Long walk to success

2011-03-27 10:00
Jacques Pauw
When Kennedy Gihana embarked on his journey south, he took only one thing with him: his matric ­certificate. He carefully wrapped it in plastic and tied it around his body with a banana rope.

He left behind a brother in an ­orphanage and his motherland, Rwanda, which a few years ­earlier had been drenched in blood.

On a Saturday morning in 1998, he started walking. He ­followed the panya (Swahili for “rat”) roads to avoid roadblocks, police, ­soldiers and bandits.

He says: “I only had my ­certificate with me. When I got to ­Malawi, my shoes were ­finished so I made a pair of ­sandals out of an old tyre.

“Then I kept walking. I ­survived only because of that ­African thing called ubuntu. Strangers along the way gave me cassava and water, and sometimes even a bed.”

Little did Gihana know, when he started that journey, that his story of hardship and adversity would end in a personal triumph and success that only a few can dream of.

In 1998, he said, he knew that if he could cross the big, brown river called the Limpopo, which he had learned about in ­geography class, he would face a fresh new future.

Six months after he had left, he walked through the ­Beitbridge border post and ­entered South ­Africa.

He got a lift to Johannesburg – the first and only car journey of his 3?000km trip – and was dropped off in Hillbrow.

“It was the middle of the night, it was winter and it was very cold. I didn’t know where I was. I lay down against a wall and slept.”

The next morning, Gihana joined a band of street children and for months roamed Hillbrow and the inner city to find food and a place to sleep.

Gihana was born in 1972 to a ­Burundian father and a ­Rwandan mother. He started school when he was 10.

His first school was 7km away, but he walked the distance. He finished school in Uganda before returning to Rwanda with his family.

In April 1994, then Rwandan ­president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over the ­capital, Kigali.

His death ­triggered the biggest mass slaughter in ­Africa’s modern ­history as mobs of Hutu militia – called the interahamwe – ­attacked Tutsis.

The Gihana family was living in the university town of Butare in the south of the country, but ­Kennedy was trapped in
the north.

The machetes of the interahamwe were more efficient than the gas chambers of the Nazis.

For 100 days, an average of 10?000 people were killed daily. The Hutu fanatics who had seized power ­after the demise of the president were bent on purging Rwanda of any Tutsis.

They succeeded in killing a?­million people.

“I thought this was the end of the Tutsis. This was the end as described in the Bible,” Gihana says.

“There was blood everywhere. Mothers, fathers and children ­were stuck onto sharpened sticks like kebabs. You couldn’t walk ­without seeing bodies.”

Gihana survived, but his ­family did not. They were an ­extended ­family of 20 before the genocide, but afterwards, only Gihana and his two-year-old brother were left.

His brother was sent to an orphanage. In 1997, Gihana went back to Uganda and from there to Kenya.

In Dar es Salaam he heard people talking about opportunities in South Africa, so he started walking south and, on June 11, he peered across the Limpopo at the ­promised land.

For several months after he ­arrived, the streets, bridges and parks of Hillbrow were his home as he eked out an existence.

He met a Burundian who gave him R100 and helped him to get ­refugee papers. He found a R700-a-month job as a security guard at a complex in Fourways.

He lived in Hillbrow and used all his money for transport, ­except for R50 a month, which he saved. He did not ­have any clothes – except his ­uniform – or food.

In 2000, Gihana registered for a law degree at Unisa with the ­pittance he had saved. He worked at night so that he could sit in his booth and study, and he passed both modules – one with 84%.

Two years later, he found a job as a ­security guard at the ­Rwandan ­embassy in Pretoria and switched to the University of Pretoria.

The embassy gave him a back room to live in. He passed all the modules in the first semester, ­despite sometimes attending class for only a few minutes.

He paid his entire salary of R3?000 a month to the ­university as tuition fees and lived on charity.

In 2003 the embassy gave him notice and he was once again ­homeless, so he secretly slept in the university library.

Finally, the dean of the law ­faculty appointed him as a ­research assistant and gave him a small room to live in.

At the end of 2005, he ­obtained his LLB degree.

“I had achieved what I had set out to do, but there was nobody I could tell or share it with. I was the first in my family to get any ­learning,” says Gihana.

For the next two years, he did his articles at a Pretoria law firm, but could not be admitted as an ­attorney because he
was a refugee.

He and the firm threatened the Law Society of the Northern ­Province with legal action, but ­before the matter got to court, the home affairs department ­informed him that he had been granted permanent residence.
In 2008, Gihana ­became an ­attorney.

He has just received his ­master’s degree in international law from the University of ­Pretoria, has registered his own law firm and is engaged to a ­Rwandan woman.

But the journey is not over.

“I am alive and I am ­educated, but now I want to get married and ­recreate the family I lost. And then, I want to bring my brother to South Africa.”