Grace Rwanda featured in the North Shore News

July 6, 2011  |  Articles


Making change in Rwanda
By Manisha Krishnan, North Shore News June 8, 2011

When bad things happen, the natural human instinct is to try to forget about them.

But sometimes, it can be crucial to remember, so that history doesn’t repeat itself. In the case of the Rwandan Genocide, the latter is true.

The Grace Rwanda Society, a B.C.-based non-profit organization that started up last spring, is dedicated to raising awareness about the genocide and supporting the educational system in Rwanda.

“The main reason we’re focusing on education is from the experience of our founders who are both genocide survivors. They strongly believe that part of the reason this happened was because you had a lot of illiteracy and a lot of uneducated young boys who were easily influenced to pick up a machete and go kill people just because they were told to do that,” says Franco Bordignon, a North Vancouver resident and president of Grace Rwanda.

The Rwandan Genocide happened in 1994, as a result of ethnic tensions between the minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu, who were in power at the time. The killings, which are estimated to have reached between 800,000 and 1 million, came after the 1990 civil war between the two groups. Through the use of propaganda, the Hutu-led government encouraged the elimination of Tutsis and pro-peace Hutus, who were said to be dangerous and untrustworthy.

It was an ordeal that changed the lives of Grace Rwanda founders Elizabeth Mujawamaliya Johnson, 43, and Marie Louise Kaligirwa, 44, who both currently reside in Langley, B.C.

Johnson and Kaligirwa were childhood friends who went to the same high school in the small village of Rwinkwavu. After graduation, they had no contact with each other and when the turmoil began, both assumed the other was dead.

In reality, Johnson’s father, two brothers, sister and seven of her nieces and nephews had been killed. But by sheer luck she and her daughter managed to survive, escaping a church filled with thousands of civilians who were almost all murdered.

“In my mind I was dead, because I was counting every second and every minute waiting for a machete, a club or (if lucky), a bullet. I was not expecting to survive,” says Johnson.

Kaligirwa, on the other hand, had married a Hutu and it ended up being her ticket to safety, as he paid off whomever he could to protect her. However, her two brothers and two sisters were all killed and her parents were already dead.

In the late ’90s, both women made their way to Canada, unbeknownst to each other. It wasn’t until Kaligirwa visited Vancouver while she was still living in Calgary that she found out about Johnson. Eventually the two reconnected and Kaligirwa moved to B.C.

“We are now like sisters because we shared the pain. Now we are sharing the joy of going back in Rwanda and help even helping those who killed our own family members,” says Johnson.

When Bordignon first met Johnson and Kaligirwa and heard their stories first-hand, he was deeply moved.

After spending some time together, the three of them began making moves towards forming Grace Rwanda. Last spring they gained charitable status and visited a small school in Rwinkwavu, which they’re committed to helping. So far, the money they’ve raised has gone towards creating an additional eight classrooms at the school.

They’re now working on building toilets — there are currently only eight to serve 1,400 kids — and constructing a new kitchen and library.

“Most of the children, the only meal they have is at the school . . . and that’s why some parents actually send their kids to school because they don’t have to worry about feeding them that day,” says Bordignon, explaining the current kitchen is a tiny, temporary shelter.

Despite all of the hardships that they face, Johnson said that there is still hope in Rwanda.

“We need to move from the wrong committed by our people and prove that we can rebuild our country. Reconciliation is the only remedy to a peaceful mind,” she says.

The society has held several events to reach out to the community, and recently St. Thomas Aquinas High School in North Vancouver donated more than $12,000 to the cause.

Next up, Grace Rwanda is hosting an awareness night featuring the Frontline documentary Ghosts of Rwanda, which examines how the Western world stood by as the massacre took place. Johnson and Kaligirwa will also share their moving stories of survival. The event takes place Sunday, June 12, 7 p.m. at North Lonsdale United Church, 3380 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver. Admission is free but donations are welcome. For more information go to www.gracerwanda.org.

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