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Stepping Up

After coming to grips with the horrors of genocide, a native Rwandan works to raise awareness for the women in her country
Monday, May 9, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:28 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

It took Rangira Béa Gallimore nearly a decade to hang up the phone.

Born in Rwanda, in central Africa, Gallimore is an associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at MU. She came to the United States for an education, then earned a doctorate and met her husband. She lived, taught, researched and wrote in Columbia during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when Rwandan military and militia groups killed more than 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic minority and Hutu sympathizers.

When Gallimore left, her family, who are Tutsis, remained in Rwanda. More than 100 members of her extended family died during the genocide.

Her mother, sister and three brothers were killed shortly after Gallimore spoke with them on the phone.

“So, of course, that is one of my main traumas,” Gallimore said. “Imagine your mom, your sister, your brothers on the other line trying to ask for help, and you cannot do anything.”

She returned to Rwanda in 1994 to hang up the phone.

But the first try was unsuccessful. Not until Gallimore went back to the country in 2003 was she able to begin to come to grips with her experiences. And she’s still doing so, by organizing a not-for-profit group to raise awareness and money for a counseling center for survivors of rape and gender-based violence in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.

The organization, Step Up — American Association for Rwandan Women, was founded in September and is now incorporated. Once it has attained tax-exempt status, in three to four months, the group will begin publicizing and fund raising. It has a 12-member board of directors, an advisory panel and the beginnings of a nationwide network ready to mobilize.

Raising Awareness

Though the group can’t yet raise money, Gallimore is working to raise awareness. She is available to speak in front of civic groups, churches, fraternities and sororities — any groups that want to hear what she has to say. She has organized several local events in the past year, including a recent panel discussion at MU’s Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center featuring experts and Rwandan survivors.

She works on national and international levels, too. Gallimore will be the keynote speaker at a two-day, mid-May conference on romance languages and literature at the University of Cincinnati. Later this month, she will be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a gender consultation sponsored by the Gender Equality and Development Section of UNESCO.

“She is absolutely dedicated in terms of Rwanda,” said Paul Wallace, professor emeritus of political science at MU and a specialist on terrorism. “She formed this whole organization.”

When Gallimore returned to Rwanda for a month in 1994, she searched for surviving family members along the Rwandan/Ugandan border. She found one sister in Kigali.

“My sister looked at me and said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so horrible. Blood is so horrible. You have to be my sister to come inside this hell,’” Gallimore told the Columbia Daily Tribune in 1994.

The trip also allowed Gallimore to begin to deal with her losses.

“I wanted to sit where my mom sat, just to reconstruct this scene and hang up the phone somehow. But I got there and there was nothing. The house was bulldozed,” she said.

Since the trip, Gallimore has brought more than a dozen relatives to Columbia. She also organized a funeral service for members of her family.

Refocusing

Gallimore said after the 1994 trip, she decided she would never go back to Rwanda. But she also could not get her mind off the suffering she had seen, particularly that of Rwandan women.

So she refocused her research. Though she had been researching and writing about violence in the fiction of African women writers, Gallimore decided to face reality with what was happening in Rwanda.

In 2003, she reluctantly returned to Rwanda to speak about her research at a university there. Surrounded by friends and people who knew how difficult it was for her to return, she said, she was well-received.

During the conference, she stayed at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, where the recent Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” was filmed.

“The first two or three nights, I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about the people who were in these rooms and stuff, although it has been cleaned and it is fine, back to normal,” she said.

She visited her sister’s home there, which her family has rebuilt, and bought a tract of land in the country. She visited several women’s organizations to try to find some of the women she met in 1994. She found only one.

“She was raped and gang-raped, and she was also disfigured. She had scars all over her face,” Gallimore said. “She said, ‘The mirror is my nightmare. Anytime I look at my face in the mirror, I think about the scars, and the scars take me back to what happened.’”

Doing Something

At one women’s center for rape survivors infected with HIV, a woman questioned Gallimore about her research.

“One of the women told me, ‘So you come here and you study about us and then you go back. And then what do you do?’ And so I look in this woman’s eyes and I said, ‘I will do something.’”

She formed Step Up.

Gallimore said she realized that influencing policy with her research was not helping the women at a grassroots level.

“At first, everything I was doing was into theory, and I needed to do something practical,” she said. “That’s when I started this organization.”

Wallace said the Rwandan genocide is one of the worst examples of atrocity — a deliberate policy of terror and an almost deliberate shutting of the eyes by the international community.

By all accounts, thousands of women were raped during the Rwandan genocide, leaving the country with difficult consequences. Academic considerations of the gender-based violence that occurred point to rape as the rule, the absence of it an exception.

“It was a deliberate policy,” Wallace said. “This is not the spoils of war; this was a deliberate policy to eliminate that particular group.”

Many rape victims bore children — abortions were illegal in Rwanda before and during the genocide. HIV, proliferated by the genocide, runs rampant. Many women were infected by rape and passed the disease to their children.

Wallace said more men than women died at the hands of the Hutus. Today more than 70 percent of the households in Rwanda are headed by women.

“They have the highest percentage of women representatives in their legislature, too,” Wallace said.

Gallimore said the Rwandan government is doing a good job addressing the needs of these women and children.

“The government tried to help them with housing, with food and schooling,” she said. “Because I think the children want to be together instead of in a foster home.”

Though some cultural attitudes and laws have changed in Rwanda since the genocide — women can now inherit land and determine the ethnicity of their children — closure remains an issue.

“If you don’t want it to happen again, you better keep it alive in people’s minds so people can see what happened,” Wallace said.

The center Gallimore hopes to create in Rwanda is to be called Nsanga, a Rwandan name meaning “come to me.” It is also Gallimore’s mother’s maiden name.

The group is working to be affiliated with the Rwandan Women Network, based in Kigali.

Wallace said he thinks people in Columbia will respond to Gallimore’s organization. Gallimore said Columbia and MU have supported her for a long time.

“Standing here in this country in security, I felt some guilt,” she said. “After 2003, maybe I felt like I survived and the reason I’m still alive is to help. This is a way for me to hang up the phone.”


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