Experiencing Violence Amidst the Rwandan Genocide

Experiencing Violence Amidst the Rwandan Genocide with Alpha Nkuranga

Jenna Mayne: Welcome to she is your neighbour, a show where we discuss the realities and complexities of domestic violence. This podcast is brought to you by Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region, a charitable organization in Ontario, Canada. I’m your host, Jenna May. Join me as we talk to different people each week to learn how domestic violence impacts people from all walks of life. She is your neighbour, and we all have a role to play in ending domestic violence.

This episode is called experiencing violence amidst the Rwandan genocide with Alpha Nkuranga. Alpha is a residential support worker at Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Regional. She recently signed a publishing deal for a book she has written about her life journey, surviving gender based violence and the Rwandan genocide. This episode is part of our six episode Survivor series, which focuses on the experiences of survivors of domestic violence. In this episode, Alpha talks about experiencing domestic violence as a child and also about the violence she endured while living in a Tanzanian refugee camp during the Rwandan genocide. We talk about the journey to her new life in Canada and the different support services that women have access to here. It was incredible to hear Alpha’s story, and it was so inspiring to learn how she has overcome so much hardship. And then she has used this to motivate her in her career, where she supports women who are moving beyond violence. Now, before we get started, I’d like to note that the following episode includes a discussion of domestic violence, abuse and sexual assault, which may be distressing or traumatic for some listeners. Please take care of yourself and don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. I’d also like to thank Rogers for proudly sponsoring this survivor series.


Jenna Mayne: Hi, Alpha. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Alpha Nkuranga: Hi, Jenna. Thanks for having me.

Jenna Mayne: Oh, it’s great to have you here. So excited. This is our first time. We were just saying earlier having a staff member from women’s crisis on the podcast. So it’s so nice to talk with you.

Alpha Nkuranga: I’m so excited.

Jenna Mayne: Great. So can you just start by sharing a little bit about yourself?

Alpha Nkuranga: My name is Alpha. I’m a survivor during Tirwananda genocide in 1994. So, I went to Tanzania with my real brother, who was four years old without our parents. So I lived in Tanzania for one year. And after I was reconnected to my parents who were in Uganda through the Red Cross, I was the first girl in 2002 to finish primary school, and I got a scholarship to go to secondary school. So from there, I got another scholarship to go to the advanced level, which was for two years. After two years, I got another scholarship went to Makerre University, which is the best university in East Africa. I’m married, with three handsome boys working at women’s crisis services here in Waterloo Region. And I think that’s all about me.

Jenna Mayne: It’s great to have you here. And again, you work at women’s crisis. I know you work as a residential support worker, so you work directly with the women and kids in our emergency shelters, too. And then with your own story, you have such a unique perspective. So I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.

Alpha Nkuranga: So excited to share about what I’m doing with women’s crisis and ready to jump right in.

Jenna Mayne: Great. So maybe you could start. I know you mentioned you’re a, survivor yourself. I know you’ve been through a lot in your life, but I wondered if you could start by sharing a little bit about your experience with domestic violence.

Alpha Nkuranga: Okay. I grew up in a pregnant marriage. My dad had three wives. So, the only reason why he could get the second wife was because he suspected my mom was going to have girls. So in my culture, girls, they are nothing. The way they take girls. Like, if you’re having ornery girls, like, you’re not considered as a parent, as a mom. Yeah. Some of the women I remember, if you have ordinary girls, you’re not going to stay in your marriage. So I grew up in a previous marriage, and it, was not that easy because I remember my dad. Every time my dad could come home from the second wife, he could come to beat us, me and my mom, plus our siblings. So it was not that easy. I do remember, a situation, one of my half sister, she came to our house and took the biscuits. So when she took the biscuits, my dad came home and was asking for the biscuits. We told him, we don’t know, we kept them somewhere, but when we went to check them, they were not there. So because of, like, I was used with my dad beating me every time, I could count, maybe in a week, maybe five times. And he could use belts, bicycle chains, like shoes, everything he could get, but usually was like, belts. So I remember that day I was with my little brother. I told him, you know what? We’re gonna die today. So I was like, let’s run. So as we are running, my dad, because we are two, he didn’t really know if he’s gonna follow me or for my brother, we went and hide somewhere. And then someone went to, my dad and say, oh, I saw your kids. They’re hiding somewhere. What’s going on? Then my dad came and find us. What he did, he tied me and my brother on the bike and then started riding for, like, 20 minutes. I will never, never forget that, because I knew that I was going to die. I still remember the voices of people saying, kill them. They are your kids. Kill them. So, I went through a lot, I think. Another thing I can share. It’s about my mom. Like, every time, maybe my mom would be beaten maybe three times a week, me five times with my siblings. There is one time we knew that our mom was dead. He beat her to the point where she couldn’t breathe. People came and we’re like, I think she’s dead. No one touched my dad. No one said anything. Everyone was saying, oh, he’s killing his wife. You can’t say anything. So it was so much. Sometimes there’s a time when I don’t want to talk about my life, what I went through, what my mom went through. It was not like my home was happening everywhere. Yeah.

Jenna Mayne: Thank you for sharing that. It’s really brave of you to tell your story, and I know it’s so hard to talk about, those really personal details, and it’s. It can be upsetting. So thank you for sharing that. about what you went through, but what you said, you’re just saying, you know, it wasn’t just your family. It was happening all around you. Could you maybe explain a little bit more kind of what the culture was like? And I know you said, girls weren’t always wanted, so I wonder if you could share a little bit more about, how those dynamics played into the situation.

Alpha Nkuranga: Ah. In my culture, it’s not like, by then, even at this time, like, women are useless. They’re just there to have kids, taking care of their husband, and that’s it. So growing up in that environment, me as a girl, I felt unwanted. Sometimes I could ask myself why I was born a girl, because everything that was happening was affecting girls, was affecting women. So it was easy and no one could talk about it. If you’re beating your wife, that’s okay. If you’re beating your kids, that’s okay. No one is gonna say anything. So many times my dad made me sleep outside that night. No one would say anything. No one would take me. No, I had to stay all night outside. Like, we don’t have electricity. We don’t have anything. Especially in Africa. It’s dark. It’s a punishment. I need to sleep outside. So no one said anything about whatever was going on in. I think we deserved it. That’s how they knew to suffer. We are not human. No one cared.

Jenna Mayne: So were there any supports in place? Was there anything like what we have here at, ah, women’s crisis services? Or were you more on your own?

Alpha Nkuranga: there were no supports. And, I also survived a lot of rape and from police officers, from teachers, from elders in the community. Those are the people whom we are supposed to go and say, I’m, having a problem. When you reach to them, you know, they will never help you. They’re not going to help you. They are asking you, if you want me to help you, I need to have sex with you. Which is sad. We didn’t have anywhere to turn. Like, I’m, talking about every. Most of the women in this society, they didn’t have a place to go.

Jenna Mayne: That’s horrible.

Alpha Nkuranga: So there was no help. Still now there’s no help. No one cares about women, girls. No one occurs.

Jenna Mayne: It’s horrible to hear that, especially when you say it’s someone you’re supposed to be able to go to for help and support, and you can’t rely on that. I can’t, even imagine how scary that would be. I know you ended up leaving home at one point, too, and I’m wondering if you could maybe share a little bit more, about your journey there.

Alpha Nkuranga: Yeah, that was during the, Rwandan genocide. when I was living with my grandparents, my parents were living in another area. So, I remember we are sitting home and people came to attack us. Ah. And I had run with my little brother, who was four years old. I think I was eight or nine. I don’t know really when I was born. I don’t celebrate birthdays like other people. So, I had to run with him and hide for days. And then from there, I knew, like, my grandparents were killed, so I knew strangers talking close to us. I was hiding in the swamp. So, those strangers, I remember I was hungry. I needed to eat, my brother needed to eat. And I was like, we’re gonna die here. So let’s ask those people. We are hearing voices. Let’s talk to them and see if they have foods for us. So I went and approached them, and we are asking, are you guys by yourself? I said, yes. Were your parents? I said, we don’t know. Maybe they killed them. So they are the ones who helped us. And, I remember they shared with us that they are going to Tanzania, which was another country, but they looked at us and said, you know what? You’re not gonna make it. You’re not gonna make it. You’re too young. It’s gonna be a journey. You’re not gonna make it. I remember telling them that I would try my best. I’ll try to see whatever I’m gonna end, but I knew I would try. They said they will help my brother, maybe carrying him on the back. There was one guy said, his family were killed. He doesn’t have anyone, so he’s the one who helped my brother, carrying him on the back. I can’t really remember the days, but it was like more than maybe a week. went through the forest. We didn’t have food. We could, drink from our thumbs, like, drink from the ponds. We, didn’t have food. Eating fruits from the forest. I remember seeing many people dying. And I could count myself the next person, to die. But I was lucky. My brother was lucky. We reached Tanzania and we stayed there for one year. And I remember when I was in the camp, because of what was going on. Like, girls were being raped every single second. So I had to change my identity. I had to make sure I put on trousers so I would look like a girl. From there, everyone who was seeing me was thinking, I’m a boy. But I did that because I didn’t want what is happening to other kids to happen to me. I try, like, every time I was praying with boys. I trained myself to do everything for boys so that everyone would know that, I was a boy. So after one year, that’s when we got reconnected with my parents. They were in Uganda through the Red Cross. In 2010, I was sponsored by the government of Canada to come here as a permanent resident. I went into New Brunswick in Moncton, lived there for five years and then moved here.

Jenna Mayne: Oh, wow. I don’t even know what to say. It’s such an incredible story. I just really do admire your bravery, Alpha. Being able to get through something like that and then to be able to share it, too, I really can’t even imagine. And, you know, you talked about growing up in a home that was violent. And then even worse, you ended up in this camp, which was violent as well. And do you. Do you feel that you were able to, like, build some resiliency during this? Because you really seem like a very strong woman to be able to get through it all. And I’m wondering kind of how you were able to. To get through it all.

Alpha Nkuranga: you know what? I was looking side by side. I was looking in front of me, on my left, on my right. There was no one who was there for me? No one. I knew I had to be there for myself. I knew I had to do everything possible to fight for myself. So that’s what I did. And, there is one thing I always tell myself that, no matter what is going on, there is a day to cry and there is a day to laugh. I knew whatever I was going through is not gonna be permanent. I knew something was gonna happen the way I tried. I knew that something was gonna come out from me standing for myself.

Jenna Mayne: Yeah, that makes sense. You kinda had to rely on yourself in those situations, it sounded like. So I’m sure you built a lot of strength through that. when you came to Canada, can you describe how your life is different now from how it was?

Alpha Nkuranga: My life is different in so many ways. So many ways because I, remember, I think I was about 14, and I was asking myself, even asking people, what we can do so that we can help women and girls. But there was no way, like me, myself, I couldn’t do something to help women. That is something that was in my mind. I need to help these innocent people. But I didn’t know how, I was going to do it. So when I come here, I found out that it’s a country of opportunities. If I survived in the forest, in the refugee camp, the beatings from my teachers at school, I’m gonna survive in this country. So that’s when I was like, oh, I need to do something. I have to make sure that I’m doing something to help women and girls who are going through domestic violence. I have to do something. I have to contribute. So, life was good, was good because there are so many things were new to me. Everything was new to me. Never had a fridge in my home. I didn’t know a microwave. I remember, this is the story. So funny. Someone got us a microwave. And I remember telling my husband, oh, we got a radio. So I thought, it’s a radio. So I have never cooked on stove, nothing. So everything was new to me. But I was glad that my tears, my hard work, we are paying off everything I dreamed. So I went here. I, remember, I think was in 2014, I believe. So I was like, I need to continue school. In order to help women, I have to go to school. So I went to eastern college and graduated with a distinction in criminology. I got an opportunity to travel to atlantic region to, I think I went in maybe seven prisons included, for women. So I went there and, I had a conversation with, one of them, like, every time I had like, 2 hours to talk to inmates, what they are going through, what life looks like, how they end up there, I was like, yeah, this is my dreamland. I need to do whatever I need to do to achieve my goals.

Jenna Mayne: Well, that’s so wonderful.

Jenna Mayne: And so then you eventually ended up working at women’s crisis. I’m curious, can you talk about how that ended up happening? I know you started in criminology and then what kind of led you on this path?

Alpha Nkuranga: So when I came to kitchen, I remember, I was searching. I’m, like, I need to help women. And so criminology, it’s about, there is mental health. I remember, the job posting was asking if you have any education or experience in mental health, addiction. And I was like, oh, I think that’s the good thing because, like, when we talk about addiction, like, when people go through a lot of things, they try to do things to help them, to calm down, to help them disconnect, disconnect from the world. That’s how the addiction comes in. Those are like things that come together. So I, was like, I need to apply for this job. I need to join other women fighting for their rights. It’s our rights as women to live in, free violence society. And I was like, I need to join those women. So I applied, I got a job. I’m like, this is something I wanted since I was little.

Jenna Mayne: Oh, wow.

Jenna Mayne: So then it came full circle for you. And can you tell us a bit about what you do in your role?

Alpha Nkuranga: I do crisis course. This is where, like, if, a woman is having issues in the relationship, maybe needs help, sometimes they need like, a shelter. They doesn’t have a place to go and they’re stuck there. So if they call, we need to do an assessment and see if they need a shelter stay. If it’s not, we have, like, outreach workers who go to homes m and, help those women. Sometimes they doesn’t have a place to go. They help them with housing applications. They teach them about domestic parents. If they need maybe information, about court, they help with that. So basically, those are the things, we do. But also with the women in shelter, we do help them in everyday life. We need to make sure if they come to shelter, let’s say they don’t have income, we need to help them to find income. Also, we do, like, we have a housing worker in our shelter. So, the housing worker will help apply for housing, looking for houses. Like, maybe if it’s a market rent, we do try our best to find a place for those women and their kids.

Jenna Mayne: That’s great. That’s wonderful. And I. Yeah. How does it feel to be able to work in this job after all you’ve gone through and this is what you’re really working towards, by the sounds.

Alpha Nkuranga: Of it, it feels like, I can’t say I’m stepping in my purpose. I’m already there. But sometimes it’s very emotional because I could. Sometimes when I see them where they are, especially when they are coming in shelter, I could see their pain. And sometimes I go back, and feel the pain as well. So sometimes it’s very challenging. I remember sometimes I, do cry when they are sharing the stories of themselves, because I had to go back to what I went through. I knew, I wish I had the place. I could go back home, but I didn’t have a place, but I’m like, oh, my God, I wish I had a place like that. Because every time. Every time someone comes to shelter, and, the most amazing part for me, when they leave shelter, smiling, knowing that they have a place where they’re going to, feeling that someone was there for them, and when they smile, and in my heart, I’m like, wow, this is what hopes looks like. That’s my amazing part, to see them going, because I could remember the picture when they came in to shelter, and, the picture they are, having now leaving the shelter, it’s different. And sometimes they leave the shelter, different people.

Jenna Mayne: Well, that’s amazing. I’m sure it’d be so rewarding. And even though it’s challenging, like you said, to hear the stories, and I’m sure it brings you back to your own experience, I’m sure it’s really wonderful for the women to be able to connect with someone who’s gone through something similar. and I’m sure they feel kind of the empathy from you to know that you’re someone who understands what they’re going through, and I think that would make a big difference. I also know that you have, a book coming out, which is so exciting. You shared this with our team a couple weeks ago, so it was really exciting to hear. So I wondered if you wanted to share a little bit about that.

Alpha Nkuranga: It has been a journey about my book. I remember when I started writing, my son was from school, and then I watched him coming and I asked him questions, how was the day? Things like that. And my son was eight years old, so when I was asking questions, when I was looking at him, like playing, I remember was like maybe a rainy day, praying in the mud. And I was like, oh my God, my son is eight. in, 1994, I was eight. I could see how innocent he is. I could see he’s still a baby. But to me at, ah, that age, that’s when I was in the forest, eating nothing, going to another country on my foot. And I was like, no, I need to grab a pen and a paper and put this story down. So I’m sharing about my life, what I went through in my book, and I’m so excited and happy that someone picked my book.

Jenna Mayne: I can’t wait to read it when it comes out. I know it will be so inspiring. So I’m so glad you’re able to do that. I’m also wondering if you could just share why this conversation is important to you.

Alpha Nkuranga: You know what, women have been going through a lot. It’s not today, a hundred years ago, I think, even more to that, they called them names. They are weaker sex. What they know is to have kids and take care of their husbands. But I’m so glad today I can see the progress. And to come to this, it’s, because of these conversations, we need to talk more. What’s going on? We need to stop sitting and watch these. Our mothers, they are our grandparents, they are our sisters. We need to talk more about this to end domestic violence.

Jenna Mayne: I totally agree with you. I think the more we talk about it, we can kind of remove some of the shame and stigma that can be associated with it. We can talk about the fact that it’s okay to talk about it’s happening. So let’s address it and try and get people the resources they need and prevent it from happening too. Yeah, I’m also wondering. So this podcast and this project, it’s called she is your neighbour. And the reason we’re doing it is because we want, to really think about how we can all be better neighbours to women and kids who are experiencing domestic violence. So I wanted to get your thoughts on what you think we can all do to be better neighbours to those experiencing domestic violence.

Alpha Nkuranga: When you see people sitting and watch women and kids going through whatever they are going through, and, they don’t care, to me, it is a sign that our society is sick. We need to find the medication for this. And the only way we’re gonna do this is to see our neighbours, women and kids, and feel their pain and see how we can help good people. They don’t hurt others. If someone is hurting another person. There is something going on and we need to find out what’s going on. We as a society, if we are sitting and say, okay, I don’t care, they deserve that there is something going on. We should be there for them. We should be there for each other. It is not something I may ask people to do, but it’s our obligation as human beings to take care of each other, to make sure that everyone is safe in this planet, especially women and kids. So I feel like people, neighbours, we should ask every time what’s going on. This is something that has been going through for a long time. We should do something. We should protect each other to stop domestic violence.

Jenna Mayne: Thank you, Alpha. I’m so grateful to have you here today. It was so great to talk with you. It was just really inspiring to hear your story. before we go, I just wondered, was there anything else that you wanted to add that we didn’t cover that you think was important that you wanted to mention?

Alpha Nkuranga: I would say add, to all the victims of domestic violence and those who are still going through. I would call it like a pandemic, another pandemic, right? To stay strong, to fight for themselves, to ask for help. Because people are, ah, willing to hear them and help them and to tell everyone that it’s not their fault. It’s not their fault. Thanks.

Jenna Mayne: Thank you, Alpha.

Jenna Mayne: That wraps up this week’s show, but the conversation is far from over. We want to hear what you think. Use the hashtag sheisyourneighbour on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook or Twitter and join in the conversation. We all have a role to play in ending domestic violence.

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