to comfort one another. They healed slowly, in the knowledge that they were not alone and that their stories mattered.

After the death of her friend, after Jeanne had determined that she would open a centre for traumatized women who were once or were still victims of violence, she began taking the steps she needed to take to be able to do a good job: a sociology degree, courses in trauma counselling, youth training, first aid, health education, Grameen banking and micro-credit loans. Jeanne has founded several associations of women as well, but since opening its doors in 2006, Jeanne has worked full-time for Tubahumurize. She works without a salary to this day and her own home is used for the centre, thus forgoing the rental income she would otherwise have recieved.

One thing Jeanne is really passionate about is that the future of this country depends on letting go of ethnic divisions. Thus, the mandate of the association is specifically inclusive of all women, no matter their religion, ethnic background or economic status. Everyone is welcome. That does not always sit well with some women, but in order to build something new, something old has to be left behind. Jeanne is a devout Christian actually, but is not narrow minded. Indeed, I believe Jeanne has captured one of the great strengths of Christianity, perhaps its best, and that is a belief in the equality of all people.

I witnessed her listening to a young woman recently, a sewing student, who was relating some information to her about her family situation. Jeanne was totally present for this young woman, listening attentively, gazing at her with her warm eyes, asking questions, saying reassuring things. It was a joy to behold. Jeanne, filled with boundless energy and enthusiasm, filled with ideas and plans and dreams and more ideas, sitting so quietly in the presence of this young woman. This is an example of how she works. A whirlwind sometimes, not always organized or on point, but always, always has her priorities straight when it comes to the women. She is there for them.

Jeanne certainly cannot run this place alone, nor should she, but she has many qualities that assure this organization’s success. I am certain that through faith and determination, she will make sure this happens. One dream at a time.

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