(I have been working on this piece for the better part of a week with some difficulty. Specy is a friend and to tell her story, I wanted to be sure to convey the atrocities that happened in her country, while honoring her dignity and her people. This two part post will share only minutely the experience of Specy, to give you the contrast of how she has turned her valley into her purpose. Throughout part one of this piece, the ethnic classifications shown are for the purposes of sharing the events of Specy’s life. She, with her husband and children, do not identify themselves by these ethnicities, but as Christians alone. The references to the events that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 are not meant to have any political commentary, but are included for historical context to Specy’s journey.)
“They did not take the time to look at the paperwork. If you looked like a Tutsi. They would kill you.”
During the spring of 1994, Speciose “Specy” Nyiramana was the fourteen year old daughter of a judge with nine siblings. She was of the ethnic distintion: Tutsi. The Rwandan Civil War began four years prior, the result of ethnic and political conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi people residing in Rwanda. The conflict between these two ethnicities was not new in the late 20th century, but had been a prominent problem since the mid-eighteenth century when The Kingdom of Rwanda was established and lead by the Tutsi clan, which seized land from Hutu clansman. European Colonization began in 1884 by Germany, who made alliances with the King of Rwanda. Later, Belgium took colonial rule over Rwanda and forced the population to carry identification cards classifying each person by their ethnicity: Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. Tutsi people were favored by the colonists. According to George Izangola “…the Tutsi and Hutu are the same people….People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the King. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.” Until Belgian colonization, there was fluidity between the groups, but with the identification cards, the ability to move from Hutu into the Tutsi groups, and vice versa came to an end. Tutsi people were often identified as tall and thin, with longer, thinner noses. Hutu were, in contrast, often identified as a shorter, more stout people. According to experts, there is no anthropological evidence of these stereotypes distinguishing the two groups from each other. However, the Rwandan people relied on these physical types to identify ethnicity. This contributed to the panic and confusion that would arise in the Spring of 1994. Through the years, people who were classified into one ethnicity would intermarry the other. This genetic melting pot no longer allowed for visual identification. During the worst days of the genocide, “they did not take the time to look at the paperwork. If you looked like a Tutsi. They would kill you.”
Shortly before the independence of Rwanda, there was a conflict between the Tutsi and Hutus. Many Tutsi found exile in neighboring countries, including Uganda and Burundi. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, became a militarized rebel force of Tutsi who organized themselves while in this exile. They invaded Rwanda from their base in Uganda in 1990. This attack by the RPF on the ruling regime of Juvenal Habyarimana, the Hutu dictator of the Rwandan government lead to civil war. In August 1993, a peace agreement was signed by the conflicting groups, however, it did not seem to be binding. In April of 1994, the airplane of Habyarimana was shot down, killing him. These extremists wasted no time in creating a focus for their people. The day after the assassination, Hutu soldiers and policeman executed top level Tutsi, as well as more moderate leaning Hutu. Over the next 100 days approximately 800,000 people were killed in genocide meant to be “a final solution” to wipe out the Tutsi people. Co-workers, neighbors, community acquaintances, encouraged by an extremist government and the Hutu Power, were encouraged through radio propaganda to eliminate all Tutsi people. Being an obedient people, the people violently and brutally killed. And often killed again. “We were possessed by Satan. That can be the only explanation for why we would kill our neighbor,” an unnamed Hutu man exclaimed in a documentary done by Frontline. Like many Tutsi, Specy and her family, would have to go into hiding.
Her father, a judge, would flee the country. Her mother, with her newborn baby, would be divided from her nine other children. Specy, alone, separated from her entire family hid for two months on a sorghum and plantain plantation. The devastating effects of this one hundred days of slaughter are fully documented in photos that are hard to see. It is hard to imagine the impact of seeing these images in real life, along with the sounds of murder and the smells of death, would leave on those who could only hope they would not be the next to be killed. Post-war life for Specy was filled with the same fear, the same lack of security, and same the loneliness that filled her days of hiding.
The shouts of, “The War is Over!!” rang through her ears. It was with these shouts she believed she would be safe to come out of hiding. But the personal wars she would face would be just as devastating on her than the war had been. She would be among the 30% of Rwandan Tutsi people to survive the genocide. Alone and scared, she returned to her village to try and find her family. To survive, she would knock on the doors of big houses asking for work as a nanny or maid. With each knock, she could not know who would be answering the door. To survive she had no choice but place herself at the mercy of the strangers behind the doors. She was able to find work as a live-in nanny, with the majority of her pay being room and board, allowing her to stay off the streets.
Before the Genocide, Specy was at the Byimana Secondary School, a boarding school where she was receiving her education. With the genocide ending in July, she did not believe she would be able to go back to school. She had no money and still had not found her family. However, she met a man who knew her and her parents who offered to pay her tuition to help her go back to school. The ability to go back to school was important to Specy as she, even at fourteen, had her eyes on what she calls her “future life.” Returning to school without money or funds to purchase things such as clothes, toiletries, and basic necessities was so hard. She knew to have a chance at a successful future life, she had to go.
Back at school, Specy found comfort in friends who would help her by giving her pencils and notebooks. They would let her share in their belongings, including clothes and toiletries. “I was able to live because of these people.” While at school, her basic needs were met. She had food from the school and her friends were helping her with the things she needed. But as school breaks would approach, she had no place to go. At times, she could spend a week with a friend, however there were weeks where she would have to knock on doors and offer work for a place to stay. Post war, post genocide Rwanda was filled with suspicious people. “It was so hard, because I was knocking on doors looking for work and a place to stay, and these people were looking at me, like, ‘Who is this child? Is she a spy? What does she want?’” She had to take chances that defied safety and comfort in order to survive. There were times she would be able to stay a week or two with a friend, but the suspicion of a people who had gone through the past year did not lead to lasting hospitality. Specy relied on the offerings and generosity of strangers to live. These offerings, which she now attributes to the providence of God, meant survival.
Specy, in search of her mother post-war, found she had been put into prison, along with her infant sister. Since her father had been a Judge in the government lead by Habyarimana, he was considered a threat and would need to be imprisoned. Because he was out of the country, they placed Specy’s mother into prison with the promise she would be release when her father turned himself in. To gain freedom for his wife, Specy’s father returned to Rwanda to find that the promises of her freedom were unkept. Both her parents were now in prison. She shared, “In Rwandan prisons, the family was responsible to feed the prisoners. Knowing my mother, father and baby sister were in prison and would be reliant on me to feed them. I was not sure how this could happen. I fell into a great depression.” Back at school, where her older sister had also returned, Specy sat at the dining hall table with the weight of responsibility of feeding her parents and baby sister pulling her further into this sadness. It was more than a young teenaged girl should have to bear. The mistress that fed the girls, saw this sadness within her and followed Specy one day into the restroom, where she found her crying. At the risk of losing her own position, the dining mistress agreed to share leftover food with Specy. The next obstacle was how to be dismissed from the school to deliver the food. Specy met with the woman who was charged with discipline of the students. Again, at the risk of her own position, this woman allowed Specy to leave the school. She was to go deliver the food and get back. The time she could cover for the dutiful daughter did not allow for a visit or conversation, just dropping off the food and getting back to the school.
Throughout the trials of her teenage years: the separation of family, the responsibility for the well-being of her parents, the trauma of living through the fear and devastation of war and genocide, Specy strove to succeed in her schooling. Within the Rwandan school system, those with a certain grade on the national examination were given the opportunity for a free college education. “I don’t know how it happened, but I was able to make the marks I needed. I know now that God was with me. There were other girls who were smarter than me who did not make the needed grades.”
Growing up, Specy was raised as a believer. She did not consider herself one that was full of faith, although she knew God. Through the Genocide and the subsequent years, she became very angry with God. Where was He when she was scared? Where was He when her people were dying? Where was He when she was depressed and lonely? “I can see now, looking back, how God was providing for me all along. I was able to have homes to live in by having jobs as a nanny. A man who was a friend to my family, gave me tuition money so I could go back to school. Once at school, the ladies helped me to feed my family and my friends helped me to have the supplies I needed. I even was able to make grades that I should not have been able to make. I see now, all those things were gifts from God. He was placing people in my path to help me. He was providing for me all the time.” Specy believes that God saved her to serve a specific purpose.
Join back tomorrow for part two of Specy’s story and how she used the experiences of her childhood and the gift of empathy to bring community to international people now living in America.