Zura Karuhimbi is a Rwandan woman who saved more than 100 people throughout the Rwandan Genocide after claiming to be a witch with magical powers.
Zura Karuhimbi was born to a family of traditional healers in the village of Musamo in Ruhango District District, not so distant from Kigali, in 1925. There was initially a lack of clarity as to her original birth date, but an official identity card proves otherwise. Similar to the profession of her family, Karuhimbi became a healer with a reputation for having supernatural powers.
Zura Karuhimbi was old enough to witness Belgian authorities’ sickening setup between the Hutus and Tutsis. The Hutus, though the majority, were relegated and sidelined by the Belgian colonial administration for the Tutsis who were provided educational opportunities and regarded as superior. Karuhimbi’s family were Hutus.
During the Rwandan Revolution, Karuhimbi witnessed great violence and lynching between the ruling minority Tutsis and the more numerous Hutu tribe. In 1959, as inter-ethnic violence was getting deeply heated between the two groups, a young Karuhimbi advised the mother of a two-year-old Tutsi to take the beads from her necklace and tied them in a little boy’s hair. “I told her to carry her son and not put him down, so the militia would think he looked like a girl when they saw him because they only killed boys at that time”, she told a news outlet. That boy grew up to become the celebrated Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
THE 1994 GENOCIDE
During the time of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of close to a million people, Karuhimbi was an elderly widow. She transformed her humble little two-room house in Musamo Village into a haven for the Tutsis who were a hostile threat. Dozens of people hid under the bed and in an available space on the roof. Others say she dug a hole in her fields where people hid. There were Burundians and three Europeans who formed part of the people saved. In total, she saved more than 100 people, including babies she rescued from their dead mothers’ arms.
A WITCH’S TRICK
Who will want to provoke the anger of a supposed witch? To drive off the Interahamwe militias, Zura pretended to be possessed by evil spirits. She adorned herself with a local skin-irritating herb and would attempt to touch the killers in an act to scare them off. Zura Karuhimbi also told them that she would unleash spirits on them and their families if they ever try bothering her. “Zura told Interahamwe militia if they entered the shrine, they would incur the wrath of Nyabingi [a Kinyarwanda word for God]. They were frightened and our lives were saved for another day,” a witness recalled. Karuhimbi also emphasized her warnings by jangling her bracelet-laden arms and threatened that if any refugees were killed inside her house, then the murderers would be “digging their own graves.” “I remember one Saturday, they came back again,” she told The East African in 2014. “I confronted them as usual, warning them that by killing the refugees in my house, they were digging their own graves.”
All of her plans worked and when the genocide ended in July, every single one of the people Karuhimbi had sheltered were saved. Unfortunately, Karuhimbi was a mother in mourning. She lost her son to the war and her daughter was also poisoned.
Her reputation as the witch of Musamo Village didn’t disappear overnight. It stayed with her for a long time despite her revelations that she was never a witch or engaged in any form of voodoo practice. “I am not a witchdoctor. I only believed in one God and the thing of magical power was just an invention and cover I was using to save lives,” she said in 2014.
In 2006, Zura Karuhimbi was awarded Rwanda’s Campaign Against Genocide Medal by President Paul Kagame. It was during the ceremony she revealed saving the President some 50 years ago. Karuhimbi cherished the medal so much that she wore it at all time, placing it beneath her pillow while she slept. She continued to live in the same house she had harbored the refugees despite being old-fashioned. Living penniless, she was cared for by her niece.
The national hero died at her home on 17 December 2018.