I have known for weeks that this may come, but I kept hoping that it wouldn’t because I wanted to delay the deep pain I feel about Mama Rwanda a.k.a Mama Sheja, Esperence Mukashema. This Rwandan s/hero who suffered so much loss and tragedy time and time again, fell countless times and got back up has decided that she won’t get back up this time. She has decided to go be with the ancestors. And for this, I am in deep pain and sorrow. I don’t post about losing family, friends, comrades, etc on social media, but when an ordinary person touches so many lives in a positive way and in an extraordinary way, I feel compelled to do this.
What made Mama Rwanda so extraordinary? Simple: she did not retreat to her conveniences and comforts when she saw injustice and used ordinary tools available to every single one of you reading this to take a stand against injustice and to tell the unfiltered truth unapologetically when she could have simply enjoyed her comforts and stayed indifferent through silence on public related issues. She personified the good character that takes a stand in times of controversy. She was the friend whose voice we will remember in contrast to the silence of other friends as the MLK saying goes « In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. » Esperence Mukashema will be remembered for making her voice heard loudly, clearly and unambiguously. What a beautiful thing!!
In a country and society where mass murderers, warmongers and crooked politicians are celebrated as heros, making you wonder about the sanity of those who proclaim such people heros after the amount of losses we have had in Rwanda, Mama Sheja a.k.a Mama Rwanda was a shining light of what a hero is. For me, a hero isn’t simply somoene that does something I agree with or something that’s correct or something that gives me an advantage, it’s someone who does something BECAUSE IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO and such action COMES WITH A RISK of losing life, liberty, relationships with family and friends who would rather distance themselves to keep their perceived comforts or favors with the oppressors. It is a person that stands firm for WHAT IS RIGHT and what is HUMANE and says DAMN THE CONSENQUENCES. This was Mama Sheja personified.
She was and will always remain a guiding light to those who want to live by the uncompromised truth. Those who want to live the values of humanity, justice, and lasting peace. She is/was the anti-hipocrisy. She was a shining example of a Rwandan mother considering its tragic past and present. She could have chosen to be an ethnic extremist or supremacist but she refused up until weeks before she got ill, where she declined to partake in actions that privileged ethnic separation and supremacy. She could have chosen to comply with the Rwandan regime that’s built on ethnic supremacy and she would have enjoyed many personal favors. But she decide that her conscience was more important than personal favors. She knew you can always get personal favors even if it’s not from the regime while taking a stand for what is right and what is just and that’s the path she chose. I am sure she had NO OUNCE OF REGRET in that decision.
She refused to betray her son!!
During the Rwandan genocide, Esperence Mukashema lost many members of her family to extremist Hutus. While she was fleeing, the genocide, the RPF Tutsi rebels (now in power in Rwanda) carried out a massacre at a church where she was sheltering. She narrowly survived but her 11 year old son named Sheja was killed in that massacre. That’s where the name Mama Sheja comes from. Her public testimony at a time when it was rare to give testimony calling out crimes of the Kagame regime was a breath of fresh air. She took a stand when it was highly unpopular. It is still unpopular now but it’s better than when she did. She was truthful and unapologetic when she spoke.
For that, she was the subject of the usual tactics by the regime. They conducted smear campaigns and dehumanization campaigns both publicly and privately. In public, they used government propaganda media to go after her. In private, supporters of the regime worked hard to convince others (especially family and friends) that she was dangerous, divisive, mean, that she stood for extremism against « her own people », that she was hateful. Basically the usual tactics of oppresors and their supporters against upstanding folks. She did not back down from doing the right thing.
Thankfully now, she leaves such a beautiful legacy that her light will never dim. She remains the shining light for millions of us.
While searching for comfort in this deep pain and sorrow, I take comfort in the fact that I had the opportunity to give her her flowers (as we say in urban lingo) or show my public recognition of her character and actions a little while before she fell ill. I was on a panel with her shortly before she became ill. When I started to speak, I started by acknowleding and thanking her for her courage, work and also the tragedy of losing her son Sheja. In her remarks, she denounced the attitude by Rwandans who chose comfort over humanity, where she called out the attitude and culture of silence during injustices or conveniently chosing when to speak up and when to remain silent.
In the middle of her speaking I interrupted to say « EXCEPT FOR Matata » another upstanding Rwandan, a true hero who also doesn’t mince words. Matata was also on the panel. She laughed and said to « you and myself are also the exceptions. We don’t standby when we see injustices.” We all laughed and she continued her remarks. I have known her for many years and as she has always been clear and straight forward, even in mistakes. For those many years, she never came across as ambiguous when it comes to truth, justice and humanity. She didn’t back down from controversy for her own convenience as many do.
Her legacy will live on as now many people have decided to tell their stories and many more have decided to share those stories with the world. Her light keeps shining.
While she is now with the ancestors, I will miss her for many reasons. I am sure millions will also miss her. I will miss her honesty, straightforwardness, clear stance, her humanity, her humor, her selflessness. Rwanda’s social media is blowing up with people paying homage to her, a sign of her legacy that’s touched so many of us. We are all headed the same direction and one day will see her. I hope her passing inspires many more to follow her light and expand their comfort zones and stand for truth and justice unambiguously. She did it for such a long time and never tired!!
While I am still here physically and she’s with the ancestors, I will miss her dearly!! See you one day Mama Sheja and give him a big long hug for yourself and those of us who stood with you in truth and justice.
We only live once and YOU MADE IT COUNT for millions of us.