The Untold Story of Rwanda’s Heroine, Agatha Uwiringiyimana

In 1953, in a remote village of Muhororo in Gisagara district, a four hours drive from Rwanda’s capital Kigali, a baby girl, Agathe Uwiringiyimana, was born.

Little did her parents, Juvénal Ntibashirakandi and Xaverine Nyirantibangwe, know they had given birth to Rwanda’s Heroine.

At first, they scoffed. She was the sixth ‘girl’. Traditionally, in a paternalistic culture, producing a baby boy was considered a blessing, as boys were highly regarded.

But Uwiringiyimana was about to chase the demons out of the house. She was about to set a historic precedence that Rwanda will never forget.

With a humble and difficult beginning, Uwiringiyimana walked a two-hour journey to school every day for seven years.

The determined girl, from a poor background, excelled in national exams. Then, in a “quotas” system, her performance was rare and attracted attention.

The quota was a segregative system where students were selectively allowed to study. The Northern Province, home to President Juvénal Habyarimana, was always favored.

Uwiringiyimana was sent to Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, one of the best secondary schools in the country in the 70s.

Her father sold crops, and painfully mobilized extra funds to raise Rwf 6,000 that was required for first term. He was not sure how he would raise the fees for the second term.

Juvénal Hangimana, the elder brother, accompanied her to school.  Later, the father requested his son to go seek for a job in Kigali so that he could support his sister, as she was the only educated person in the family. There was faith and hope she would help the family later.

Her brother, Hangimana, waived farewell to the family and went to Kigali to find a job. Hangimana was not educated, thought.

“I was a casual labourer,” he says. He worked hard and saved enough to start a business of selling second hand clothes.

He sold second clothes and managed to afford his sister’s tuition and other requirements throughout her secondary school education.

The business was not viable, and Hangimana decided to go to Uganda to find another job. He did not have the money to take a bus and decided to walk, a painful journey that took him a full week.

There, he worked as a labourer too. He continued supporting his sister until she finished her studies.

Her brother had all reasons to do so. Uwiringiyimana was a genius. She was good at Mathematics and Chemistry.

She passed secondary school exams and acquired a government scholarship and was sent to Institut Pedagogique National (IPN) for a three year course.

She graduated and was offered a job to lecture at the National University of Rwanda, in Butare, Southern Rwanda.

Before she graduated at IPN, she got married to her long time fiancé and a classmate, Ignace Barahira. They settled in Butare, and gave birth to their three children.

Uwiringiyimana  joins politics

In then 1990s, an era of political pluralism, Uwiringiyimana joined the Republican and Democratic Movement, MDR, a leading opposition political party.

It is here that she met Jean Marie Vianney Uwihanganye, a businessman, whom they started working closely.

“We simply wanted change, which was badly needed at the time,” says Uwihanganye, the country director for Engen in Bujumbura, Burundi.

He says Uwiringiyimana quickly gained popularity, and all teams going for mobilization in the countryside wanted her to be there.

“She was a very eloquent public speaker and had a unique way of driving her point across,” says Uwihanganye.

During grassroots elections, Uwiringiyimana beat Jean Kambanda, who wanted the party leadership for the strategic Butare prefecture (province).

Salome Niringiyimana. She is the elder sister to Uwiringiyimana Agathe
Salome Niringiyimana. She is the elder sister to Uwiringiyimana Agatha

 

The public figure

Uwiringiyimana became a charismatic and vocal politician. In 1992, President Juvenal Habyariman appointed her the minister for Primary and Secondary Education.

The first thing she did was to the quota system. She decided students’ allocation and bursary disbursement should be based on merit. Her policy angered many Hutu-extremists.

One day, assailants stormed her house and threatened to kill her. She narrowly escaped through the window, but her house was vandalized.

Her party members advised her to step down. Hangimana says she refused while saying that the country had to embrace rule of law and that she was willing to sacrifice her life.

In July 1993, President Habyariman appointed Uwiringiyimana the first female Prime Minister.

It was a very dangerous period. “She became busier than ever. We would need to leave a message at the table, if we needed to communicate something,” says Angelique Mpinganzima, her niece.  “She would use the same channel to respond.”

 

Salome Niringiyimana the elder sister to Agathe and her husband Zakariah Sekamonyo outside thei home.
Salome Niringiyimana and her husband Zakariah Sekamonyo outside thei home.

Murdered  

In April 6, 1994, after Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, Uwiringiyimana and family ran to the UN premises in Kigali.

Presidential guards were hunting for her. They had just shot her ten Belgian guards from UN mission (Unamir).

As the hunting continued, more and more people were getting killed.

Uwiringiyimana decided to surrender to avoid more bloodshed.

She was shot dead together with her husband, but her children were rescued by a UN contingent Captain Mbaye Diagne.

He managed to sneak them out of the country and sent them to Switzeland where they live until today.

In 1995, Uwiringiyimana was declared a Heroine among the greatest Heroes of Rwanda including King Mutara III Rudahigwa.

Uwiringiyimna’s siblings had never enjoyed the fruits of raising a Heroine, and a powerful politician from a humble background.

In fact, her brother, who is now in his 60s, and has lost hope for a better life, lives under extreme poverty.

 

Brother to Uwiringiyimana Agathe
Hangimana, the brother to Uwiringiyimana Agatha

 




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