‘It was not an easy journey, but I made it’
Play audio version
Attorney Jean Claude Ngabonziza and His Work in Disability Rights in Rwanda
September 22, 2021
*** Content warning regarding genocide
KIGALI, Rwanda — Jean Claude Ngabonziza was only four years old when the 1994 Rwandan genocide began. Ngabonziza describes what he thinks he knew was happening at the start of the genocide. “… I could see that everyone was so worried,” he says. “My mother kept us in the house and was always praying and crying. They could not let us out to play, and my dad was no longer going to the fields. I was young, but I believe I was scared, too.”
After a period of hiding and trying to survive, Ngabonziza and his family were bombarded with grenades that left him with blindness. His mother, the only other surviving family member, enrolled him in HVP (Home of Virgin of the Poor), a school for children with disabilities in Gatagara, and later the Gahini Secondary School after the genocide.
Today, Jean Claude Ngabonziza is a lawyer working with UWEZO Youth Empowerment, an organization supporting youth with disabilities. UWEZO Youth Empowerment is under the umbrella cohort of the National Union of Disability Organizations of Rwanda. Since graduating from the School of Law at the University of Rwanda-Huye Campus with academic distinction, he has worked with many organizations, especially those supporting youth with disabilities. “It was not an easy journey but I made it,” Ngabonziza says. Since 2012, he has been a member of the Rwandan Union of the Blind, where he has been advocating for access to white canes for Rwandans with vision impairments.
Ngabonziza was born in 1990. Both his parents were farmers. He was raised in Kigali, in the Gasabo District and Ndera Sector. He says his family had a lot of expectations for him as their firstborn and only son in his nuclear family. He is grateful to his mother, especially for the role she played in his educational journey. Ngabonziza says, “If it was not for my mother who, instead of keeping me in the backyard, chose to take me to school, which was not an easy task for her with all the difficulties and poverty that was there after the [genocide]. She was having her own problems of trauma and post-war issues of losing her husband and family, but she fought for her son. I cannot thank her enough.”
When asked what makes him thrive, he says, “I do not limit myself. I try everything that I can do, put in more work than others. I make sure that I am satisfied with my work, which is not an easy task to achieve.”
Rose Umutesi is a 2021 DJP Fellow and chairperson of the National Organization of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry in Rwanda (NOUSPR) and co-founder and treasurer of its umbrella organization, the National Union of Disabilities Organizations of Rwanda (NUDOR). @2021 NOUSPR. All rights reserved.
News From the Global Frontlines of Disability Justice
‘A View From Somewhere’
DJP staff, partners, and fellows reflect on two years of “taking back the narrative” on disability. “Through the DJP, I was able to advance my advocacy level … for women with disabilities, most especially people with DeafBlindness,” says disability rights activist Oluwabukolami Omolara Badmus, an inaugural DJP fellow from Nigeria.
DJP Fellow Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé chronicles the challenges she and other Nigerians with disabilities faced voting in her country’s February elections, from faraway polling places to no assistive materials like magnifying glasses. She urges more inclusion in the House of Assembly and gubernatorial elections on March 18.
More Than A Name
Lidia Lebang, a mental health advocate and author, says she is more than her name: “I am a woman – a gender often seen in Indonesia’s patriarchal society as a second, or inferior, gender. I come from a working-class family. I live with bipolar disorder, which makes me a person with a disability. These are parts of my identity that make me who I am now.”
Toward Equitable Health Care
Rwandans with disabilities face significant barriers to accessing health care. For those with short stature, this includes hospital beds and reception windows that are too high. “Sometimes we are served after others or choose to stay home,” says one advocate for more inclusive services and infrastructure.
‘I Never Imagined I Could Do This’
Dissatisfied by the way local news portrays people with disabilities, DJP Fellow Sri Sukarni is determined to use her new video skills to share issues important to her community. At the top of her agenda is the lack of accessible public service buildings. “This is what I want to convey to the media, to the government,” she says.
‘You Can’t Legislate Attitudes’
When DJP Fellow Benedicta Oyèdayọ̀ Oyèwọlé was a child, a pastor laid hands on her to “cast out the demons” and blamed her disability on witches. Today, Oyèwọlé is working as an advocate for Nigerians with disabilities to end discrimination: “It’s people’s attitudes that need to be transformed. You can’t legislate attitudes.”