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How This Genocide Survivor Works to Empower Rwandan Women

By Edward Rwema

Safi Mukundwa knows what it means to be young, fearful, and desperate.

Mukundwa was just 8 years old when she hid among bloodied bodies, emerging as the only one in her family to survive the 1994 genocide that swept through Rwanda, including her Western Province hometown of Kibuye.

She remembers the man who killed her mother and brother.

“He was the one who cut my legs with a machete,” says Mukundwa, whose injuries have required six surgeries. She remembers the kind doctor at the local hospital who treated her wounds and concealed her during the ethnic killing spree mostly targeting Tutsis.

And she remembers praying throughout that extended ordeal.

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“I told God that if I can get out of this place alive, I will dedicate my life to helping others,” she said.

Now 33, Mukundwa has made good on that commitment through Safi Life, the nonprofit organisation that they inspired.

Its mission is to educate, empower and advance young Rwandan women.

Safi Life 6.jpgSafi Mukundwa turned the pain of losing her family in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 into a tool to empower girls and women with education and business skills. Image supplied by Safi Life.

Safi Life was formally launched in 2012, growing out of a friendship between its namesake and Devon Ogden.

Both women were university students when Ogden, an American from California, visited Rwanda in the summer of 2007 and heard Mukundwa’s testimony at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

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They met over lunch, and Ogden eventually asked how she might help the young Rwandan.

Mukundwa recalls “asking her to help me help others” by providing university scholarships to genocide survivors.

Ogden set up a US-based foundation to support Rwandan girls and women, with Mukundwa as Safi Life’s local director. Its first effort was to provide scholarships for genocide survivors.

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“We’ve got two girls in school now and already have put 12 through university,” Ogden says in a recent phone call from Los Angeles, where she works as an actress.

“And they’re all staying in their country to advance Rwanda.”

The foundation’s Facebook page brims with photos of university graduates such as Florence, who used a scholarship to study mining engineering.

She landed a “dream job” with a company dealing in minerals, according to a March post.

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In early 2018, Safi Life launched an outreach project to aid young women, especially those who are single and pregnant or with young children.

It opened a centre in the Kigali suburb of Karembure, welcoming dozens to learn knitting, tailoring and other income-producing skills.

The project, called Ndashoboye, a Kinyarwanda word that means “I am capable,” also provides mentoring on how to run a business. A second centre opened in January in Ndera, a few kilometers from the capital city’s downtown.

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“We support teen mothers by providing them with basic skills to make them self-reliant and able to take care of their newborns” and lead dignified lives, Mukundwa says. “…We also offer counselling to them. Most of them come to us with significant levels of stress that could, in turn, lead to mental problems.”

Pregnancy outside marriage is taboo in this central African country of 12.3 million. Poor girls are most vulnerable, with pregnancy and childbirth usually prompting them to drop out of school.

“Safi had met so many girls who were young, with unplanned pregnancies, and were shunned by their families. A couple of them were on the streets, working as prostitutes,” Ogden says.

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At the Ndera center, Teonilla Mujawamariya says her parents kicked her out when she became pregnant at 17.

Safi Life 2.jpgSafi Life was formally launched in 2012, growing out of a friendship between its namesake and Devon Ogden. Image supplied by Safi Life.

“I almost thought of ending the pregnancy,” she said, “but I was fearful of losing both my life and the child’s.”

(Until last August, Rwanda permitted abortion only with a court’s approval. Now it allows the procedure, with a doctor’s permission, in cases of rape, incest, or health risk to the woman or fetus. In April, President Paul Kagame pardoned 367 people jailed for having or participating in abortion.)

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Safi Life 10.jpgNdashoboye is a Kinyarwanda word that means “I am capable”. The programme provides mentoring on how to run a business. Image supplied by Safi Life.

Mujawamariya credits the Ndashoboye programme with giving her hope and help. Now 20, she’s enrolled in a one-year knitting programme and anticipates earning enough money to support herself and her toddler son.

Trainees make items such as shirts, dresses, hats, bags and children’s clothing, all sold locally.

Mothers often bring their youngsters, who rest or play nearby. Mukundwa says she hopes Safi Life one day will be able to provide child care.

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The programme had 50 graduates last year, and “a couple of our scholarship recipients are now volunteering” to work with Ndashoboye trainees, Ogden says.

Safi Life members also volunteer for community projects, such as planting trees, she adds. “We have the pay-it-forward motto. We get the girls together to help the community. Giving: That’s what Safi’s vision always has been,” Ogden said.

The organisation’s namesake says her experiences allow her to understand Safi Life participants’ hardships — and potential.

An orphan, she worked through college, married, had two children and recently earned a master’s degree in business. She wants to start an enterprise that matches university graduates with jobs.

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“One thing that gives me satisfaction is the fact that my life history has enabled me to help change other people’s lives,” Mukundwa says. “Sometimes, I think there is a reason I didn’t die, and that could have been God’s plan to use me.”

Header image supplied by Safi Life.