‘The president is dead’ the blood chilling announcement cracked through the waves of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines station in Kigali, Rwanda, in April 1994.
An aeroplane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi had just been shot down as it descended in Kigali.
The next day, a wave of bloody violence erupted across Rwanda.
The world watched as organised gangs and militia tore through the country.
As the bloodthirsty gangs advanced towards Kanombe, Nirere Marie Josee grabbed her two daughters – two-year-old Furaha and Bahati, who was only an infant, and fled towards Gisenyi in Rwanda.
She joined a group of people fleeing from the skirmishes and they crossed into Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Bahati Ernestine Hategekimana clutched onto her mother’s back, wailing from pangs of hunger. Her sister Furaha was no better -- she was famished, her frail bones were heavy and feet sore. Nirere was worn out, but that was the least of her worries. They needed to get to safety.
Nirere’s career as a secretary was cut short and she did not know the fate of her husband Hategekimana Eraste, an automotive engineer. He had been at work when catastrophe struck the heart of Kigali.
The group of refugees reached Goma after several brutal days and nights. They sought refuge in Mugunga Refugee Camp. In the midst of turmoil, exhaustion and dehydration, cholera struck. The epidemic devastated refugees in Mugunga. In an article titled “Cholera's Spread Raises Fear Of Toll of 40,000 Rwandans”, the New York Times of July 24, 1994 reported:
“Like a serial killer, cholera struck another refugee camp today, and the doctors are now saying that the epidemic may be even more deadly than they had originally feared. In the last three days, relief workers estimate 7,000 Rwandese refugees have died, and doctors fear the death toll could reach 40,000.”
Nirere recalls seeing a truck filled with bodies from the camp headed to mass graves where they would be buried in trenches. The only doctor at the camp was overwhelmed. The death toll burgeoned. Hunger was rife. And in the midst of these chaos, nondescript militia lurked in the darkness.
Bahati’s father, having narrowly escaped a machete attack, would later find his way to Mugunga. The family was whole again and their younger brother was born in the camp in 1996. Shortly afterwards, the family travelled to Kenya through Uganda.
A gruelling journey through cruel terrains brought the family to Nairobi. A family that had been uprooted from a land they once called home was now a shadow amongst strangers. They traced some Rwandese relatives living in Zambezi, Kiambu County.
They lived in a crammed single room in Zambezi. Food was difficult to come by.
Later, Bahati earned a sponsorship and enrolled into St. Kizito, a Rwandese school in Dagoretti which instructed learners in French and used a different curriculum -- primary school was from Class One to Six; lower secondary school from Form One to Form Three; and Upper Secondary School from Form Four to Form Six.
Bahati excelled in her academics, despite the difficulties at home.
“I was the best pupil all through,” she reveals with a sparkle in her eyes.
In 2008, when in Form Three at St. Kizito, she realised she would not be able to sit for the Kenyan national secondary school exams as her French system curriculum could not be assimilated into the Kenyan system. Holding back her tears, she decided to enroll in Form One at Riruta Secondary School (8-4-4 system) in 2009.
At Riruta, she still shone academically and in Form Three she bagged a National Science Congress Award.
“Our project was an air thermometer made of recycled tubes, coloured water and a light bulb. A convenient innovation applicable in chicken rearing,” she explains.
In 2012 she sat for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam, which she passed, earning her a spot at Moi University. She was one of the beneficiaries of the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) scholarship. She is studying Nursing at Moi University.
In 2016, she won the Many Languages One World International Essay Contest.
Bahati, 24, is a certified medical peace worker and Amani Peace Fellow. She divides her time between studies and community work, spanning environmental, peace and advocacy, and women and children empowerment.
She mentors and supports camp-based secondary school students through the project ‘Beyond Sciences Initiative’. She is a member of Medical Students for Social Responsibility among other initiatives.
In June 2018, Bahati advocated for the socio-economic inclusion of refugees in Kenya during a function to mark the World Refugee Day 2018.
The theme of the day was “Include all, empower all”. The celebration focused on the importance of including and embracing the nearly half a million refugees in Kenya.
“It starts with educating young refugees so that they can have a quality future despite their present circumstances, and training refugees on ways they can fend for themselves such as teaching women to sew and empowering them to start businesses. Refugee camps are potential markets to the host counties if tapped,” she says.
Bahati urges the youth to: “Rise up and take up the mantle of responsibility. Do not allow yourselves to be ignorant. Do not be numb to the suffering of humanity. Arise and fight for peace, justice and equal rights for all.”
And she hopes that all refugees will pick themselves up, not despair and will be able to have fulfilling lives.
“You are not forgotten. Your suffering is visible, but there is hope for a better day. Remember you are strong; see how far you have come, see the much you have overcome. Your scars are beautiful because they are a permanent insignia of your strength, [and] your will to survive.”
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