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    Mathilde Mukantabana

Cosumnes River professor Mukantabana named Rwanda's ambassador to U.S.

Published: Monday, Jul. 22, 2013 - 9:37 pm
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013 - 10:31 am

In the week that Mathilde Mukantabana was hired to teach history at Cosumnes River College, she learned that her entire family had been butchered in the genocide that has come to define her native Rwanda to the rest of the world.

"If we Tutsis survived, it was by a miracle," Mukantabana recalled. "A million people died in three months. It started in April and ended in July 1994. My father, my mother and my four younger brothers and sisters were killed along with six aunts, four uncles and all my nieces and nephews. From my father's side alone 70 are gone."

The killings stopped only after the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi military group, wrested control of the African country away from Hutu extremists who had launched the machete massacre of their countrymen after the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu.

While teaching five classes a year at Cosumnes River, Mukantabana, 57, threw herself into Rwanda's resurrection. She helped create the non-profit Friends of Rwanda Association, established a school for Rwandan social workers and rescued dozens of orphans.

Now one of the world's most respected voices on the genocide, Mukantabana recently became the new Rwandan ambassador to the United States.

On Thursday, she presented her credentials to President Barack Obama at the White House.

"It is important to remember that the liberation of Rwanda 19 years ago was not only physical but moral, spiritual and psychological," she told Rwandan expatriates from across the United States.

Boatamo Mosupyoe, a South African who chairs ethnic studies at California State University, Sacramento, called Mukantabana a perfect choice for ambassador. "Above and beyond her educational credentials, she's committed to social justice and has the ability to bring people together from all walks of life."

Mukantabana, who has been living in the United States for 33 years, returned to Rwanda after the genocide and saw bodies floating in the streets. "Even until recently we were trying to give people proper burials," she said recently. "The few survivors were mostly children - some were under the bodies of their parents."

The new ambassador said Belgian colonialists created a hierarchy that divided the nation, spurring Hutus to attack the Tutsis, who had ruled the country for centuries through kings and chiefs who controlled the land, cattle and military.

Quota systems were established and most Tutsis were kicked out of high school and jobs, she said. Some fled to the Congo. Mukantabana fled to Burundi, where she finished her education.

She came to Sacramento State in 1980 and married Rwandan professor and activist Alexandre Kimenyi, who died in 2010.

To learn how to cope with Rwanda's overwhelming tragedy, Mukantabana earned her master's in social work at Sacramento State with a special emphasis on community organization, planning and administration.

In 2002, she began training social workers in Rwanda. About 200 now work for local governments and nonprofits like UNICEF, "helping our people deal with the trauma."

Mosupyoe said Rwanda "is one of the beautiful examples of Africa like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. In 1994, when the world was focused on the independence of South Africa, they ignored Rwanda, where Africans were slaughtering our brothers and sisters."

Rwanda's 12 million people still face huge challenges. With a yearly per-capita income of $640, Rwanda is one of the world's least developed nations, ranking 166 out of 187 worldwide. Three percent of the population is HIV-positive, the majority of them women.

The government has formed an organization to help women with HIV take care of themselves and their families, Mukantabana said.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies said the country's "apparent stability masks deep-rooted tensions, unresolved resentments and an authoritarian government that is unwilling to countenance criticism or open political debate."

But Mukantabana sees tremendous progress. The literacy rate for Rwandans 15 and older is 71 percent. Her roots as a teacher were planted by her father, a primary school principal in the southern Rwandan town of Butare, which means "rock."

Her father was the godfather to many Hutu children "who were like brothers and sisters to me, we spoke the same language and went to the same churches," she said.

But, she said, Tutsis became scapegoats for the poverty and illiteracy that gripped the nation.

Disenfranchised youth joined Hutu farmers buying machetes in large quantities. "Some people became crazy, and killing became working," she said. Hutus who tried to stop the genocide were also slaughtered.

After learning of her family's extermination in 1994, she took refuge in her friends in Sacramento. "Once you lose your own family, sometimes you find a new family. The environment was so nurturing here that I got beyond my own narcissistic suffering."

Hutu and Tutsi now work together to rebuild the country, and young people are willing to put the past behind them, Makantabana said.

"The economy's improved, we have gender equality, free universal health care and zero tolerance for corruption. People can question their leaders, and they have to respond," she said.

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

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