The Independent (Kampala)

28 January 2013

Uganda: Beyond Black and White

Life is better known as a game and those who play it better always manage to score and live for another day. Valentine Irakoze, an albino student in her fourth and final year at Rwanda's School of Finance and Banking (SFB) is one of those already scoring high in life despite her disability.

She is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who has hustled her way to University with hardly any family member to support her. She now has a new family after marrying one, Theoneste Maniragaba, two months ago and they have just welcomed their first born.

Born in 1989 in a rural setting in Huye district, South of Rwanda, Irakoze's parents brought her up in a loving environment until her mother died in 1993 and her father a year later, in the 1994 genocide. The relatives she knew did not survive the killings either, leaving her all alone.

With a skin color different from other children, she hardly made any friends or met any generous people to help her until MAP, a nonprofit organisation came by to help her.

She was later transferred to Global Fund's support at barely eight years and the organisation provided for her tuition and school needs in primary and secondary school. She had to provide for any other of her needs.

"Given the situation that we were in after the genocide without even what to eat and who to put up with, someone coming up to enrolling you in school and support you up to university was God's grace. They helped me focus on pursing a brighter future," says Irakoze.

Irakoze was lucky to go to some of the traditional good schools in Rwanda like G.S Notre Dame Byimana, where she graduated from high school and excelled with the maximum points of 60 out of 60 in Advanced level national exams. She joined SFB in 2010 on government bursary and now majors in Accountancy.

And, she still performs well though she is affected by sometimes missing eexams scheduled for Saturdays before evening time just like most other Seventh day Adventist conservative believers in the school who would rather risk failure of any kind than defy Sabbath.

Irakoze also devotes time over week days to attend school fellowship of her faith which she has led before and served before as an usher, choir member, and intercessor.

She will start her two-month internship on January 28 and then start preparing for her graduation, due in June.

After school, she dreams of joining the corporate world briefly before launching her dream enterprises in agro-processing - an industry that she has some experience in.

"I very much wish to grow into a successful business woman and live my dream life to become example to any albinos who never believed in making it like other normal people and parents who deny them equal chance with others."

It will not be the first time Irakoze tried to inspire the fight for rights of people with disability.

She and some friends- some of them albinos, last year on April 21 launched the organisation "Black and White" to advocate for rights of albinos in Rwanda.

She is the nationwide president of the organisation that was launched after incidences of albinos being killed allegedly for witchcraft purposes mainly in the neighboring countries like Tanzania.

"Most albinos suffer inferiority complex too because of their skin color and "Black and White" implements programs to help albinos overcome such complexes to pursue better lives, just it has been done in gender, girl child education... and others," Irakoze explains.

Much as she is thankful to the Rwandan society which she says is not as hostile to albinos as most other African societies, there is still need for change in stereotypes of people who segregate them.

"They give us many sorts of insensitive nicknames and throw scornful words always. Some can't go to social gatherings, school or try to work because of that factor," she says.

Irakoze has learned to live a normal life and socialise with other people, an attitude that has won her many friends. It is her friends and schoolmates who contributed to make her wedding a success, two months ago.

Janvier Hakorimana, an SFB student who attended the wedding says, "Most students participated in organizing the wedding- some participated in the reception and made arrangements like decoration and gifts without knowledge of either the bride or the bridegroom as a sort of surprise."

Hakorilama says that Students also represented the family of the girl and provided vehicles for a convoy for the wedding, plus fund rising sessions done in class.

The school administration also provided one of the school's halls for the ceremony and the reception was hosted in the school's gardens, both venues which always have busy schedules for hosting weddings.

Her husband, Maniragaba, who is a chef at the school's general canteen, calls her wife an "amazing companion".

"My friends and workmates thought that it was a kind of joke when they started knowing about our love and later about the wedding. Some of my family members too didn't like the decision but I did not care because I knew that she was as normal as any other girl," he says.

"She is a caring wife" he says, "She is smarter than most girls I have met and she has great dreams."

Irakoze spends time reading online materials and books of history, a hobby which she says has helped her know a lot. Her poor sight, however, has always limited her passion for reading since she was a toddler because of lack of the melanin element in her body- like most albinos.

She once got special glasses back from a foreign optician in secondary school but the doctor left the country by the time she needed to change the lenses.

She plans to get medication from outside Rwanda first thing when she raises enough money because her sight keeps reducing.

Even with such challenges though, Irakoze is thankful to God and the people who have helped her chase her dreams. She calls on people living with disabilities to be contented with their lives and instead of blaming anyone, try to excel in anything they can do to compensate for what they lack.

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