Finding home: Vestine and Genevieve, two women at the heart of ‘Hingakawa’


GAKENKE DISTRICT, Rwanda — They’re called Angel’s Trumpets – elegant white cone-shaped flowers – and they are swaying gently in the breeze on this warm afternoon outside the home where Vestine* lives. Nearby, the next-door neighbor’s cow moos. The small cluster of homes, nestled next to each other, overlooks a lush, green hillside. It’s peaceful here.

These homes were built for healing.

They were constructed for survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when Hutu extremists, the largest ethnic group in Rwanda, killed a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus who tried to stop the killings.

It was a time when neighbor rose up against neighbor, some who had known each other for years. By the time what’s officially known as the Genocide Against the Tutsi was over, 100 days after it began, homes, families, friendships were decimated.

Months later, Vestine met a woman named Genevieve*, once on the other side of the divide, who would become one of her closest friends. Their story is featured in the short documentary “Hingakawa” by Starbucks Productions. Its theatrical debut is April 11 at the Sarasota Film Festival.

Vestine

“I walk through this place and remember, that my mom and siblings were killed in this valley.” – Vestine Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

Vestine was 15 when her family was killed – her parents, siblings, grandparents and aunts. Her life since then has been about finding a way forward. Today, she lives here with her husband, four children and granddaughter, ranging in age from a young adult to a toddler.

Vestine stands with her granddaughter, Giramata, at the Sunday market. Vestine has been saving for months to buy a goat for her family. Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

Furniture is sparse, but there is love here. As her children wander through the house, Vestine explains how they are her hope. They know what she’s been through, but also know it’s important to stay open to others. “They know they have to give every visitor a warm welcome,” she said.

“In my life, when I am with other people talking, it makes me happy,” she said.

When she herself was a child, she lived in a valley not far from this house. Her home was destroyed during the genocide, but she remembers happy times there with her siblings and parents. Sometimes her mom would surprise her with a treat – food or a piece of clothing. It’s the little memories like that of everyday things that stand out to her – the delicious normalcy of a time before nothing was ever normal again.

Vestine’s husband stands with their children and neighbor kids, outside their home. Vestine’s husband, a Hutu, stood up to his family in order to marry Vestine and start a life together following the genocide. Luanne Dietz / Starbucks
Vestine’s granddaughter, Giramata. Vestine’s daughter is living several towns away for work, so Vestine is helping raise her. Photo by Luanne Dietz / Starbucks
Vestine’s daughter Emma in their living room. She is 11, only a few years younger than Vestine was when the genocide started. Photo by Luanne Dietz / Starbucks

“She took good care of me, I can’t forget her,” she said. “It’s not possible to forget my mom.”

Now, one of the things that brings her comfort is simply feeling safe, here at home with her family, on this hill. “The fact that I am safe, I feel like I am happy,” she said.

Genevieve

A 40-minute walk away, outside another house on a different hill, Genevieve stands with the youngest of her five children. In the front yard, her mother-in-law, 97 years old, sits in the sun with neighbor children, her walking stick resting beside her. Genevieve has something that Vestine doesn’t – elders. As a Hutu, her family is intact.

Genevieve with her husband and children outside their home. Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

One of her sons is disabled, and she is devoted to taking care of him. She worries a little about what will happen to him when she’s old but she’s confident his brothers and sisters will take care of him with the same love she does.

As she talks, a white chicken wanders by, one of the small menagerie of animals she has, along with a cow, which has a calf.

Genevieve works in her garden on the hill in front of her home. Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

Her home is her sanctuary. She loves growing vegetables to cook for family and neighbors. Community is important to her. So is her faith. She’s a devout Catholic and around her neck hangs a cross. Pictures of Jesus adorn her home. On the weekends, she walks over an hour to church to pray with her congregation.

Churches played an important role during the genocide, as well as in reconciliation. Luanne Dietz / Starbucks
A devout Catholic, Genevieve and her family have turned to their faith as a way to move forward. Photo by Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks
Once the church is completely full, late arrivals stand along the outside wall to hear the sermon. Photo by Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks
Genevieve with her youngest daughter, Fabiola, outside church. Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

Genevieve has an easy smile and, when she realizes a visitor isn’t feeling well, ducks into the house to return with a mat and a pillow. This natural concern for others is how she and Vestine met, back when she worked at a health clinic where Vestine had just given birth, without any family to help her know how to take care of a little baby.  

Though Genevieve, 47, is only seven years older, over time, Vestine has come to see her as a mother figure.

“I did not abandon her,” Genevieve said. “We kept our relationship and, even now, she cannot have any problem about me and vice versa.”

Their lives have remained entwined over the years, with both of them part of the Hingakawa coffee co-op, which is run by all women. Both married, they each have their own coffee trees and pride themselves in being able to help provide for their families.

Genevieve and her oldest daughter talk with Vestine at Hingakawa. Over the 24 years they’ve known each other, Genevieve’s and Vestine’s lives have become interwoven. They have become each other’s support. Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

During the off-season, when they don’t see each other at the co-op, Vestine, 40, and Genevieve seek each other out. “When three days pass without seeing her,” Vestine said, “I go and look for her or she comes and looks for me as well; we cannot be separated.”

Family isn’t only whom you are related to by blood – it’s also whom you choose. Vestine and Genevieve choose each other.

Genevieve and Vestine like to work next to each other. They joke that sometimes they need to be separated because they talk a lot. Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

Vestine “really loves everybody at the same level with no discrimination, she takes care of everyone,” said Genevieve. “I love her.”

For her part, Vestine said of Genevieve, “What I learned from her is love. Loving my colleagues, being sympathetic with others and, for example if someone falls sick, I can help him. I learned all these from Genevieve.”

“Love, what I learned from her is love.” – Vestine Melissa Lyttle for Starbucks

Luanne Dietz and Peace Hillary Tumwesigire contributed to this article.

*For reasons of personal safety, in a country so focused on reunification that to speak otherwise can be a crime, their last names are being withheld.

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