Staying strong

That she is probably stronger than you are is the first thing you realize upon meeting Mukahijiro. In both physical strength and mental determination, the 15 year-old is well beyond her peers and a good many adults.

Late in 1994, the distinct sound of automatic weapon fire, within close range of her family's farm, drove Mukahijiro, her mother and seven siblings into the bush. Non-stop for four months they ran and ran and ran. Surviving the wilds of Nyungwe Forest, located in Rwanda's deep southwest, they stumbled into Zaire.

"All I remember is that we were in a refugee camp called Nyangezi and that I had an operation on my stomach," Mukahijiro states. "An operation that did not go as well as the doctors had hoped." The procedure, to remove an abscess in her abdomen, was unsuccessful.

Mukahijiro was immediately airlifted to South Africa where she underwent additional surgery during a lonely eight-month hospital stay. When she returned to Nyangezi, she was greeted with news that her mother and five siblings had succumbed to disease and death that was devouring refugees by the thousands. A year later Mukahijiro, Mukangwizi, her eight-year-old sister, and Barame, the girls' two-year-old brother, journeyed back to Rwanda.

Finding her family home razed and once burgeoning fields overgrown with jungle-thick and choking vegetation, did not discourage Mukahijiro. "Asking our neighbours or friends for food was senseless," she laughs. "We shared the same situation, nobody had anything. If we were to eat we had to get to work." Mukahijiro and Mukangwizi did just that. Morning after morning, an hour before the sun, the girls rise and head straight to their fields. Their string bean, cassava, soybean, maize, Irish and sweet potato, sorghum and sunflower crops are all well tended and highly productive. As is their expanding banana plantation.

In addition to cultivating, the girls look after their four goats and one pig, collect firewood and fetch water for cooking and washing clothes. They also keep their house, the house they rebuilt on their own, impressively clean. "Sunday, to attend church, is the only day we rest," Mukahijiro smiles. "I like to cultivate and am never tired. Unless, of course, if I am sick."

Every once in a while, Mukahijiro is haunted with terrible stomach cramps. Most recently, she was bedridden for an entire month. Mukangwizi and Barame were concerned and very frightened. "I don't know what Barame and I would do if our sister were not here," Mukangwizi shakes her head as she fights back tears. "She is our mother, father and best friend. There is no one else who would care for us."

The moment Mukahijiro became sick, Mukangwizi had no choice but to sell the family's best crop of sorghum and remaining sweet potatoes to purchase medicine for her sister. Having little to eat, Barame was weak and did not attend school for most of the month. Many prayers later, Mukahijiro recovered. She wasted no time returning to her fields.

The stamina Mukahijiro possesses is unending. Combined with her optimism and positive attitude, she continues to beat insurmountable odds. Odds that would break many twice her age. "I am a happy 15 year-old girl," she admits. "To be the head of our family and to work to give my siblings a better chance at life, proudly gets me out of bed every day."