8 February 2013

Rwanda: Re-Building Lives in a Disabled Community

Disability is not inability; is probably an overused cliché, but one must consider why that is. It means that those who were once regarded as society's misfits have joined the race that is the world in development. This is the case with Rugende, a Village situated in Kabuga past Kabuga High School populated by the disabled.

We are welcomed by a soft breeze blowing off the rooftops of the seemingly deserted houses aligned on a hill. The tarmac which should have stopped on the highway extends to the footpaths that interconnect the houses leading into the villagers' lives and livelihoods.

15 cottages look out at the greenery in the horizon holding 15 families with their own story to tell. The residents of this place are warm, entertaining and intelligent. Most of them had fought for the Ugandan National Resistance Army ( NRA) now UPDF, before joining the RPF, so they are fluent in Luganda and English as well as Swahili.

We are met by Rtd Lieutenant Joseph Sabena, the village head, fondly referred to by the villagers as "Afande" He is seated at the kiosk, which oversees the buildings, in a sage manner. He is looking off into the vast horizon as if haunted by memories of the past. As we approach, I am expecting him to stand up as per Rwandan custom and when he remains seated; I am shocked to realise that what I originally took for a chair was actually a wheel-chair.

"I was injured in the liberation struggle", he tells us. Born in the 1960's lieutenant Sabena knew he was going to be a soldier even before he finished high school. He started attending meetings at school and when he completed his diploma, he ran off to join the NRA in their liberation struggle against the Obote regime.

He was injured in 1993 as RPF rebels fought the genocidal regime. Stray bullets hit him in the legs and as he stayed back in the camp, his wounds festered in the humid trenches they had made their home.

Once RPF had gotten a stronghold in Kigali, Lt.Sabena was transferred to the Kigali Military Hospital where he says, he lay for a long time, waiting for the agony of his life to end.

Rwabutogo Faustin narrates that he was a street preacher in Kampala. When he heard of the chance to go home by the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), he abandoned his trade and joined the fight to go home.

During the fight he was shot in the head and left for dead. Even after the war, no one could help him; he was paralyzed halfway on the left side which is the side of the head he was shot.

The government in March 2009, through the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (RDRC) however, provided him alongside his fellow injured comrades a new lease of life. It gave them land in Kabuga, alongside constructed houses and a 50,000 Rwandan Francs monthly stipend to better their lives, full medical insurance and free transport to any destination they had in mind.

"Any casulty would have been satisfied at what the government had done for us. We are grateful but we couldn't sit around all day, thanking the government, bored and lethargic. For us, who were used to a fast paced life, sitting around was not an option." Sabena confesses. He belongs to category 1 handicap. RDRC Public Relations director Grace Mugabe explains, PWDs in this category are completely unable to fend for themselves. This includes those in wheelchairs, the limbless and those with psycho- social trauma.

Just a month later, the boredom got the better of Lt Sabena and his counterparts; they held a small meeting and deliberated on how best they could spend the money they got from the government.

They had noticed that many of their counterparts had trouble with the sum they got.

"Before a week was out some of them had used up all the money, and they were spoiling the Village's reputation by borrowing money which they could not pay back from their more able neighbors.

"We did not want people to say, casualties are taking advantage of their status as special citizens. Rather, we wanted to give back to the country that had virtually changed our lives," Lt.Sabena narrates as he gestures animatedly.

A council composed of the original 12 convened and decided to form an association and out of the 12, 10 agreed to contribute 20,000frw out of their subsistence salary, and a 1000frw monthly. This association had a mission, to develop their village into a model for other villages.

Starting out on a paltry initial lump sum of 160,000frw, the level 1 handicap casualties have built a Kiosk and own close to 1,050 chickens in three poultry houses.

"We do not of course owe it all to our hard work alone. Many people over the years have contributed. We are thankful, but one must pose the question, would they have done all that they have for us if we had been sitting on our haunches waiting for help? No! Through hard work, management and transparency, we have impressed people, thus their lending hand to our cause."

"President Paul Kagame and our Afande[Sabena] have led us to greater achievements than was believed could be! Just as they did a long time ago before the Enemy shot us down and hurt us, so are they now," Rwabutogo speaks in a coherent manner.

The passion in his voice as he narrates the intricacies of poultry farming is inspiring.

Genocide survivor and ex-soldier Niyonzima Aimable has psycho social trauma and partial paralysis, but he is able to tell us with moist eyes, "Who are we really? We should have been forgotten in trenches, left for dead. But now the highway comes to my door. I am in a cooperative with Afande; we have cows, a grinding mill, a poultry farm and a roof above our heads. We have not been forgotten like some soldiers elsewhere in the world," he says.

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