High in the mountains of Kibali commune, 70 kilometers due north of Kigali, rests the village of Ngondore. The air is refreshing, and the sight of endless hectares of electric green tea fields, hundreds of meters below, breathtaking. Mukarugigana, sadly, has no time to enjoy the view.
Days after the end of the 1994 genocide, Mukarugigana's father fled with his wife and six children from their Ngondore home. Revenge killings were occurring with greater frequency throughout Rwanda. His fear was valid that he and his family might become a casualty of the violence. For three months, concealed in the family compound of a friend, they did not dare move. Provoked by a rash of murders and growing insecurity in the area, he wanted a safer place to hide.
Under the cover of a cold October night, he secured transport and moved everyone to an internally displaced camp near the Uganda border. Six months later, as the family was preparing to return home, Mukarugigana's father died of liver complications. Her mother, no longer able to stomach the squalor and deteriorating conditions of the camp, followed through with her dead husband's plans and took her children back to Ngondore.
"Our destroyed house and overgrown land we did not recognize," seventeen-year-old Mukarugigana remembers. "The entire area was as thick as a jungle. It took us two days to hack our way to the front door."
Resuming the semblance of a normal life was a day to day struggle. Food was scarce, cultivating exhausting and malaria endemic. The family endured and when school began, the four eldest children returned to the classroom.
As she had before her life was interrupted, Mukarugigana again excelled in school. She ranked fourth out of 50 in her primary-six class. Ntezurubanza, Mukarugigana's younger brother and the family's eldest boy, was also at the top of his class. "Out of 64 primary-four students, I was tenth," he states impassively. "I was doing well before my mother died."
Less than three years after their father had passed away, their 40-year-old mother fell sick and within days she was dead. Devastated, Mukarugigana and Ntezurubanza quit school immediately. "All by herself, my mother cared for us dearly," Mukarugigana says softly. "I try my best to do what she did. She made it look easy. I know now how hard it truly is."
Mukarugigana, in addition to her five siblings, was suddenly responsible for a newborn. Her mother gave birth to a boy four months before she had died. The father none of the children know.
Feeding, clothing and keeping the six children healthy was too much to bear. Around the clock, Mukarugigana was caring for her family. Failure, however, was not an option. "As hard as it was to understand, I quickly learned that I was no longer a child," she states. "I am a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities. My sisters and brothers depend on me and I can not fail them."
To her siblings, Mukarugigana is more than a sister and brother; she is also their mother and father. She intervenes in disagreements between the youngest children, both of whom call her "mom." Ten-year-old Batajyinama and 12-year-old Nyirabahiza rely on her for help with their schoolwork. Ntezurubanza, although the man of the house at fifteen, still needs his sisters advice. "Straight to Mukarugigana is where I go when I've a problem," he declares. "I seek permission from her for just about everything and respect my sister's authority."
The absence of his father has been particular hard on the teenage boy. He is always defending their land, as what little they have is constantly in danger of being cultivated by greedy neighbors. Thieves have on numerous night raids attempted to abscond his three sheep. So far they have been unsuccessful. The family's ten rabbits, however, were long ago stolen.
"Mukarugigana is so tired at night that I must stand watch over our house," Ntezurubanza confirms. "If my father were here, nobody would think twice about stealing from or taking advantage of us."
Lacking a support system, other than her siblings whom she tries not to burden with the troubles she experiences, Mukarugigana has no choice but to forge ahead on her own. "I miss being a sister, but that time has passed," she admits. "My life was over two years ago. Because of the children it must continue."