A few kilometres from Gitarama town in Central Rwanda lives 87 year-old Sula Karuhimbi, or Mama Domitila , a local healer .
During the 1994 genocide, b y force of personality and reputation alone, she somehow managed to hide more than 20 Tutsis in her house and farm over many weeks.
But the militia found out, and began to demand that she hand them over. Sula refused and adopted all kinds of tricks to protect her fugitives. “One man came to me with wounds on his head; I pounded herbs to treat him. Just then, the attackers came, demanding to know what I was doing with the people in the house. I said I was treating their skin ailments. They insisted on seeing them, so I brought out the one who had wounds on the head. I had smeared the rest with ash and dust so they looked sick. “
When the attackers asked Sula about her relationship with the people in her house, she said they were relatives wounded in the conflict, but the militia were not so easily convinced.
“The argument did not work. So I tried another tactic, using bells and gourds. I began chanting and shaking them, saying I was calling on the spirits of the dead to kill them,” the old woman narrates, laughing.
Mama Domitila ‘s ruse worked, and the superstitious militia left her alone. One of those hiding in the house at the time was Wellace Ntaganira. Sula recalls the night he showed up at her door, at the very start of the trouble. “Wellace Ntaganira came from Kigali the night President Habyarimana died. I hid him in one of the two houses in the compound. When I realized things were getting complicated, I moved him to the main house,” she recalls.
Wellace says he will never forget her courage. “She is a heroine. What she did was very difficult and rare in those days. I think God worked through her. I am alive, but many others died,” he says.
Mary Mukarwemba lost her husband and children, but she was saved by Sula. She says the elderly healer had a smart system to ensure her survival. “She had many crops like sweet potatoes and cassava on her land. She would take me to hide in the farm in the morning,” Mukarwemba remembers.
“After she finished working she would check to see if I was still OK. At night she would take me back into the house. Sometimes she would hide me in her house and lock it. When she came back she would open it for me to leave,” Mukarwemba recalls.
Annociata Mukagakwaya’s husband and daughter were killed. She suffered severe wounds to her head but managed to escape. She was desperate to hide. That’s when she found Sula. “She took me to her place and treated my wounds. She tried to feed me but the food would not go down. She also brought my brother into her house. I survived because of her efforts,” she states.
But trouble was brewing. When Mama Sula’s grandson arrived home from Kigali , he insisted all Tutsis must leave their property. Annonciata says she’ll never forget that day. “Her grandson was a bandit, he came and threatened me with a sword, saying: “You are hard to take care of. You are not even eating and if you stay you will bring us trouble. Get out! Join your brother, wherever he is hiding!”
When she saw what had happened, Sula took Annonciata to the house of her niece in a nearby town. But even here, peace was not to be found. “Her niece paid someone 2,000 francs to hide me, but two weeks later he threw me out. I slept in a swamp and in the morning I returned to Mama Domitila’s without her grandson knowing.”
All those forced from the home of Sula survived the genocide. Wellace wishes more people had followed her courageous example. “What we should learn from this example is that to do such things does not require miracles or extravagant means. All it requires is a giving and loving heart.”
Annonciata too, is eternally grateful to the elderly healer who saved so many lives. “These people should be rewarded, they came to our aid, they saved small children as well as old people, they took care of us in their houses …. Isn’t that something that deserves a reward?”