Interview with Marie Goretti Mukakalisa Marsillac, President and founder of Centre Ubuntu, Rwanda
By Alice Caubriere - a Safeworld Student Writers Assignment
Marie Goretti Mukakalisa Marsillac is a Rwandan woman living in France. Her life has been fragmented in different places because of the events that occurred in her country.
“I left Rwanda twice. First in 1994, I escaped the genocide and went to Goma in Congo. I stayed there until 1996 before going back to Rwanda. In 2002, I left Rwanda for a second time due to personal insecurity. I went to Belgium where I obtained an asylum right. Leaving my home country weren’t genuine choices because I had to escape the war and security issues. When I was in Belgium, I met a French man, and together we moved to France. It was the only time I made a conscious decision to move somewhere.“
Marie created the Centre Ubuntu in 2009, an NGO based in a mountainous region called Bwira in Western Rwanda. Born in Bwira, she spent the first twelve years of her life there. Today, Centre Ubuntu is based in the house of her parents, the home of her childhood.
Due to Bwira’s remote location, Centre Ubuntu is the only NGO that provides support to the people in the region, and in particular, the women and children. It reaches out to people individually who are facing many different needs, and providing much needed support. The Centre is a meeting place for people, and it also sponsors children to enable them to have an education. It aims to help enrich people’s lives.
Alice Caubriere asked Marie Goretti Mukakalisa Marsillac about her work.
“Nowadays, I can consider moving back to Rwanda, which was not possible before. Although I still have a deep bond with Rwanda, now I’m used to living away from my country. To be honest, I don’t really feel the need to go back there, I am happy where I am. Besides, it is better for the people of Bwira if I stay in France, where I can be an ambassador and help raise awareness on their plight.“
“For most people – after a life changing event, they would try to rebuild their lives to make it more meaningful. After the genocide in 1994, some were attracted by politics and wanted to become involved it that, but in my case, creating Centre Ubuntu was the only way to move-on from the war. It helped me on a personal level, and I was able to find meaning in life while reaching out to others who were in need. The Centre Ubuntu is a sort of personal culmination.
When I arrived in France, I met many people who were full of ideas, and who were able to help find solutions for the needs of people in Bwira. France gave me the opportunity to discuss my point of view regarding the situation in Rwanda. Some people rallied behind me and supported my project, which gave me hope. I strongly believe that together, we can help solve some of the problems in the world, and I like to capture people’s attention and mobilize them into action. We all come from the same humanity, and the world is a sort of big village; our knowledge should cross borders.
Bwira is like my umbilical cord. It is where I was born and I will always be linked to to it. This is the place that gave me the inspiration to do something right with my life. This is also the reason why I chose to create the Centre there.“
I see the Centre as a success story because the seeds have already been sown, and eventually they will grow into trees. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, but I know it will thrive and succeed one day.
The sponsored children in Bwira will bring great hope to the region. Now, they can have a better future, with good prospects, and hopefully be able to secure good jobs, like in the nursing or teaching sectors. We enable children to think about improving their situations, and this is the big step they have to take for a better future.
The gathering and meetings of the women, is another success story. Since the beginning of the Centre, women would meet every week.
A lady told us once that her life revolved around work, and when she came back from work, she was exhausted. Now, she has the opportunity to fellowship with other women through the Centre, and although she is still exhausted from work, she looks forward to the weekly meetings. The meetings give her a sense of purpose and enriches her life. In the past, she didn’t take the time to think about herself and her needs, but now, thanks to these meetings, she has the opportunity to meet her neighbours and share pleasant moments.”
“The genocide was also present in Bwira, but because of its geographical location, the people never had help in dealing with post-war psychological issues, unlike rest of the country. They had to manage to live and deal with their sorrows and memories of the war alone. Nowadays, a lot of teenagers are considered ‘crazy’, but they are just miserable and don’t know how to deal with their lives, and the effects of the genocide.
In the cities, they are many organisations that are providing help and support to victims, but Bwira is not easily accessible, and there are no NGOs based there. Nobody has thought about going into such a remote region, to reach out to the people who are also in need.
Bwira is mountainous, with a population of about 23,000, dispersed all over within the region. It is also not very well connected to the rest of Rwanda. There are no roads, and during heavy rain, it is almost impossible to travel there. Bwira is not only cut-off from the world, but also from Rwanda. There is no electricity and no running water. Very few people have access to a phone, and because of the lack of electricity, it is hardly possible to use it, as well.
Soil infertility, climate disturbance, and the saturation of the grounds during the heavy rain season in which the compost is easily leached away makes agriculture unsustainable.“
“Ethnicity is a taboo subject, and nobody will claim to be a Tutsi or a Hutu because it is prohibited by the state to talk about ethnicity. Now, people are more focused on deeper day-to-day problems. The genocide is so not talked about. For instance, when we meet a child without any parent, we all know how they have died.
Two years ago, I saw a lady I knew when I was a child. This woman used to talk to everyone and laugh all the time. When I saw her two years ago she wasn’t the same person anymore. Something on her face prevented her from smiling, her muscles were fixed, she looked really sad and old. One of her daughters was a childhood friend of mine, so I asked the lady about her, she replied, 'So you don’t know that they killed her.' I was shocked and felt very sorry for her, so I asked her about her other sons and daughters, and she answered that all of them had died during the genocide.
Another woman I knew from my childhood used to live in a big house. When I met her few years ago, her house had been destroyed, so she had to live in a tiny house with nothing inside except a mat. In Rwanda, when people can’t afford to buy a coffin, they are buried in a mat, and this mat was for her death. She was preparing her death. When I went back to Rwanda a year later, she had already died.
One of the children we are sponsoring is an orphan, her parents died during the genocide. She had six older sisters and when her parents died, her oldest sister was 17 years old. The older siblings had to care of the younger ones. In Rwanda, a woman’s destiny is to get married and have children, and this explains why the older sister left home. When we went to Rwanda few years later, four of the sisters had babies less than one year- old, and one was pregnant. They shared about what their parents had left behind, and the youngest had the privilege of keeping the family house, but she is now alone. She has to take care of herself. After school she has to grow vegetables, look for woods to make fire, fetch water and prepare meals for herself.
Her story is not unique. We know of two other children who have also lost their parents during the genocide, and are left alone to care for themselves too. Most people are affected by the genocide. And this is why people don’t talk about it.”
“After the war, there is a lack of gathering places where children can come together to share their experiences. The Centre provides new marks [grades] in school for children whom we mainly work with. Our purpose is to help make their lives better, more joyful, and more fulfilled.
In order to help children, we established a system of sponsoring those who can’t afford tuition fees. Nonetheless, in a country such as Rwanda, it is difficult to select those who are unable to ‘afford’, because almost all of them are destitute, and are in need of financial support.
During the period of 2003-2010, no child had passed the primary school level because children were needed to help their parents farm their crops. The teaching level is inadequate, and there are also very few materials available to teach. Education a priority because it is vital, and we believe it serves as a starting point towards development.
The other reason that made me focus on children is because my mother was once a teacher. I’ve always been very proud of her achievements. The Centre allows me to continue with the good work she has contributed towards education. When I was young, I witnessed the lack of education in my neighbours, who didn’t see and realise the importance of it, whereas education was important in my family because my parents were teachers.
Every year, during the enrollment period, my mother would knock on our neighbours’ doors, and ask them to enroll their children who were ready to start formal education. Often, these parents were reluctant because they needed their children to help in the fields. This experience has made me realise how right my mother was in focusing in education.“
I am convinced that the level of development is directly linked to education. If we don’t show people how to proceed and accompany them in their work, they are unable to undertake anything because they didn’t receive a strong education. For example, we are working with women who create handcrafted objects; even if they have real talent and skills, they would never think about making a living from their creations. Somehow, it shows that the lack of education prevents them from developing a business.
Nonetheless, I know of a success story from Bwira. There is a woman called Marguerite and she manufactures Scooby Doo bags. She might be the only woman from Bwira who had the opportunity to develop her business, and it worked beautifully. She is a success story, and because of her, I know that other women from Bwira are also able start a business, so I’m hoping the women will be inspired by her and be successful too.
We also introduced a system of exchange based on the local trading schemes that already exists in Western countries (exchanging services and products without handling money but by attributing a social value to the exchanged commodity.)"
“Agriculture is one of the main problems. When there is flooding, the soil erodes, washing away good terrain necessary for agriculture. It is increasingly hard to grow vegetables, and the people have experienced starvation. Now, their main diet consists of only sweet potatoes because it is the only vegetable they are able to grow.
When there is good weather, they are able to grow haricot, but they have to eat it every single day.
Their lives are dependent on the weather and seasons, and this is not good for health. They are experiencing food and health insecurity because the weather is unpredictable and agriculture is unsustainable. When I was young, people used to have fallow farmlands, but now with the increase of the population and the ground being saturated with heavy rainfall, they do not have these farmlands to rely on anymore.”
Violence can be an issue due to the trauma some teenagers have experienced during the war. They are without help and are left feeling angry and confused, but no one talks about this issue, and no one has attempted to reach-out to them.
We have spoken to some women who have experienced domestic violence. They are confident that the authorities are on their side. If they are hurt by their husbands, they can file for charges, and the husbands will be punished. However, the level of violence is ‘normal’ in Bwira.“
“Women are obviously victims of climate change. One of the priorities for people is to light a fire to cook food. In Bwira we don’t talk about wood to make fire anymore.
Today, women and children go up and down on hills to find some dry grass to make a fire. It is a sort of return to the time of Robinson Crusoe. Most people bake meals every two or three days. They prepare huge quantities of food and eat it cold the rest of the following days. This is due to the fact that it is increasingly difficult to find combustibles.“
“Both Bwira and Rwanda experience the effects of climate changes. I remember, when I was a little girl, my parents and their neighbours knew the sowing calendar. The weather was predictable and they used to organise the crops according to the weather.
Then, sometimes they could sow haricots and wait a few days without rain. But the crop was lost. We had little famine when I was growing up, but little by little it became more regular.
We can tell how the harvest of the last season was by people’s appearances : thin bodies and slightly swollen cheeks when they are malnourished. We then talk about Kwashiorkor, a malnutrition disease.
Climate change and the increase of the population has made feeding people the number one challenge of Rwanda. Today, laws are established to maximize the productivity of the agriculture – depending of the region and the weather.
Last September, the people of Bwira had to cultivate only corn, and the seeds were given for free to the people.“
“Yes, one example : when you arrive at the airport of Kigali, if you have plastic bags they will switch it with a paper bag. Plastic bags are strictly forbidden in Rwanda.
A few years ago plastic bags were given for free in supermarkets. If it were still the case, Rwanda would be weighed down by plastic bags.
Another example : the ban to cut wood. In Rwanda you can’t cut wood; even to cut a tree in your garden you have to get authorisation [from officials]. The high rate of population growth made the government make such decisions. Finding alternatives, notably concerning the access to energy to cook, is still a challenge.“
“The Centre Ubuntu is based in Bwira, and its work is affected like everyone else's lives in this region. Bwira is simply inaccessible during heavy rain and even with a 4-wheel drive vehicle because of the landslide. Even the French volunteers who come to Bwira notice that there is very little information available for the inhabitants to find solutions. The nature around us has become unfathomable.
When we ask the older people they seem bewildered. Climate change makes our work at the Centre Ubuntu even more difficult.“