Home Interviews Exclusive Interview With The Talented Authoress of Rwandan Origin: Consolee Nishimwe
Exclusive Interview With The Talented Authoress of Rwandan Origin: Consolee Nishimwe PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patricia Turnier   
Wednesday, 17 April 2013 16:23

Consolee Nishimwe was born in Western Province, Rwanda.  Her name Consolee means comfort or consolation.  She is 33, the age of Christ and was born on September 11th, a date which will always be remembered by Americans.  Nishimwe was at home in Rubengera, Kibuye, with her parents and four siblings when the ethnic cleansing started on April 6, 1994 and ended three months later.  After many years, a 2002 Rwandan government census indicated that the body count from the genocide totaled more than 1 million people. Tutsis accounted for 94 percent of those killed.   

During the genocide, Nishimwe and her family were forced to leave their home and go into hiding, desperately trying to avoid capture and certain death.  Unfortunately, she lost her father Andre, and three young brothers, 18-month-old Bon-Fils (this first name means Good Son), Philbert, 9 and Pascal, 7.  They were brutally murdered along with many other close relatives, including her grandparents.

Ms.  Consolee Nishimwe is a survivor of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda and lived through the horrors of that ethnic cleansing at age fourteen. She suffered incredible physical and emotional torture for three months.   This was later compounded by unspeakable psychological trauma when she contracted HIV after being raped during the genocide and robbed of her innocence.   In the end, Nishimwe miraculously survived with her mother and younger sister. During her period in hiding, Nishimwe’s faith was regularly tested. Over time, she succeeded in discarding the burden of vengeful thoughts for those who were persecuting her, by placing her ultimate destiny in God's hands. Nishimwe is an emblem of stoicism, endurance and fortitude.  Her miraculous and inspiring story of survival is a true testament of hope and spirituality triumphing over evil and tragedy.  It provides lessons and words of wisdom to readers from all walks of life.  Hence, her book Tested to the Limit can be of great value to people who have lived through afflictions, as well as to or to those who need strength to overcome their own struggles.

Noteworthily, women have been raped in wars and civil conflicts for millennia.  According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), violence against women has been described the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights assault globally. It is only in 2001 that rape was regarded as a crime against humanity when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia issued arrest warrants based on the Geneva Conventions and Violations of the Laws or Customs of War. Precisely, it was recognized that Muslim female in Foča (southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina) were subjected to systematic and widespread gang rape, torture and sexual enslavement by Bosnian Serb soldiers, policemen, and members of paramilitary groups after the takeover of the city in Spring 1992.  The arraignment was confirmed by a 2001 verdict by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia which concluded that rape and sexual enslavement are crimes against humanity. This decision challenged the widespread acceptance of rape and sexual enslavement of women as intrinsic parts of wars.  This represents a very important step in support of females’ rights.  It is only in 2008 that the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1820, which pointed out that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.  This breakthrough related to female issues provides a more powerful tool to fundamentally transform how wars are fought and provides a more potent weapon to prosecute war criminals who assault women.

Nishimwe’s book made me realise more than ever that while certain forms of hatred are defined, there is no word in several languages including English, which specifically defines hatred against minors.  This would be required because it would be a recognition of the existence of this crime and would serve to highlight its cruelty.  Misogyny is hatred of females, misanthropy means odium toward humankind and misandry is the detestation against males.  

It is really disheartening to see that there are contemporary and sinister stories à la Anne Frank still happening in the world.  Nishimwe was about the same age as her when she was witnessing and experiencing the terrible ethnic cleansing.  It seems that humans don’t learn from history.  During WWII, the German media played an important role in disseminating propaganda against Jewish people, Afro-Germans, gypsies, gays, the handicapped and others.  Circa 50 years later the same occurred in Rwanda, with some radio stations encouraging hatred against the Tutsis.  The U.N. Security Council condemned the killings but the organisation did not recognize the situation as genocide, which prohibited it from intervening.  The world should never let life revisit the atrociousness that occurred in the past.  We must assure future generations that the wickedness of racism, Anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination will not be tolerated.  We learn in Tested to The Limit that during the genocide there were children who were more rational in their thinking and showed compassion for Nishimwe and her family, unlike their parents. The authoress summed this up nicely in the following quote:  “that’s why kids are considered angels, and if only our hearts could become as pure as theirs, there would be far less hatred in our world.”

The beauty of Tested to The Limit is the fact that the authoress doesn’t identify herself nor the other people based on their ethnic background until its official introduction at school, where the strategy of ethnic division started in her life when she was in the third grade.  Moreover, the unshakable spirituality and the resilience of the authoress are inspiring.  Given her ordeal, to find the courage to pen her story shows that she lives up to the meaning of her name.  What saved her besides her faith is the fact that she has a loving and supportive family, which was bigger before the genocide.

Let’s hope that Tested to The Limit will retain the attention of a well-known singer (such as the Grammy Award winner Yolanda Adams did for Rosa Parks) to pay tribute to Nishimwe and to all the women in the world who endured these terrible ordeals which are still ongoing.

Aforementioned, Nishimwe is living with a different kind of war wound, one that was confirmed when physicians diagnosed her as HIV positive.  Her innocence was taken away from her at the age of 14, she was a virgin when she was raped.  Her aggressor shamelessly left her bloody and unconscious on the ground after the rape.  Nishimwe told the media that her assaulter probably thought she was going to die.   Noteworthily, many Tutsi females were gang-raped during the Rwandan genocide and some of them subsequently tested HIV positive.

Since the sexual assault, Nishimwe had doubts as to whether she was infected; it took her ten years before she decided to do the test because she was apprehensive and scared about finding out her status.  Miraculously, she is still alive after 18 years.  Today, she is living proof of the resilience of the human spirit, and is a fine example for HIV-positive people everywhere.

Ms.  Nishimwe is smart and talented to have written a book in English, which is not her first language.  She learned it in 2001 when she arrived in America.  The book was not penned in a sensationalist style.  Her tone was authentic, insightful and respectful throughout.  It is ironic that Rwanda became known internationally following the genocide.  It should have been known long before for its breathtaking  landscapes, comfortable climate, rich culture and other features.  We feel the deep love of the authoress for her country, despite her painful experiences.   Tested to the Limit is compelling and should be a NY Times bestseller.

Overall, Nishimwe miraculously survived with her mother and younger sister the genocide.  Her memoir is a poignant look at the genocide which occurred in Rwanda in 1994.  In 1998, Nishimwe found herself in a refugee camp with other survivors. Luckily, she was able to join her cousin Immaculée Ilibagiza and her husband in America in 1998.  She also has another cousin, Chantal, living in the U.S.  Nishimwe has only two members of her immediate family who survived the genocide,  her sister Jeannette and her mother who still live in Rwanda.

Tested to the Limit at the beginning describes Rwanda and its beauty.  Aforementioned, the author shares her love for her country, despite the genocide.  What is sad is the fact that Rwanda became widely known because of the genocide.  Even after this terrible tragedy, it is rarely mentioned in the media that Rwanda has become one of the few countries in the world where more than half of parliament’s members are women.

In the book, the authoress describes some of the people who provided protection with comfort to her and her family as being financially poor but rich in compassion.  Some were Hutus and others Tutsis.  The authoress also talks about people she knew for years who turned their back on them because of fears, xenophobia and so on.  Nishimwe narrates these events with a great degree of integrity, dignity, without being judgemental.  What is also interesting about Tested to the Limit is the fact that the authoress was clearly mindful of the sensitivities of the main ethnic groups of her country and avoided making unnecessary references to ethnicity in her narration.  She didn’t use the words of the main ethnic groups of Rwanda for about one third of the book because she believes the population of her country is one people so it was irrelevant to her.  In this regard, it is later in the book that she identifies herself as a Tutsi.

Noteworthily, the exact number of Rwandan women who became HIV positive during the genocide remains unknown. In 2004, the Rwandan Association of Genocide Widows, based in Kigali, estimated that two thirds of their female membership of 25,000 contracted the virus during the conflict.  Through her autobiography, Nishimwe becomes the voice of these women.

Even if it is difficult to achieve, the writer was raised to believe that should not carry the weight of the past.  Thus, she is determined to go forward in life.  As mentioned, she is a committed speaker on the genocide, an activist for global females’ rights and an advocate for other genocide survivors.

To conclude, Nishimwe perfectly epitomizes this quote:  “Courage is not the absence of fear, but doing the right thing even though it can be scary”.   Hence, Tested to the Limit is a jewel and has the power to give solace to those who are struggling with personal issues.  Given the nature and magnitude of the transgressions perpetrated against Nishimwe during that dreadful period in 1994, it took a great degree of courage for the writer to share her story with the world.  The book is a close look and a snapshot of what happened before, during and after the genocide.  The authentic narration of Nishimwe and her family is the story of tens of thousands of personal stories that can be written about the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis. Nishimwe’s autobiography represents a voice which speaks for many of the victims.  At the end of the book, readers will find resources listed for Rwandan and other genocide survivors.  In addition, Nishimwe’s story gives hope and inspiration to people who are living with HIV, as it vividly illustrates that it is possible to still have dreams, to work, and have a fulfilling life despite having this status.  Tested to the Limit is a book which will leave no humanitarian or philanthropist indifferent.  Readers will see pictures of her loved ones in the book.  It also has on the cover a beautiful, evocative image of the writer silhouetted against dark ominous clouds transitioning into bright white clouds and beckoning towards two white doves above.  This symbolizes peace and Nishimwe’s journey from tragedy to triumph.  The book should be translated into several languages such as Kinyarwanda (one of the official languages of Rwanda), French, Spanish, etc.  Tested to the Limit was part of our top 20 in fall 2012:  http://megadiversities.com/index.php.  The book is available online and in Bourbon Coffee locations in New York City, Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA.

Nishimwe, a real revelation, is a symbol of courage, determination and perseverance, unwavering in her march towards social justice.  As mentioned, Nishimwe is a young woman who has a lot of resilience and doesn’t sit on her laurels.  Hence, the authoress is a committed speaker on the genocide, a defender of global females’ rights, and an activist for other survivors of ethnic cleansing. Nishimwe is a young woman who presents herself to the world by being proud of her African heritage with her beautiful afro.  She currently lives in New York.  We had the pleasure of interviewing Ms.  Nishimwe last October.  She shared insights into her spiritual path, wisdom, among other themes chiefly related to the Rwandan genocide.  It is Nishimwe’s first Canadian interview.


P.T.  It took you more than 15 years to decide to pen about your experiences in the Rwandan Genocide.  Why did you choose to share your story with the world, despite the ongoing stigma related to the HIV status and the 1994 Rwandan ethnic cleansing?  Was it a cathartic experience for you?

C.N.  Oh thank you for asking this question.  It took me three years to write the book.  Prior to that I had my journal where I wrote my thoughts. In addition, I chronicled the main events related to my life and my country.  It was important for me to share my story, despite the stigma related to the HIV status.  Firstly, I came to realise that I needed to add my voice to the ensemble of organisations which tried over decades to educate people about the seriousness of HIV. One of those places was Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), an AIDS service organisation. I also felt that I was strong enough to speak out against the horrific genocide which occurred in Rwanda.  It took the life of so many people and destroyed so many families.  I realised that by remaining quiet, I was not helping myself, nor my people.  I decided to not keep all the negativity internally.  With my voice, I hope that other victims will feel they are not alone in their ordeals.  Overall, it empowered and fostered me to share my experience, because it allowed me to have a voice and release the tension I had internally.  Writing the book became an outlet for me.

P.T.  You are also giving a voice through your books to other people who suffered from the Rwandan genocide, and to any other genocide.

C.N.  Thank you!  It was important for me to share my story.  I was willing to take the risk to share my experience.  I wanted to bring more awareness about the extreme impact of genocide, especially on women and children.  In most wars, they are the principal victims.  Writing my story was definitely a liberating experience.  It reduced my anger.  It helped me overcome fears of speaking out.  I believe my book is a voice for the current, as well as dead victims (and future victims, if ethnic cleansings are not stopped) who were not able to express their pain.  I want people to become more aware of the seriousness of HIV and know the negative consequence associated with it. 

P.T.  You wrote this poignant sentence in your book: “I used to have so many wonderful people among my family and friends who used to enjoy the beauty of our homeland with me. I always looked forward to them being around for me in that beautiful land God has created for all of us, but most of those people were taken away in a flash during the 1994 genocide, taking my dreams with them.”  What was the secret for you, your sister and your mother to keep your sanity and cope with all you went through since the Rwandan genocide, especially when you saw your brothers get killed?  Moreover, what is your secret to your unshakable faith when there was no justice and protection for what you and the other victims in your country went through?

C.N.  [Silence and sigh].  My younger sister and I got important support from our mother who helped us keep our sanity despite the despair we were all facing.  Our mother had  incredible strength and courage to give us comfort.  She encouraged us incessantly to pray.  My mother is the pillar of my strength, likewise for my sister.   She taught me not to hate, but to look forward.

It happens sometimes that in my head I am still haunted by the killers of my family members, but I learned how to live with that.  I have no choice.  My brothers walked bravely toward the men before they killed them.  I believe the courage they had before they left our earth helps me cope.

I think the secret to my unshakable faith comes from my firm belief in God’s power.  I know that the power of love will always prevail over evil, no matter what.  I believe also that there is the human justice and God’s justice.  As a Christian, I learned to love all people but not their sins.  All men fell and came short as sinners.  It is God’s place to judge.  I was brought up to think that there is a Creator to whom we are responsible and that there is a moral code given to us by God to whom we would all have to answer in the afterlife.  So, I leave all my hurts in the hands of God.

To summarize, over time, with God’s support I was able to get rid of that burden I was carrying in my heart by placing the fate of my family’s killers in His hands and asking Him to help me avoid having bad thoughts about them.

I sometimes love to remind myself about the best moments I had with the family members I lost.  I do that because I want to keep their good memories alive in my heart as my greatest treasures.  It allows me to be strong.  During the brief stay on earth of my brothers, I was blessed to have them in my life, as they brought sunshine in my days while putting smiles and laughter in our household.  

P.T. Your unshakable faith is a grace.  It is not everybody who has that.

C.N.  Thank you!  It has helped me through my journey for healing.  I also sought professional care.  Therapy helped to end my nightmares and to have less painful memories of my traumas.  It is now easier for me to talk about my feelings and other subjects.  I am less introverted than I was 15 years ago.  I am more driven to achieve my life purposes, and my faith definitely determines the path I want to follow.


Gender discrimination throughout a woman's life

Phase                   Type

Prenatal                Prenatal sex selection, battering during pregnancy, coerced pregnancy (rape during war)

Infancy                  Female infanticide, emotional and physical abuse, differential access to food and medical care

Childhood            Genital cutting; incest and sexual abuse; differential access to food, medical care, and education; child prostitution

Adolescence       Dating and courtship violence, economically coerced sex, sexual abuse in the workplace, rape, sexual harassment, forced prostitution

Reproductive      Abuse of women by intimate partners, marital rape, dowry abuse and murders, partner homicide, psychological abuse, sexual abuse in the workplace,    sexual harrassment, abuse of women with disabilities, rape

Old Age                Abuse of widows, elder abuse (which affects mostly women)

Source: Heise, L. 1994. Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden. World Bank Discussion Paper. Washington. D.C. The World Bank


P.T.  Shinani was the man who assaulted you sexually at age 14 and gave you HIV.  The fact that he was imprisoned, did it help you heal and give you some sense of justice? In addition, before he passed away did he apologize?

C.N.  No, he didn’t.  Seeing that Shinani was a threat to me and to society, it was a good thing that they caught him and that he ended up in prison.  However, in spite of everything, I forgave him for my own well-being, because when you carry anger you become a slave and you cannot be free.  I took the forgiveness road for my own liberty.  Sanani, who killed my brothers, wrote a letter of forgiveness to my mother.  She forgave him because she is Christian, but said to him the ultimate one to judge him will be God.  

P.T.  How does it make you feel that Shinani died?

C.N.  I think he died because of AIDS in 2000, six years after he committed horrible crimes against me and other people.  I was denied, with the other victims, to see him face justice on earth.  Nevertheless, I carry no burden in my heart.  I never wished him any bad or any ill will.  I didn’t have any hatred for him, despite what he did to me, but it is possible that his passing meant that his chickens were coming home to roost.  

I had to struggle a lot in my heart and endured a lot of pain.  In some way, I feel that some kind of justice was done, but because of my faith I don’t hold any wicked feelings towards anyone.  It helps me to live with peace.  As mentioned, it will be up to God to judge his actions.  The fact that I put his fate in the hands of God even before his passing served to give me personal closure.

P.T.  Usually, women who have been sexually abused are not comfortable sharing their stories with men.  I noticed that your book was edited by a male, Bryan Black.  Can you talk about that?

C.N.  Yes!  I wasn’t comfortable sharing my wounds with anyone for many years after the genocide.  The trauma took a heavy toll on me.  With time and exposure to counseling in America, it allowed me to evolve on a personal level and build up my confidence.  Bryan was very aware of my HIV status since I was diagnosed in 2004.  He is my cousin’s husband.  I lived with the couple who accompanied me when I did the test and got the result.  They gave me great support.  Bryan is family, so it was not difficult to confide in him for my book.  He helped me edit my story while encouraging me to tell it.

P.T. You are really brave!

C.N.  Oh, thank you!  It was not easy, but I had the right support to share my experiences.

P.T.  What was put in place (psychologists, psychiatrists…) to help the diaspora and the people in Rwanda to heal?  In addition, what kind of services are available to  women in Rwanda and from the diaspora right now, especially for those living with a HIV status since the genocide?

C.N.  [Silence]. As of 1994, the country was facing many problems related to the genocide.  In fact, Rwanda needed to be rebuilt because it was destroyed by the ethnic cleansing.  A new government was created and we had to restart everything from scratch.  The economic situation was very difficult so funds were not available to pay mental health professionals (gynecologists, psychiatrists, psychologists…).  In this regard, it took time to implement diverse services, especially in rural areas, until now.  However, for quite some time services have been provided to rape victims and women living with HIV.  These organizations, including the NGOs, give help also to other issues related to females, such as social services.  Among them we can find services which are aimed at preventing domestic violence.  Information on recognizing the effects of gender-based violence on females’ health has been displayed.  Data on how to detect and prevent abuse and assist victims have been given, among many other forms of health care.

Overall, despite the difficulties experienced by my country, a lot of aid has been provided to the population over the past 18 years.  It has significantly improved the quality of life of my people.  It transformed the highly negative stigma the ethnic cleansing placed on Rwanda as a country into a nation that can be perceived as a model of success for poor developing countries.  For instance, on the political scene thorough work has been done to counteract the gender imbalance.  More females are involved in this field and this provides a voice in public policies related to the needs of women. About the diaspora, depending on where my people are living most have been able to get the help required if they are living in Western countries, like myself, or in a country in Africa with a stable political situation.

P.T.  Rwandans and Friends of Rwanda in North America last April gathered in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the Genocide and to reiterate their commitment to the promise of Never Again.  You were present at this event with your cousin Ms. Immaculée Ilibagiza.  Can you talk to our worldwide readers about it?

C.N.  That was a memorable event attended mainly by Rwandans abroad.  I was among the speakers with my cousin Immaculée.  It was one of the few times that I revealed my HIV status in front of a big audience.  In fact, it was the first time I shared my story before a large gathering.  My testimony was very emotional even if it was well received.

[For those who were at the event, this was reported: “As she took the stage to tell her story that day, Nishimwe broke down in tears. Held in the arms of another survivor she hung her head and was unable to continue. But her vulnerability had captured us all, demonstrating viscerally the human cost of such violence and the imperative to put an end to it1.”]

This event took place on 7th and 8th of April 2012, in Washington D.C to remember the lives of over one million people who were killed during the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.  The main theme was “Let’s learn from our history to shape a bright future”.  Many discussions occurred, ranging from the history of the genocide, the role of media and literature in the ethnic cleansing, the genocide denial and the contemporary survivors’ needs.

The keynote speech was delivered by Carl Wilkens, an acclaimed human rights activist known as the only American who made the decision to stay in Rwanda during the genocide.  He provided food, water, and money to the victims.  The program ended with a Walk to Remember at the Washington D.C Mall, in memory of the people who passed away during the genocide.  This important event was planned by the Rwandan Community in North America in partnership with the Embassy of Rwanda in Washington, D.C.

P.T.  According to the UNFPA around the world, one in every three women has been beaten, forced into sex, or abused in some other way – most of the time by someone she knows, it can include her husband  marital rape, or another male family member.  One woman in four has been abused during pregnancy.  What needs to be done to decrease these statistics?

C.N.  I believe these highly important issues should be raised among the heads of state when they are having their big annual meetings.  We also have to make sure that our voices are heard because most of these world leaders are men.  The UN has to create mechanisms to ensure that these practices are eradicated around the world.  There are no simple solutions.  Moreover, the UN in their general assembly need to raise these issues.  In Rwanda, I believe a good job has been done in the past few years to make the women feel more protected.  Education was strongly pushed in my country about this.

P.T.  I could add that it should be obligatory in schools for girls worldwide to take self-defense courses.  This would empower them.  I am convinced that it could significantly decrease the violence rate against women.

C.N.  This is a really interesting point!

P.T.  October is the Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Do you have a message to deliver on this issue?

C.N.  The message that I would like to convey is that violence, especially against women, and children is unacceptable.  Females are the foundation of everything.  Misogyny and assaults toward other groups should not continue in the 21st century.  The right mechanisms and strategies need to be implemented to put a stop to this.  At least with the new technologies, it is possible like never before to denounce rapidly what is going on in any part of the world, but it is not enough.

In America, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, a woman is raped every 2 minutes and an average of three females are killed daily.  In addition, every six minutes a woman is battered, every 9 seconds somewhere in the U.S. a female is abused, 1 in 3 will experience some form of assault in her lifetime.  We have to remember that these are only the reported cases.  Domestic violence is also the number one cause of injury to women.

I could add that the UNFPA recognizes that eliminating gender-based violence will mean changing cultural concepts about masculinity.  This transformation must actively engage men, whether they are policy makers, parents, spouses or young boys.  In fact, the society as a whole cannot turn a blind eye to this serious issue.  It is the responsibility of everybody.  In fact, it represents a grave societal problem.

P.T.  The Republican Party supports a human life amendment to the American Constitution. The Republicans also oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion or fund organizations which perform or advocate it.  Furthermore, they will not fund or subsidize health care, which includes abortion coverage.  Do you have a message for the Republicans, especially regarding women who have been sexually assaulted?

C.N.  Yes.  America is really divided on this issue.  As a woman who has been sexually assaulted and who is afflicting with HIV, I believe a female should have a right to decide the kind of future she wants for herself.  I was attacked at the age of 14, I cannot imagine how I could have gone through life with a pregnancy after my assault.  It is already very difficult to deal with everything that happened.  I still have flashbacks, etc.  So, having a child who would be a product of a hate crime would be unbearable for me.  I believe that no female should be forced to go through this and should have a choice.  Victims of sexual abuse should not be denied the right to terminate their pregnancy.  In addition, they must have immediate access to emergency contraception, Prophylaxis if required, to prevent the spread of HIV or Hepatitis C.

There are people who do not get that gender-based violence reinforces inequities between men and women.  It puts their health, dignity, security and autonomy in jeopardy. It creates a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment, etc. Any of these assaults can leave deep psychological scars, damage the health of females in general, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances, result in death.  So, victims should definitely have the right to decide what she wants to do with her body and should have a say on her own future.

The Republican Party wants to ban abortion with a Constitutional Amendment.  The 14th Amendment gives the protection to females related to privacy laws (which include the abortion issue) since 1973 and it should remain that way.  The rescinding of this Amendment would mean that women who have been sexually attacked will have no protection, and no say in their own future.  It is really not the way to go.  I also don’t believe that in any situation abortion should be the first option to consider.  With my faith, I think that everyone will have to answer to God for their actions.  So, it will be His place to judge.

P.T.  How would you describe your life in the U.S.?  What was your perception of your new country before you moved there, and what is your opinion of it now?

C.N.  My life in the U.S. has been positive so far. I feel blessed to be able to live in this country. I received great support that my condition requires. I have met many warm-hearted people who helped me.  Before coming to the U.S. I had a positive opinion of the nation.  

P.T.  What life lessons have you learned that helped you thrive in the U.S.?

C.N.  One of the main lessons is that America is a land of opportunities if you take advantage of them with hard work and determination.  It doesn’t matter in the U.S. where you came from, but it is about where you want to go.  I believe in the American meritocracy.  In addition, the freedom of speech in the Constitution, the First Amendment allows me to express what I went through as a genocide survivor, and gives a voice to other victims of this terrible tragedy who do not have the possibility to share their pain.



P.T.  You used to be a preschool teacher and now you have become a student. You recently applied to a state college where you plan to study medicine.  Talk to us about that and about your future projects.  Furthermore, in your book, you penned that you continue to have a positive outlook on life despite your HIV status.  How do you envision your future?

C.N.  For a while since 2004, I worked with kids in preschool.  Now, I am in the process of enrolling in a state college to start studying medicine.  When my father was alive, I used to tell him that I would do my best in my life to pursue my education.  I want to keep that promise.

I wish to continue advocating for female issues.  I am also thinking to create a foundation for survivors of genocide and sexually abused people.  I want to provide a haven or oasis for them.  In addition, I will see what I can do for people in Rwanda, especially women who survived sexual assaults during the genocide.  It is important to me to give back to my community.

Today, I have found the hope and courage to pursue the big goals and dreams I had back then.  Furthermore and more importantly, I have cast aside the fear that by speaking the truth I would offend some of my compatriots.  I am therefore no longer afraid to state the horrific facts about what we faced in 1994 as a public speaker.  In this regard, I mainly envision my future as a successful public speaker and author.  I want to educate people about the resources available, the events such as the National HIV Testing Day – to encourage individuals to get tested, etc.

Overall, I wish to continue speaking to different forums (colleges…) and events related to women issues to raise awareness.  It is important for me to continue to share my experience as a genocide survivor.  

P.T.  Since you have been in the U.S., you have not returned to Rwanda.  Is it important to you to do this one day or you would rather not go back?

C.N.  It is important for me to go back to Rwanda.  I need to see my mother, aunt, and my sister there.  Now, I am focusing on other things, but I definitely want to return in the future.  

P.T.  Beside your mother, aunt and your sister, do you feel strong enough to go back and relive the bad memories?

C.N.  Wherever I am, unfortunately I will always have with me the difficult memories.  However, I learned how to live with them.  I feel that I have the strength to go back and I would even like to speak to survivors over there.  

P.T.  It is incredible that you are thinking about others with all you went through.

C.N.  Sometimes I sit down and I think about my life.  I feel grateful to still be here and I appreciate greatly the support that I am getting regarding my health in the United States.

P.T.  It is amazing that your HIV status was discovered ten years after the assault and that you are alive almost twenty years since that grave aggression.

P.T.  You wrote in your book that you wish that your memoir will inspire people all over the world to do their best to remain positive in their quest to overcome whatever difficulties life places on them. What message of hope can you provide to people who have their own struggles and feel like giving up?  When I say giving up, it can take many forms, some try to forget their problems with alcohol, drugs, etc.  Others decide that they don’t want to live anymore.

C.N.  [Silence].  I believe that when someone even went through a lot and is still not seeing the end of it, if the individual has something that he/she enjoys which provides  great satisfaction, it might help the person to envision a better future.  The individual can focus on that instead of the negative.

The message I can give to people who feel like giving up because of painful situations is that life is precious and whatever the hurdles, surrender is never the answer.  Nobody who ended their life was able to come back and tell us it was the best choice.  So, we don’t know, we didn’t create ourselves and I don’t think we have the authority to end our lives.  I think there is always a way to overcome hurdles, whatever they are.  Seek help! In my case, faith sustained me tremendously.

P.T.  You penned these words in your book:  “Mom continued to educate me over time on some of our history in the context of Rwanda’s ethnic divide, when discrimination and genocide against Tutsis became institutionalized. She told me that from as early as 1959 mass killings of Tutsis began, and continued intermittently for decades without any form of censure or punishment being meted out to those responsible.”  This excerpt from the book enlightens the readers on what happened prior to April 1994.  Furthermore, the genocide occurred during three months in 1994 and before there was an escalation of the violence especially in the media, one of the greatest tools used to prepare the ethnic cleansing.  Can you elaborate on that?  What do you think should have been done locally and internationally to prevent the genocide in the early 90s?  In addition, talk to us about the Twas.  Explain to us why the conflicts were between Hutus and Tutsis.  Moreover, how come the Twas were left out of the conflict?

C.N.  Conflicts between the Hutus and Tutsis had been prevalent since the 1930s, when Belgian colonizers forced the Rwandans to carry identity cards at all times to differentiate them. Before that, the groups were recognized solely on economic status. Rwanda’s fluid social system allowed citizens to move from one group to the other.  Back then, conflicts between the tribes didn’t exist.

But as you said, with time the media played a crucial part in the genocide prior to and during the ethnic cleansing.  Radio broadcasts continued to influence Hutus to search for and kill Tutsis.  They were already armed with machetes in their homes to persecute then liquidate us afterwards.

In general, I believe it would have been difficult to prevent the genocide in 1994 because of the culture of impunity that prevailed for decades, beginning in 1959.  The perpetrators were never punished for their crimes.  Internationally, it could have been prevented if there was a more decisive approach in providing protection for the first areas that were affected and ensure that the perpetrators were punished.  

Locally, I think the only way it could have been prevented is if the former president Juvénal Habyarimana kept his promise to put a stop to the ethnic cleansing when he took over by overthrowing Grégoire Kayibanda in 1973.  By the early 90s, it was too late.  The planning had already taken place and radicals within the government were willing to do the ethnic cleansing at all costs.  The assassination of Habyarimana in April 1994 catapulted the tension between Hutu and Tutsi, the country’s two primary groups.

The Twas are a very small minority in the nation so they were left out of the conflicts.  They are not integrated like the other groups and are among themselves.  They have their own customs and their own community.

P.T.  Until now?

C.N.  Now, it is different.  Before the genocide, they were living their own lives. So, it protected them from being targeted during the ethnic cleansing. Currently, they are more integrated in the society.

Specifically, the Twas are a seminomadic population.  In addition, they are the Natives of the contemporary Burundi and Rwanda.  Now, they have been progressively incorporated into Hutu and Tutsi society.  Presently, there are more than 25,000 Twas in my nation and over 60, 000 in Burundi.  Currently in Rwanda, the Twas constitute hardly 1 percent of the population.  Their livelihood is essentially as day laborers, basket makers and so on.

Akagera National Park  (Eastern Rwanda)

P.T.  What is your assessment of how people from your country relate now to one another and in the diaspora since the genocide?  Do the population and the diaspora see themselves as one people or as three ethnic groups?

C.N.  Based on what I observed, I believe that people in Rwanda relate well to each other.  The healing is taking place and we are evolving.  They identify more as Rwandans than as members of specific ethnic groups.  Ethnicities are not identified on official documents anymore, like it was before the genocide occurred.  This is a great improvement.

P.T.  When was the identification card system implemented?

C.N.  It was introduced during colonization.  After the genocide, this system was eradicated.  Everybody now has a regular ID card.

Overall, we have managed to coexist more peacefully as Rwandans and we are focusing on the elimination of the use of divisive systems that only serve to create distinctions and cause disunion between the different ethnic groups of our beloved country.

P.T.  You wrote in your book that you are grateful to the Muslim community in Rubengera for giving protection to you and to many people during the genocide.  Do you want to elaborate on that?

C.N.  Yes.  As I mentioned in my book in chapter X and so on, there were many instances when Muslim Hutus provided protection in their homes to Tutsis.  They gave us food, shelters, etc.  They defended us when the Hutus tried to attack us.  Some even lost their lives for protecting us.    Very few among them participated in the killings in the area of my community.  I am very grateful to the Muslim community in Rubengera for their brave effort in protecting us and so many others during the genocide.

P.T.  The readers learn in your book that because many people in Rwanda participated in the genocide and other crimes, the jails were severely overcrowded. The court system was unable to cope with the multitude of cases that had to be tried, so the government had to find another way to bring those accused to justice. They created a system called GACACA, which in earlier times was a traditional way to reconcile conflicts between families and neighbors.  Can you talk more about GACACA?  Are there similarities and/or differences between GACACA with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Tutu in South Africa?

C.N.  My country founded the Gacaca court system, which has evolved from traditional cultural communal law enforcement procedures. The Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice, created to promote healing and moving on from the crisis.  My country has chiefly emphasized criminal prosecutions in the Gacaca courts, putting justice partially into the hands of the victims. Nevertheless, the system was criticized by different organizations, including the Survivors Fund, which represents survivors of the ethnic cleansing, due to the danger that it poses to survivors.  This court system was not perfect, but has been giving limited closure to some victims.  There have been a number of reports about survivors being targeted for giving evidence at the courts.  

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a restorative justice body assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were chosen for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence were also able to give testimony and request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution.

The TRC was perceived by many as a critical component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa. Despite some flaws, it is generally (although not universally) thought to have been successful. In my opinion, it has been the same for Gacaca courts.  

Overall, the Gacaca court is part of a system of community justice inspired by tradition and created in 2001 in Rwanda, in response to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.  During the GACACA system, people in the community were trained to serve on the panels of judges.  Local residents who gave testimony against their aggressors also received  training.  The survivors and the perpetrators were present in the same place.  It was not an easy situation, especially because some of the aggressors did not have any remorse for what they did.  Although this process was also helpful to some victims, because it allowed them to tell their stories and there were perpetrators who admitted their guilt.  

I think that GACACA and Reconciliation Commission from South Africa are similar in some ways because they bring together the victims and the aggressors.  Stories are told by the victims and the perpetrators make their confessions while facing justice.

I believe that while forgiveness frees the hearts and minds of victims from carrying the burdens that their perpetrators should instead be bearing, justice is still very important, especially for those who are unrepentant for the wrong they have done to others. Through the GACACA system and other methods employed by the government, some have learned that the ideology of hatred and ethnic extermination is bad, and hopefully will never be repeated in Rwanda or anywhere else.

P.T.  You wrote these moving words in your book:  “When the genocide took place in 1994, it destroyed so many things materially, spiritually and psychologically in that beautiful land and left scars which will take a very long time to heal. Despite all of this, I continually meditate and pray that what happened then will never happen again, and that the next generation will take a different path and live a peaceful life full of love for each other.”  What lessons do you want your people to learn from this horrible moment in your country to ensure that this situation is never replicated?

C.N.  The lesson I want my people to learn is simple: genocide is a crime against humanity and has no place in this world.  It goes against the most basic rights and must be prevented at all cost.

P.T.  Seeing that you must speak French, are you thinking of translating your lovely memoir into this language?

C.N.  [Laughs].  I will truly try, and I would like it to be translated into other languages.  I hope that it will happen by the grace of God.

P.T.  How has your book been received so far worldwide and more specifically by Rwandans?  Did you notice that it helped other Rwandans to express themselves and get help?  Can you share with us one of the most moving comments you received from your readers?

C.N.  My book has been praised by some fellow Rwandans and others.  With more publicity, it will definitely help.  One of the most moving articles that was written (recently) so far is from the Huffington Post by Barbara Becker, a Columbia University alumna: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-becker/rwanda-girls-rape_b_2001524.html.  I can read an excerpt:   “The book is replete with stories of what it takes to heal. From the retrieval and proper burial of the bodies of her brothers, who had been thrown into a septic tank, to a letter asking for forgiveness from the neighbor who had committed the heinous murder; from her relationship with the professionals who helped her achieve physical and mental stability, to her connection with other survivors in the New York metro area, and to her personal relationship with her God through prayer and meditation -- Nishimwe's story serves as a beacon of truth-telling about reemergence from acute trauma. Tested to the Limit will be of great value to other survivors, as well as to anyone else who suspects that tears are never the end of the story”.

In our culture, we do not speak a lot about our pains.  We need to vent, and I think it will help in the future to prevent situations which might be blown out of proportions.  So, maybe the fact that I shared my story will encourage others to do the same which may foster our collective healing.

People from Rwanda told me that my book helped readers to share more openly their own stories.  I am glad to hear that my autobiography allows some of my compatriots to talk about their experiences and I hope that it will encourage more people to do the same.  I am aware that it takes time and each one has his/her own journey to go through (with different stages of healing) to feel ready to speak about their wounds.  I am especially moved when I hear testimonies from people of my age group who were not able to express at the time what they went through.

P.T.  You made the choice not to name your ethnic origin for a big part of your book.  Please elaborate on the importance of doing this as a Rwandan author.

C.N.  With all we went through and with the ongoing fragility of our situation, I know it is a delicate subject.  Our people need to stop the division which created the ethnic cleansing.  We need to remember that we are one people.  At some point, I didn’t have the choice to not talk about the ethnicities in my book, because I could not deny that it was a big factor in the history of Rwanda, especially in 1994, but I didn’t want to focus on that from the beginning.

P.T.  Ethnic divisions are something happening unfortunately worldwide.  What message do you have about this issue for our international readers?

C.N.  The message I have is that we must learn to respect each other as equals, despite our ethnic differences.  This should be taught to kids very early worldwide by exposing them to other cultures, making them discover geography, history, etc.  Education has to play a big part in all this because it is one of the best tools to prevent intolerance.  It will help different communities to coexist peacefully, in harmony.  This message of unity also has to be delivered in churches and so on.  We need to do this now more than ever because the world has become closer as a result of the Internet and other new technologies.

Physical and psychological violence (bullying, etc.) should not be tolerated anywhere.  In this regard, worldwide curricula in schools and other institutions are required.  Information about different cultures, religions and so on must be accessible and should help people understand one another.  The media also have an important part to play and must not deliver information which divide people, promote stereotypes with propaganda and create disunity.

As civilized human beings, we owe it to our own consciences to be extremely vigilant, courageous and stand up against any ills that are manifestly wrong in our society. If we all speak with one voice in our condemnation of those ills, the would-be perpetrators will know that they do not have our support and would eventually abandon what they set out to do.

P.T.  Dr.  MLK used to say:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

C.N.  Exactly!  I hope my story will help people to grow in love for their fellowmen and to refocus their views about others who were born different to them and by accepting them for who they are.

P.T.  Thank you so much for this great interview!  It was an honor to speak to you.  You know I have been approached by artists who sold millions of records with misogynist lyrics and I refused to interview them.  Some have even hurt women and had problems with the legal system as a result.  It is much more important to me and to Mega Diversities to interview a sheroine like you who delivers crucial messages for humanity!

C.N.  I am so happy that I spoke to you.  

P.T.  Likewise!  You have great determination and I have no doubt that you will become a great physician.

C.N.  I really enjoyed your thorough and insightful questions.

P.T.  Thank you and I wish you a lot of success with your book.  I really hope it will become a New York Times bestseller!


The book is available on www.amazon.com, .ca, www.amazon.co.uk or www.barnesandnoble.com, Balboa Press in paperback and e-book format. It can also be found in the US and Canada by Sony Electronics Inc.   


IBUKA Association of Genocide Survivors

Same Sky Trade-not-Aid Initiative

Genocide Survivors Support Network

Miracle Corners of the World

Source:  Tested to the Limit


"If there is one book you should read on the Rwandan Genocide, this is it. Tested to the Limit--A Genocide Survivor's Story of Pain, Resilience, and Hope is a riveting and courageous account from the perspective of a fourteen year-old girl. It's a powerful story you will never forget."

--Francine LeFrak, founder of Same Sky and award-winning producer

"That someone who survived such a horrific, life-altering experience as the Rwandan genocide could find the courage to share her story truly amazes me. But even more incredible is that Consolee Nishimwe refused to let the inhumane acts she suffered strip away her humanity, zest for life and positive outlook for a better future. After reading Tested to the Limit, I am in awe of the unyielding strength and resilience of the human spirit to overcome against all odds."

--Kate Ferguson, senior editor, POZ magazine

"Consolee Nishimwe's story of resilience, perseverance, and grace after surviving genocide, rape, and torture is a testament to the transformative power of unyielding faith and a commitment to love. Her inspiring narrative about compassionate courage and honest revelations about her spiritual path in the face of unthinkable adversity remind us that hope is eternal, and miracles happen every day."

--Jamia Wilson, vice president of programs,
Women's Media Center, New York

Excerpt from Tested to the Limit:

“From that day onwards Mom kept checking on me through text
messages with words of comfort and so much love that soothed and
strengthened me. When I think of the many other women who went
through the same or even worse than I did, and through no fault of
their own did not have the family support to help them deal with their
emotional pain, it strikes at the core of my heart.

After leaving the hospital, I stayed at home for three days and used
that time to exercise my inner self and test whether I was ready to face
my coworkers and maintain the same outlook and motivation I had
before I left. They knew me as a pleasant person who naturally smiles
a lot, and luckily for me, that did not change despite my new situation.
Of course, when I was alone I couldn’t help but cry sometimes and ask
God to help me deal with the pain, but in public I handled my emotions
pretty well. Thankfully, after returning to work there was not even a
single day that I felt really sick, and nothing was showing on my body
that could make a person suspicious of my illness. I didn’t want to go
through the added pain of being discriminated against or stigmatized
by anyone because of my condition.

On the day I returned to work, of course, my colleagues asked me
how I was feeling. I told them that I was feeling fine, and provided
the director with a doctor’s note. I did my work in the way I was
accustomed to and tried my best to conceal the emotional conflicts that
were going on inside me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone or attract bad
attitudes towards me as a result of them becoming privy to my health
status, so most of the time I dealt with my emotional pain when I was
on my break time by silently crying to myself or scribbling on paper
whatever I was feeling at the moment.

Two weeks later I went back to the clinic for a follow up visit and
to receive my medication. I was already told by the hospital who my
nurse practitioner would be and which doctor was assigned to me. I was
introduced to my nurse practitioner Patricia, who appeared warm and
friendly and greeted me as such. “You will be fine Consolee, we will
take very good care of you!” she said to me.

Patricia contacted the doctor who she was teaming up with to
work on my care, and he came to her office shortly after, looked at me,
smiled, and said “miracles do happen!” Hearing him as a doctor say that
gave me added hope and I told myself “God is great, who knows what
could happen to me?” I believed it during the genocide in my country,
I believed it when the doctor said it to me, and I still believe today, that
miracles do happen and they do happen through God’s power.
Patricia and the doctor did everything that was expected of them,
explained the “do’s and don’ts” associated with the medication and the
illness, and also gave me lessons on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle
by eating well and exercising frequently. I listened carefully because I
wanted to live well and longer, and to be in a position to advise and
encourage others who might take it lightly or didn’t care about their
life anymore because of having the illness.”

For more information, visit the authoress’ blog: http://www.consolee.com.

We are going to leave you with a powerful quote from Ms.  Nishimwe:

"No matter what horrible circumstances we may face in our lives, we must never lose hope, for losing hope is the beginning of our own self defeat."



1 Source:  “Surviving the Unspeakable”, Barbara Becker, Huffington Post, October 29th 2012.