Woman of the Month: The Witch Who Saved a Village

Written by Izzy A

The ‘witch’ who protected a village from genocide.

What was the Rwandan Genocide?

In 1916, Belgium took control of Rwanda, a colony previously under German control. Under Belgian colonial rule, the Rwandan population was split into two: the Hutus, which made up the majority of the population, and the Tutsis, the minority. Over time, the Belgian colonists began to favour the Tutsis, giving better opportunities for education and jobs. This increased tension between the Rwandan people, who were already hugely divided.

In 1959, “Tutsi King Kigeri V, together with tens of thousands of Tutsis, were forced into exile in neighbouring Uganda following what was referred to as a Hutu revolution in Rwanda.” [1] After Rwanda gained independence in 1962, the Hutu people took the positions of power. [4] Violence between the two sides continued, and in 1994 these increased tensions sparked the Rwandan Genocide. Around “800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus” [1] were killed during the violence, which lasted around 100 days..

Zura Karuhimbe - the ‘witch’ who saved a village

Zura Karuhimbi was born around 1925 to a Hutu family. Her exact birthdate is known, as this date comes from a government issued identity card. So, by the time of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, she was already in her 70’s. She lived in a little two-room house in Musamo Village, about an hour east of Rwanda's capital, Kigali.

Karuhimbi risked her life by sheltering refugees from those wanting to see them dead. Her little house became a safe haven for Tutsis, Burundians and even three Europeans trying to escape violence during the genocide. She reportedly hid people under her bed, in a secret space in the roof, and there are reports that she dug a hole in her fields for people to hide in. She would even shelter babies who had been rescued from the arms of their dead mothers after being left to die. The exact number of people she sheltered is unknown, but it is believed to be around 100-150. [2]

Though the refugees in her home were hidden, authorities had a good idea that they were there. The Hutu militia were alerted and they went to Karuhimbi’s house demanding to be let inside. Facing machetes, rifles and an angry militia at her door, the elderly Karuhimbi used what weapons she had; she convinced the militia that she was a curse dealing, spirit summoning, witch.

She told the soldiers that if they entered her home, she would unleash spirits on them and their families. She maintained that her home was a shrine and that by entering it they would “incur the wrath of Nyabingi [a Kinyarwanda word for God]” [1]. She shook her many beaded bracelets to make terrifying noises, scaring the militia away for another day.

Every time they visited, she would play the same performance. "I confronted them as usual, warning them that by killing the refugees in my house, they were digging their own graves." [1]

After a while, mounting pressure convinced the Hutu militia to advance into Karuhimbis house despite her warnings. As they entered, they were greeted with “itchy and colossal herbal substances” [3] which she had painted on the walls of her house, as well as her own skin.

Ernest Ngaruye, one of the survivors she hid, remembers the incident. “They all ran back telling everyone there were ghosts inside the house. Everyone believed her ghosts were dangerous and would kill them” [3]

Even when bribed with money, Zura Karuhimbi refused to give up those she had sheltered. “money could not cost me the lives of Rwandans,” she told them. [3]

Karuhimbi’s performance worked. When the genocide ended in July 1994, every life that Karuhimbi had risked her own to protect was saved. The legend of the witch of Musamo Village spread around the world, although Karuhimbi has assured people she never was or has been a real witch. "I only believed in one God and the thing of magical power was just an invention and cover I was using to save lives," [1] she said in a 2014 interview.

In 2006 Zura Karuhimbi was awarded the ‘Campaign Against Genocide’ medal by the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose life she had unknowingly saved almost 50 years earlier.

As inter-ethnic violence was mounting in 1959, she told the Tutsi mother of a two year old boy to put the beads from her necklace and tie them into her boy's hair, to convince the world that he was a girl. At the time, the militia were only interested in killing boys. This action saved his life, and he went on to become President of Rwanda. [1]

In 2018, Zura Karuhimbi died peacefully in the same home in which she had saved so many lives.

On the day President Kagume visited her village, Karuhimbi said he told her “if everyone was a witch doctor like me, genocide could not have happened.” [3]

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-46618482

[2] https://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/zula-karuhimbi-eulogized-heroine-selfless-patriot

[3] https://www.ktpress.rw/2015/04/meet-mukaruhimbi-whose-prank-saved-100-tutsi/

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13431486

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