Feature

The girl on the box
The girl from the 2004 Trócaire box tells Mags Gargan how the charity changed her life

Josiane at St Colmcille's Primary School in Knocklyon, Dublin. Photo: Mark Stedman

Josiane Umumarashavu saw the sea for the first time last week on Dollymount Strand in Dublin’s Clontarf. It was a week of firsts for the 26-year-old: the first time on a plane, the first time outside of her native Rwanda, and her first time speaking to large groups of people in English. 

She came here to thank the people of Ireland for their support after appearing on the Trócaire box in 2004, when the charity’s Lenten campaign focused on Rwanda and highlighted the situation in the country 10 years after the genocide of 1994. 

Josiane’s father, sister and two of her brothers were killed during the genocide. Her mother and two brothers survived but were struggling to make ends meet, living off a small piece of land and constantly facing the threat of hunger. The generosity of Trócaire supporters helped to provide families such as Josiane’s with the farming equipment they needed to improve their food production. 

In 2015, Josiane graduated in accounting from university and she now works as a finance intern in the Trócaire office in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

“I am used to focussing on my numbers,” she tells The Irish Catholic, as she relates how nervous she was at first about speaking in front of large groups during her tour of schools and parishes across Ireland. But she has enjoyed meeting Irish people, who she describes as “very kind and friendly”, especially the children, and one little girl in particular who gave Josiane her pencil as a present.

Skipping

Josiane says when she was photographed happily skipping 13 years ago, she had no idea she would be featured on over one million Trócaire boxes displayed in homes around Ireland, or how that Lenten campaign would change her life.

“When I was a child we struggled to find enough to eat and we faced hunger,” she says. “Thanks to Trócaire supporters, families like mine were provided with the different farming equipment we needed to grow more food. The support from the people in Ireland continued to help me and my family long after that campaign had finished. Because of this support I was able to finish my schooling.”

Rwanda is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in Africa with an estimated 11.5 million inhabitants. The genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi people in 1994 resulted in approximately one million deaths, with a large number of people still suffering trauma. 

Memory

Josiane’s earliest memory is when she was three years old, fleeing from home to find a place to hide. “I remembered that my favourite doll was left at home and I cried a lot asking to go back and get it, but it was impossible,” she says. 

“War affects children in all the ways it affects adults, but also in different ways. Children are dependent on the care, empathy, and attention of adults who love them. These attachments are disrupted in times of war, due to the loss of parents and emotional unavailability of depressed or distracted parents. War affects the life trajectory of children. Many children in war will never attain the potential they had.”

Rwanda is classified among the world’s poorest countries, ranked 163 out of 188 countries according to the 2015 Human Development Index report. Over the last 22 years the country has made tremendous progress in terms of rebuilding its economy, peace and reconciliation, but it still faces significant challenges. 

Agriculture is the main source of food and income, with 87% of people relying on rain-fed farming to feed themselves. Farming is becoming more difficult as rains have become erratic due to climate change.

“When I was a child I used to wake up very early so that I could fetch water for my mum before going to school,” Josiane says. “I attended school from 8am-4.30pm. During the weekends, I helped my mother farm. The only thing that pushed me to continue going to school was the hope of finishing my studies someday and find a job to help my family.”

Trócaire started working in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994. Today Trócaire continues to work in the country focusing on peace and reconciliation. The organisation is also focusing on agricultural and economic support for families where, despite the peace, poverty is still a challenge to be overcome.

Joining Josiane on her trip to Ireland is Sr Ancille, from the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Angels. She works in the Tree of Life centre, a Trócaire partner in Rwanda that aims to empower women. “We want to give vulnerable women a voice in decisions affecting their lives, so that they are free from any kind of violence, especially gender-based violence, and for them to be capable to defend their rights. We work with them to lift them from poverty so that they can have a better future,” Sr Ancille says.

Happy

Josiane still has the 2004 Trócaire box in her office in Kilgali and a copy of the photograph in her home. “It makes me very happy to look at it and to think that people in Ireland saw my photo and thought about life in Rwanda,” she says.

“Life is definitely better now. My mum works for a local village group who get support from Trócaire. We have a home, a piece of land, cows and goats. One of my brothers also has finished university studies and the other one is at university now. 

“It was amazing to think that people from a different country were interested in my family. Trócaire made my dreams come true. I am so happy to be in Ireland to say thank you and I’m very happy to be now part of the Trócaire team making changes in people’s lives in Rwanda.”