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The Secret Behind Her Smile

Never Again

April 7th marks the beginning of 100 days of commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. This is a special time to remember more than a million people that were murdered because of the way they were created.  It is a time to grieve but also to unite and rebuild a new generation and a new Rwanda that has a vision of moving forward towards development. The Genocide against the Tutsi was a horrible tragedy no one wishes to see happen again, so we commit ourselves to never let it happen again in our country or elsewhere and say ‘Genocide never again’. 

While it is often hard to look back on the tragic events in our past, I see only hope when I look around at the Rwanda of today. All around me I see people and communities that have been reborn and made new. And in my work at World Relief, I am happy to get to witness and share so many of these stories of hope. Stories of women like Tuyisenge Valerie, a 43-year-old wife and mother to three kids. 

Valerie’s Story

I first met Valerie while visiting Nyamasheke Church Empowerment Zone. Her genuine and beautiful smile caught my attention. Even though I already knew her as one of our project beneficiaries and have heard a lot about how strong and influential she is in the community, I always wanted to know more about the person behind her smile and courage.  I asked her if she could share her story and she said “yes” with her beautiful smile. 

“My life story always changes people’s hearts so if you want to share it with the world I am happy with it, as long as it will help others and improve the way they envision their future. This is my calling and passion, to touch as many people’s lives as possible with my story,” she said. 

Valerie is a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, when her parents and all 12 of her siblings were murdered. During this horrific tragedy, she was also sexually assaulted. In the wake of these events, Valerie was left feeling helpless and lonely. She faced extreme trauma and was put under medication to ease her pain and tension. She always felt lonely, even though she was being taken care of by the government through the 1994 Genocide Survival Fund, which provides access to money to support her and takes care of her medical needs. 

Despite her trauma, Valerie is friendly and loves supporting others in need. She used to provide counsel to and advocate for those who were hurting, especially other survivors. This prompted her to be elected as the head of an organization named ‘IBUKA’, which connects various groups who aid survivors of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi in her village. This leadership also paved the way for her to join The National Women Council which is a group responsible for advocacy, capacity building and social mobilization through women empowerment projects, and which fights against domestic violence and advances women’s rights.

In August 1996, Valerie got married to Celestin Kitabonindege. A year later they were blessed with their firstborn and later had four other children together. Unfortunately, the second and fifth born died when they were still infants. After losing their last born in 2006, Celestin wanted to have more children, yet Valerie did not. Celestin became angry and abusive, and eventually, in 2016 he left her for another woman, with whom he had three more children.

Valerie thought that her life was over. She had depended so much on Celestin due to the fact that he had loved her after all she went through after the genocide. And so she became desperate again, for she was left with 3 kids and in a small house. Their life was not easy and she depended only on the money that the survival fund could provide for her. 

The Tuzamurane Project

Valerie’s suffering continued until 2019, when World Relief, in partnership with Starbucks, started the Women’s Empowerment, or Tuzamurane project. The project aims to “empower women to thrive through safe relationships, healthy homes, clean drinking water and economic opportunity,” and provides different lessons to help women sustain themselves towards development. 

Behavior change for transformation, in addition to hygiene and sanitation, women and child rights, and economic development lessons were among lessons provided. 

“The behavior change lesson that pictured a tree among all, saved my life. I realized that I had false beliefs as roots that made my life continue to be miserable. I was focusing only on what had happened to me which made me not have hope for a better future. But the more we went through these lessons, the more my mindset changed. And I started thinking differently looking ahead for a better future,” said Valerie. 

Through the Tuzamurane project, Valerie met other women who had been through similar circumstances as she had. She gained friends through social women’s gatherings and began to find the support she needed to heal and speak up for herself.  She also joined a savings group, which helped her grow her finances. Eventually, she was able to build two houses, one for her family and another one for rent to earn income. In addition to that, she opened a clothing shop which she still runs today. Valerie says that her life has been completely transformed by the community and the programs she found through Tuzamurane. 

“I got my life back ever since World Relief came into my life through the project Tuzamurane,” she said. “I became open and able to face my fears and problems.” 

Hope & Healing

Today, Valerie has reached a point in her healing that she now helps other women who have suffered domestic violence and/or other tragedies that have made them suffer. She helps them overcome their pain, fight for their rights and rebuild their lives through economic and career development. She is so grateful for what she acquired which made her draw near to God and thanked Him for having brought World Relief into her area. 

Celestin also decided to apologize to Valerie and she forgave him. They got back together last year and are joining hands in building their life together in harmony. 

As we remember the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Valerie is ready to help others by giving them hope for a brighter future. As a leader in her sector and village, she will be reaching out to those who face trauma during this time of mourning and seek to uplift them.   

When I asked her about the secret behind her smile she said “due to these trainings I received from World Relief, I became new, I learned as well that smiling with happiness is like food and medicine to my soul.” She went on by saying that “people fight and hate each other for nothing! If only they could be aware of how they were loved and created by the same God for a purpose they would unlock their blessings!” Her smile now is genuine and meaningful. It does not hide pain and sorrow anymore for she is healed.

A pioneer in the documentation space, Emily Kankindi is the communications and documentation unit coordinator at World Relief in Rwanda. She started with World Relief in 2005 and has been growing through different stages while pursuing a career in creative communications with a passion to tell the story of impact. Driven by a mission to serve the most vulnerable, Emily is best known for inspiring others to care and serve the needy by using all possible means of communication to promote and call forth positive ramifications of WR interventions in all aspects of life. Her educational background is marketing and travel operations.

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