Cry for Rwanda

08.31.14

After the Genocide, Rwanda’s Widows Aging Alone

In a country with no tradition of institutional care for the elderly, Rwanda’s widows and survivors of the 1994 mass killings seek dignity at the end of their lives.

SAVE, Rwanda — In the remote hillside village of Save in eucalyptus-covered southern Rwanda, Emmaculate Niwemfite sits on a straw mat near the entry to her two-room apartment. Her door stands ajar, halving the room with a beam of light. She sits in the shadows.

Niwemfite lives by herself, surrounded by stark walls taped with photos of Christian iconography. It’s been 20 years since her husband, children and entire family were killed in the genocide. Afterwards, unable to live in proximity to their killers, she moved into this village. “I’m just alone,” she now laments.

Niwemfite is 65, suffers from asthma, and is unable to walk much due to problems with her legs sustained in a bad beating during the war. She says she spends two weeks a month in a hospital. She has no family left, so the daughters of her friends come to help with household chores and she earns an income from renting another home she owns. But she fears solitude as she ages.

“Imagine I die in my bed,” she says. “No one will know.”

In a culture with no tradition of institutional elder care, Rwanda’s large families have watched over their aging parents since time immemorial. But during the genocide, at least 800,000 Rwandans were killed—300,000 of them children. As many as one-sixth of the genocide survivors were widowed. Today a Rwandan woman can expect to live until 65, but many of these women, who’ve spent years displaying unimaginable self-sufficiency, have been left without children to care for them as they grow old.

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Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

Niwemfite is a member of a widows collective called Duhozanye, a group that assembled after the genocide to reconstruct a decimated society. They began by building themselves houses and planting seeds in their fields. Two decades later, the organization’s leaders have focused their efforts on constructing a senior care center to assist women like Niwemfite, aging genocide survivors whose families were wiped out in the genocide, leaving no children, or just one, to care for them in old age.

The effort is led by Daphrose Mukarutamu, a statuesque figure in a red embroidered dress and short, sweeping hairdo. Mukarutamu is the founder and president of Duhozanye—which means, “Let us console one another”—and as she moves through the villages where Duhozanye’s members are spread, her formidable presence draws a trail of chattery women.

Mukarutamu clutches both hands to her heart when asked about those early days during and after the killing. She had left on a 2.5-hour trip for the capital of Kigali the night before war broke out. It was the last time she’d see her family. When she returned, a neighbor told her that her husband and eight of her 11 children had been killed.

“Imagine I die in my bed. No one will know.”

“At that time we thought that even death doesn’t like us,” Mukarutamu says of the survivors.

Barely five months later, Mukarutamu gathered fellow widows to start Duhozanye.

Some 330 of them attended that first meeting and became the group’s founders. For the first two gatherings they wept together. At the third, they stopped crying and started rebuilding. They broke off into groups of a dozen and got to work collecting bricks and salvageable materials from the rubble. From donated seeds, they slowly built back the agriculture they once lived off, and later incorporated sewing and craft cooperatives. “We were living schools,” she remembers.

Today, Duhozanye has 3,000 members scattered over the southern district of Gisagara, organized into small local chapters of two or three dozen women and a central body of leaders from the various villages.

But now, at 67, Mukarutamu worries about herself and her fellow widows. After two decades of hardship and self-sufficiency, another factor beyond their control is creeping up on Duhozanye’s leadership: old age. The organization’s founding members range from late 50s to early 90s. “We’re getting old and will be beneficiaries instead of partners,” she says.

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Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

Outside the organization’s headquarters, a couple dozen young adults are lounging on the lawn. These are orphans that were taken in by the organization 20 years ago. The majority are now in school elsewhere but return each year during commemoration. After the genocide, more than a hundred orphans were collected and cared for by the women, many of whom had lost most, if not all, of their own children.

Mukarutamu quotes a Rwandan adage about an old, slow rabbit being fed by its children, and then posites the question: “But what if it has none?”

Down the street, Langwida Kanyange sits on the floor of her friend Emmaculate Niwemfite’s small home. She’s younger than the others at 48, but her skin hugs a face so gaunt she looks much older. Kanyange has AIDS, a byproduct of a gang rape she suffered during the genocide. After the bloodshed in Rwanda, an estimated 70 percent of the 200,000 women raped were infected with HIV. Her son was also a result of the attack; he’s now a 20-year-old student finishing secondary school.

She too spends the days at home alone, weakened by the medication she takes. It’s freely provided by the government, but she has trouble getting special food that doesn’t make her ill. “When I don’t have enough to eat it reminds me of the genocide,” she says.

If the members of Duhozanye realize their goal to build a senior center, Kanyange, and Niwemfite would be the first to reap its rewards.

“I will immediately agree because I will be with others—I’d agree the same day, then the group looking after me would be free to do whatever they want,” Niwemfite says.

The center Mukarutamu imagines will provide a safe environment for the elderly, and offer hospice care for those at the end of their days or survivors from the hard-to-reach areas in need of constant medical attention. She foresees a project manager, nurses, social workers, and guards, along with an on-call doctor and legal advisor. Another widows cooperative, Avega, is also currently attempting to open a retirement home for widows of the genocide.

“It’s a moral obligation to take care of elderly people in our society, but now these elderly people are expecting to be taken care of by children, and their children are no longer there because they were killed in genocide,” says Claire Umubyeyi, a Rwandan survivor and 17-year veteran employee of the United Nations. “You’re denied this security of aging in dignity because you don’t have family to take care of you.”

After a generation wiped out by genocide, an age gap has left the country’s elderly population overly reliant on its small labor force. In Rwanda, an unbalanced ratio leaves 83 of every 100 citizens dependent on the leftover 17 for survival.

In Save, the single road running through town is quieter than usual, as most of the residents have gathered at an outdoor genocide remembrance meeting, held in every Rwandan village for a few hours per day during the national week of mourning in April. During these gatherings, survivors and perpetrators alike share their stories—many horrendous—to preserve the national memory and educate future generations.

Even though it was only two decades ago, most of Rwanda’s citizens don’t remember the time of war—61 percent of the population is under the age of 24. But memories of the killing don’t come to light only in yearly national ceremonies. On the drive into the single-road village, a mass grave is said to hold the remains of 3,000 people. Just before commemoration week, the province had uncovered another body and was preparing it for burial.

It will also offer a program for survivors to relay their memories into shards of history as part of a belated healing process many were never offered. “When those people die its like a library is gone,” Umubyeyi says. She was particularly upset when an 84-year-old woman named Mary whom she had grown fond of passed away last year in her rural home with no one there. “We could have benefited off her wisdom.” This center, Umubyeyi says, will “make sure these survivors who have suffered so much get some sort of care and die in peace.”

Duhozanye has the land and the need, but lacks the $300,000 it will cost to build and sustain. In the hopes of raising the money, the organization is writing up grant proposals to send across the world. In January, Umubyeyi and Mukarutamu hope to bring a group of volunteers and potential investors to see Duhozanye’s headquarters and meet its members.

In a dim backroom of a mud hut in Save, 82-year-old Teresa Nyirabutunda sits propped upright in bed by her daughter, Francine. Francine says caring for her mother, who can’t process solid food or move by herself, is similar to having a baby. She was the only survivor of the genocide among her siblings and now worries about caring for both her mother and herself because she, too, is aging. “I live by miracles you can’t believe,” she says.

But even for children struggling to care for elderly parents on their own want to abide by tradition. Francine is adamant that her frail mother stays in her house—“She is my mom. Even if she’s very sick I will look after her until she dies. I wouldn’t let them take her,” she says of having her mother live in the center. She admits, though, that she could desperately use the health care services.

In a country where an almost paradisical landscape somehow hosted the fastest genocide of the 20th century, hurdling such seemingly unconquerable challenges is now woven into the national identity, and Duhozanye’s leaders are confident that battle-worn women like Teresa will have their hardships alleviated before the end.

“Rwanda is a country of a thousand hills, a thousand problems, and a thousand solutions,” Umubyeyi says.

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from Rwanda.