As Rwanda marks the 24th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi, Jean de Dieu Niyigena mourns the loss of his entire family who were killed along with over a million others during a period of 100 days in 1994.
Jean de Dieu was born in 1992, although he doesn’t know the specific date and month. He survived the genocide in a miraculous way.
“I lived with my auntie, Leoncie Nakure, my six cousins and six other orphaned children. She told me about my parents, siblings and how I survived the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. [Before the genocide], my father sold clothes while my mum owned a small shop nearby,” Jean de Dieu solemnly narrates.
Leoncie had sent for Jean de Dieu’s mother, as she was a potential target. But his mother didn’t think she was in danger. Jean de Dieu left his home with his cousin who Leoncie had sent. The cousin left the other siblings behind, saying “Stay with those two, at least I will try to save this one.”
That same night, Jean de Dieu’s mother was killed and his father disappeared with deep machete cuts on his head.
“To this day, no one knows whether he died or where he was buried, and it always bothers me. In 2012, I was able to give my mother and elder brothers a proper burial,” Jean de Dieu adds.
According to IBUKA, a high-profile lobby group with a keen interest in addressing justice for genocide survivors, more than six men, women and children were murdered every minute of every hour of every day during the genocide. These brutal killings went on for more than three months.
“I was too young to understand what was going on. But Leoncie told me we survived the genocide by hiding at Saint Andre Nyamirambo Church. After the genocide, we went back to live with my uncle and my cousins who had sought refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Jean de Dieu reveals.
After the genocide, the family took on more orphans and there were 15 people living in a three-bedroom house at the time.
“It was a very tough time for all of us. We were grieving and whenever I remember those times, I can’t understand how Uncle Gabriel was able to provide for us,” Jean de Dieu expresses.
Jean de Dieu was registered into RW0521 Presbyterian Church of Rwanda (EPR) Kiyovu before being transferred to RW0549 Presbyterian Church of Rwanda (EPR) Kamuhoza.
“My aunt forced me to go Sunday School, but I was always rebellious, and I didn’t like to associate with other children. I was bitter with life as I didn’t have my parents. Joining a Compassion project came with its share of challenges. I wanted to always be alone but I [had to] meet children I didn’t know. My only excitement was the fact that it was located at Kigali city center and I was given new clothes and some money to buy snacks,” Jean de Dieu excitedly narrates.
While at the project, Jean de Dieu kept to himself and always did the opposite of what he was told to do by the project coordinator or implementers.
“I always hung out with children that lived on the streets and I felt I needed to emulate their rebellious behaviour. Rules didn’t apply in my world,” Jean de Dieu exclaims.
Jean de Dieu began to turn his life around when his drunken Uncle Gabriel almost hit him with a beer bottle.
“I was in Primary 5 (Grade 5) and my aunt had gone to church when the neighbours came home to tell us that uncle was too drunk to leave the bar. I went to pick him up but I was not strong enough, so I asked people to help me carry him as he could hardly walk. When we reached home, he threw a bottle and it narrowly missed me. From then on, he beat me for no reason until my aunt decided to take me to live with one of my cousins who had his own place,” Jean de Dieu explains.
“I realized I was behaving badly towards everyone who had loved me, especially my aunt. I vowed never to become rebellious again so that I wouldn’t turn out to be bitter like my uncle. I can proudly say the project staff helped me a lot to become who I am today,” Jean de Dieu expresses.
Joining secondary school was one of Jean de Dieu’s happiest times of his life because it was a boarding school so he didn’t worry about what to eat and he made friends who were also orphans of the genocide. He attended Ecole Primaire de Kimisagara before joining Ecole Secondaire Mutunda.
“There was a time during school holidays in primary school when we didn’t have food for two days and my eldest cousin had gone upcountry. I was so hungry that I decided to go and sit in the middle of the road so that a car would hit me to save my cousin one mouth to feed. Fortunately, I waited for the cars and they didn’t come,” says Jean de Dieu.
At Ecole Secondaire Mutunda, Jean de Dieu joined the Association of Student Survivors of Genocide (AERG) and luckily, along with his cousins, they were given a house where they live to date.
When he was about to complete high school, the project staff at RW0549 Kamuhoza made a proposal for him and he was offered 400,000Rwf (464.85USD) to start a business. Jean de Dieu also was a beneficiary of Compassion International’s Leadership Development Program (LDP) that enabled him to access university education.
The investment allowed Jean De Dieu to buy and sell leather belts, which helped feed him and his cousins. The shop has grown and in addition to his upkeep money, he’s been able to support his cousins through university. They now currently have jobs.
From his experience, Jean encourages young people at his church as the coordinator at Presbyterian Church of Rwanda Kanombe Parish.
“I love serving people as I remember God’s love for me, thanks to the Bible teaching I received from the project and Sunday school, and later in Leadership Development Program. I was protected from joining harmful groups and I’m happy about the person I am today,” Jean de Dieu shares.
Today, Jean de Dieu is an Accountant at Imbuto Foundation, which was started by the First Lady Jeannette Kagame with a mission to advocate for community outreach, mentorship, fostering partnerships and unleashing young talent.
“Working with Imbuto Foundation is a great opportunity to be part of the growth and development of underprivileged young people to help discover their potential. I was once like these young people and Compassion International, with the partnership with RW0549 Kamuhoza, gave the support and the will to excel in life. I wish to thank my sponsor Maggie Sielaff for how God used her to support me even when they had never met me and today I turned out great. I always include them in my prayers,” Jean de Dieu appreciates.
Celestin Muyumbano, one of Jean de Dieu’s cousins who was able to attend university, attests to Jean de Dieu’s selflessness.
“I’m far older that Jean de Dieu but he is the first person who offered to pay for a four-year degree in Tours and Travel Management in Kabale University in Uganda. When I completed high school I struggled to get money for university, but when Jean de Dieu got the LDP support he didn’t hesitate to sacrifice his upkeep money to pay for my tuition. It felt unbelievable but he fulfilled the commitment he made to me,” Celestin attests. Celestine further revealed that Jean de Dieu always goes out of his way to help anyone who is in need.
“When I asked Jean de Dieu how I can repay him for the support he provided me with, he told me to pass on the blessing to someone else who will need support to get them through school. He has offered help to many people and we are grateful for his kind and selfless heart,” Celestin concludes.