Donatilla Kanimba began her life with most of the odds against her. She had been forced to flee her home country of Rwanda with her parents at an early age, was blind and also a girl in a society where boys are always higher in rank. Today, she is 60 years old and has not only succeeded in realizing most of the things she decided on on a private level. She has also built an organization that has changed the lives of many blind and visually impaired Rwandans
Rwanda's capital, Kigali, is incredibly beautiful, with perfect asphalt roads winding up the many green hills around which the city is anchored. The climate is mild, most things are well-ordered and clean, and the traffic is relatively calm. Development has progressed rapidly in the country and in many ways the future looks bright for the population, despite the terrible recent history that Rwanda has gone through. At the same time, poverty still lives on among large sections of the population, even if it is less obvious in the capital, where there is now no shortage of fine restaurants or hip bars with associated pools in the finest hotels.
However, for those living with disabilities, especially women, much remains to be done. It was not this orderly in Kigali when Donatilla returned to the country of her birth in 1996, just two years after the genocide. Back then, it was almost impossible to even get hold of a sandwich at one of the few cafes in the city, she says.
The lack of nightlife and restaurants was almost a culture shock for Donatilla, who grew up and was shaped by the much more modern metropolis of Nairobi in Kenya. What lured her back was the opportunity to be involved in building the organization she helped found from her former home in Kenya, the Rwandan Union for the Blind, RUB. The organization had been formed to fight for all the blind and visually impaired Rwandans who at that time hardly ever appeared in public - except in the role of beggars.
-When we started RUB, it was something completely new in Rwanda, an organization for disabled people that was run by people who themselves had a disability, says Donatilla.
Since then, she and RUB have had a very important role in the work to improve the lives of the blind and visually impaired by conducting opinion work and offering education to individuals. And by getting people to venture out of the confines of their homes. But in the early days it was also about purely humanitarian efforts for RUB.
-After the genocide, there were many blind people who were confused and forced to survive on their own because their relatives had been driven away or killed. It was terrible. Some of them had only managed to survive thanks to kind neighbors, says Donatilla.
RBU headquarters, located in a beautiful older building on the edge of a lush valley in the center
Kigali. Donatilla radiates a self-evident weight, speaks perfect English and asks sharp counter-questions before the interview to make the conditions for her participation completely clear.
Difficulties failed to stop Donatilla from succeeding in school
She has been blind ever since she got an eye disease at the age of five, probably a disease that usually almost only affects boys, she says. Although she never received a clear answer. The year before, in 1961, her family had been forced to flee to the neighboring country of Burundi to escape the ethnic violence that had then broken out in Rwanda. It was the same type of ethnic violence, though much worse in its scope, that 33 years later would turn the world's eyes on the small country in East Africa.
In connection with Donatilla becoming blind, her parents received a tip about a boarding school near Nairobi that specialized in educating blind and visually impaired children. This led to Donatilla once again having to change her home country, when she, as a single six-year-old, moved into the Kenyan boarding school.
- I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to go to that school. At that time there were only three similar schools in Kenya and the one I entered was the oldest and best in the country. Thanks to it, I got an education.
She was only able to travel home and see her parents in Burundi once a year, but graduated with top grades and then received a scholarship to study at the University of Nairobi. However, it was not an easy journey. Donatilla was the only blind student in her cohort and the university offered no aids whatsoever.
-Over time, thanks to a Catholic organization, I got help with having the course literature read out loud to me, but in the beginning I had to rely on reading help from other students. In connection with the exams, it was up to me to seek out the teachers to remind them that I was also there and needed to take the exams. There were no routines about how it should be done, so I had to come to an agreement with the teachers on my own. Sometimes I had access to my own typewriter, in other cases I had to do the tests orally.
Despite the difficulties, Donatilla almost always managed to get top results in the exams.
-I had a strong will and was determined to get a university education and then a job. After all, I had top grades from before, so why shouldn't I study at university?
And so it was. After a couple of different other jobs, her commitment to disabled people's rights took off when she started working for the Kenyan Union for the Blind. When the political situation in her homeland had finally calmed down, she realized that there was an awful lot to do in the war-torn nation. Together with another Rwandan in exile, she founded RUB, and in 1996 it was time for Donatilla to travel back to the country she left as a four-year-old.
- Then my own family had also moved back. In addition, RUB needed someone who could get the business off the ground and it had to be me, she says.
"A woman who loses her sight loses practically all rights"
Today, RUB has 75 local branches across the country and also operates a training center, the Masaka Resource Center in Kigali. It is located a short drive outside the city, in a few rows of one-story brick houses. The environment is rural and the center is surrounded by its own plantations. Since its inception 17 years ago, nearly 750 visually impaired and blind people have gone through a six-month long rehabilitation course here, which in many cases has changed their lives.
At the center, they learn braille and agricultural work, among other things - but above all, to dare to do things on their own and realize how much they are actually capable of doing, despite their disability. Even their closest relatives are helped to understand their real competences. Working on strengthening self-confidence is particularly important for the many girls and women who come to the centre, Donatilla underlines.
- The women usually have even worse self-confidence than the men. It has to do with how it looks in our culture, where men traditionally have the upper hand and are considered the head of the family. Boys are considered more valuable than girls, and men are more valued than women. A woman who loses her sight effectively loses all rights.
Just over half of those offered education at the center are girls and women. Almost everyone who comes here is initially very cautious and wait-and-see. Many have lived a life where their abilities never had the opportunity to blossom, but instead they received help with most of their relatives. Even when it comes to many of the everyday chores, which after just a few months at the center, they prove to be able to handle perfectly by themselves. Here, perhaps for the first time, they get to go out and walk on their own. The vast majority of visually impaired and blind people initially need to build up confidence in their own abilities.
-With the women, it means that we have to start from scratch, says Donatilla. But even at the local level, RUB works to empower women. This takes place through the local associations' special women's committees. There, women get an opportunity to discuss their problems. And if problems are discovered that they can't solve on their own, they can contact us at head office, and we'll try to help.
A typical example is when the husband of a visually impaired or blind woman announces that he wants to get another wife. This usually results in the first wife being treated badly over time and perhaps even thrown out.
-When we learn of such things, we have to act by contacting the local authorities and demanding that the first wife go through with a divorce, where she gets her share of the joint properties, says Donatilla.
Another recurring problem for women is that relatives do not consider that a blind family member has the same right to property as others.
-It is a problem for women with visual impairment meet more often than men, says Donatilla.
After her sister's death, Donatilla chose to take care of her four nieces and nephews
Although for her own part she had a little trouble adjusting in Kigali after living almost all of it
her life in exile, she now thrives in the city and has created her own roots here after raising four nieces and nephews on her own. Shortly after Donatilla had returned to Rwanda, her sister fell ill and died of cancer, leaving behind four children between the ages of five and fifteen. At first the grandmother took care of the children, but Donatilla soon realized that
it was too demanding a task for her mother, who was then a little over 70 years old.
- Then I decided to move in with them and it became my task to
take care of the children. Raising four children was no easy task as I was completely unprepared for it. But it also felt good, to be part of a family and to feel valued.
Donatilla says she was given responsibility for the children at the same time as she was fully prepared to
devote yourself fully to your job. Now she suddenly had to try to combine both roles and at the same time support six people instead of just herself.
-When it turns out that way, you have to make the best of it. For my own part, there was none
who would provide for me if I did not do it myself as I had no husband, and
there was no one else in my family who could provide for me either, says Donatilla.
Today, only the youngest child remains at her home.
-The others are adults today and have moved away from home. Two of them have had children of their own, so now I have
even two nieces and nephews, says Donatilla, bursting into a big and proud smile.