Global isolation inspires student’s Rwandan effort

Special to Western News

Heath Promotion PhD candidate Aimee Utuza, right, and her sister Clarisse Cechetto Mukashumbusho launched the Zirikana campaign to help more than 200 single Rwandan mothers access food during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic dawned, Aimee Utuza’s thoughts returned to Rwanda.

“As you can imagine, life is difficult for many people there in the best of times,” said the second-year Health Promotion PhD candidate who came to Canada with her five children in 2018. “During the pandemic and lockdown, they cannot work or find food easily. Life has become more difficult.”

That struggle inspired Utuza to create Zirikana, a fundraising campaign to help more than 200 single Rwandan mothers access food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its goal is to raise enough money to provide at least 10 days of food to every family supported.

“The campaign speaks to the dire need to continue to provide for those most in need,” Utuza said. “We want to make sure the women we support know they are loved and valued.”

In Rwanda, many single mothers survive by selling hand-made crafts, vegetables or running other small businesses to earn at least 1,000 Rwandan Francs ($1.50 CAD), just enough to eat at the end of each day. However, with people restricted to their homes, these women are not able to run their businesses – meaning no food for their families.

Utuza, along with her two oldest children and her sister, Clarisse Cechetto Mukashumbusho, quickly organized Zirikana.

The sisters had experience, previously creating two local non-governmental organizations, Living with Happiness-Icyemezo in 2011 and Rwandan Mothers-Team in 2014. Approximately 200 women in three communities (Gatsata, Muhima and Kimihurura) of Kigali City receive support from these organizations.

Thus far, Zirikana has raised more than $4,000 this past month, and now volunteers are on the ground in Rwanda collaborating with local authorities to distribute food door-to-door.

“We have been overwhelmed with support,” Utuza said. “These families have been absolutely overcome with emotion and gratitude, as well as the knowledge that even when people are experiencing their own challenges, they are still willing to help those in need.”

The roots of Zirikana, its goals, and even its name have a special meaning for the sisters.

The idea of setting a goal of 10 days provisions echoes the memory of one of the most difficult times of their life – the Rwandan Genocide. Between April and June of 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days.

“During the genocide against the Tutsi, my sister and I spent 10 days in a hospital with other family and community members in fear for our lives, without the possibility to go out and without food or water,” Utuza said.

“Thinking of our experience at that time, and the fact I survived an almost impossible circumstance and the almost certain threat of death, I wanted to do something to help my people in Rwanda who are suffering due to the coronavirus quarantine.”

With a background in psychology and mental health, Utuza is also working with Rwandan students at Western to write about their feelings and emotions of being so far from home during this time.

“This gives us a platform to share our feelings, express ourselves and be there for one another,” she said. The project is supported by The Africa Institute at Western.

“We are always thinking about how we can help the women that we serve,” Utuza said. “We will continue to monitor and evaluate their situation throughout the pandemic.

“I am so thankful to all the Canadians who have donated to the campaign. The impact their gifts have made in the lives of the women is far greater than the value of money. It has demonstrated love and compassion and given a sense of value and self-worth to these women.”