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I, Too, Shall Dream

The story of a refugee.

I so badly wanted to paint my story as something beautiful. But the more I look back and reflect on my experiences and the experiences of my people, a lump forms in my throat. I wish I could walk into a museum and journey through my history. I wish I could look at photos and see if I do indeed have my great-grandmother’s cheekbones. I wish I could visit a grave and see where all those who died fighting for me were laid to rest. A sign of honour, that’s what they call it here. I wish I could visit my aunt, grandmother, cousin, grandpa. They were killed, and their remains scattered. I am from a place where “lucky” is considered hearing a firsthand account of how your relative was killed. Others disappear, never to be seen again; you wait, and wait, then death is assumed. Life just continues. But nonetheless, it is my story and I shall tell it.

My childhood consisted of moving from country to country. I didn’t question this; it was the norm. On turning 13, I realized that our constant moving was not due to a zeal for adventure; rather, we were fleeing danger. I cannot find the words to articulate what I felt was stolen from me upon hearing those words. ​Why would people want to kill us? ​We left countless people behind – friends, neighbours, relatives. Some alive, some dead. Yet here I am, alive. I am no longer just Grace. I am a thousand untold stories. I am ​Nyamwiza, ​the five-year-old girl who dreamed of becoming a teacher one day. I am Nkunda, t​he neighbourhood comedian who managed to brighten everyone’s day. I am enraged. I grew up in isolation from my community. A decision that was forced upon my family and I. Unlike my parents, I am blessed to have no first-hand account of the tragedies my people have gone through at the hands of fellow men. But I carry their stories with me; my back is breaking, and I want you to feel the crack.

What’s in a name?
Like so many other Canadian families, my story does not originate here. In my culture (we call it ​umuco​), when introducing yourself (​kwibwirana)​, you start off by saying your father’s clan, his name, his father, great-grandfather, and so on. You then introduce your mother’s side. Since patriarchy is also a part of our culture, you only mention your mother’s clan (not her name). So my name is Grace Umutoni Wase Bigazi. My father is Nsanzabera Zebedayo Bigazi, from the A​badahurwa ​tribe, his father is Samwel Mwambazi, son of Ruhumiliza Muchirwa and great-grandson of Mbagariye. My mother is Christine from the ​Abasinzira ​tribe. Her father is Elias Nkundabatware. My forefathers originated from Rwanda, but migrated into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) prior to western contact in the region. This practice, as I have come to learn, has been the saving grace for many people in my community, though it came with its own difficulties.

Always an outsider
Both my parents were born in the DRC. They are fifth-generation Congolese. I grew up listening to stories of their childhood: swimming in the lakes of Tanganyika, climbing mangrove trees to reach the tender fruits. These stories were contrasted with the discrimination my parents were exposed to at a young age. They were called “outsiders,” “Tutsi refugees” and so on. My father recalls one incident in school where he was made to stand in front of the whole class as they called him names. My uncle told us about his younger brother, Hakiza, who was assassinated in the Shaba region. The casual tone of his voice as he told us still baffles me. My mom’s grandpa, Bikuge, was also slaughtered by angry soldiers after an argument over stolen cattle. Atrocities have been woven into the fabric of their livelihoods; no shrug, no hesitation when narrating these events. Stories of death and despair are shared so casually, a concept I’m still trying to wrap my head around. But death and tragedy have been the norm for my people.

The ​Banyamulenge p​eople have a unique story. In my homeland, the authenticity of my people has been the main issue of contention between us, the state and other Congolese ethnicities. It is a narrative based on the idea that somehow the ​Banyamulenge p​eople are not authentic Congolese. There is little to no written evidence documenting the date of arrival of ​my people from Rwanda to the DRC, or the exact numbers that emigrated. Their claims to nationality have been denied; apparently, they are not Congolese enough. Our identity has been a matter of contention due to our Tutsi background. This belief stems from a time when Belgian colonial rulers called for the entire population to be counted, then height, length of nose and cranial capacity were measured, and shape and colour of the eyes were noted in order to distinguish the locals from the migrants. A person who was tall and thin with a long nose was assumed to be Tutsi (Rwandan immigrants), while “authentic” Congolese were the exact opposite: short and broad-nosed. This rhetoric is still popular even in my generation. Claiming Congolese identity is, even today, an act of bravery. I have heard too many people insist that ​I am Rwandese.​ It is this mindset that has been used to justify the killing of my people – including during the Rwandan Genocide – and has led to our forceful displacement.

At home in Christ
When I speak of the life I once lived, life as a refugee, the question of conformity leaps out at me, reminding me that acceptance comes at a price. I cannot be just as I am. No matter which country I have found myself in, my culture, my language, the differences that enshroud my personhood are shoved to the side, so that I might assume that which is believed to be the better way of being. The locals seem to say, “We invite you to the table of reason and personhood but only if you act, dress and think like we do.”

In all honesty, forced migration has challenged my faith. The negative connotations associated with being an immigrant in our world today makes me feel as though I am reduced to nothingness, but it is also a constant reminder that I really am nothing but God’s. I truly have nothing in this life but Christ. The humiliation brings about shame at times, but most of the time it allows for me to be lifted up, as the Bible promises.

“Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him. The air in my lungs, it means God has mercy on me, and allowed me to see another day. Though I am tired and worn, his strength will keep me fighting. For Justice. For the kingdom. Where all will be made new” (Job 13:15).

Author

  • Umutoni Wase “Grace” Bigazi is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her family migrated to Rwanda, then Tanzania, and then Kenya before moving to Canada in 2015. She is currently at The King’s College, Edmonton, taking a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in Politics, History and Economics.

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