An introverted man, Paul Mahuku spends most of his day seated on the verandah of a male dormitory in Impinganzima hostel in Huye District. It takes a strong rapport with him to establish a conversation.
He usually makes prolonged smiles to strangers he is not comfortable enough to talk to but holds emotional conversations and cracks jokes when talking to people he knows.
“My name is not Paul but Pawulo. We only have one Paul in Rwanda,” he jokingly says referring to President Paul Kagame.
He lives in Impinganzima-Huye hostel, which accommodates elderly people whose families were completely wiped out by the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Mahuku was 74 years old during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and after the killing of all his family, he lived a lonely life until 2017 when he was brought to the hostel.
“When I was brought here, I thought I was going to die. Everybody believed I was dying, I looked and felt older than I am today. I cannot believe I am 100!,” Mahuku tells me with a tremble in his voice.
From time to time, Mahuku switches from bed to verandah. He is picky with his food but rice and vegetables are his favourite.
He is weak and constantly in pain, I had to begin with serious topics before he could get tired. So we started with his life story.
The first thing he talks about is the 1959 massacres against Tutsi. Mahuku’s elder brother was herding cows when attacks in his village broke out.
“I heard gunshots and ran to him. When I reached, he was bleeding,” he said, looking aside and mortifyingly added: “He died before we reached my father.”
By the time Mahuku’s brother died, he was in his late twenties and considering going back to school because his father wanted him to. “But when I found out that a Belgian white man was the one who shot my brother, I did not want to attend their school anymore,” he narrates.
One of the most difficult topics to talk about is his family. He seems to find it easier to talk about his brothers and parents than his wife and children. My efforts to get him to talk about his family were very difficult and he would pause for a long time before resuming to talk.
“My wife was the most amazing person I ever met,” he eventually said after hours of interaction. He had three children who were all mature by the time they were killed. Up to now, Mahuku does not know where or when they were buried, something he says is very painful.
When he decided to talk to me about his family, he asked me to not ask “annoying questions” and let him talk.
“My wife was dark skinned, lean-shaped with wide beautiful smile. We were married for years and I still told her how beautiful she was. Walking with her is what I miss the most.
My three children, whom I will not reveal their names, attempted to flee the country during the genocide but never succeeded.
We were separated by an attack that left me with all these scars. I was unconscious and covered with blood. I survived because the killers probably thought I was dead. That was my last encounter with my family. I never saw them again.
Life without my family is hard to narrate. As I got older and weaker, it was hard for me to survive independently. People could not bear taking care of me because they had other responsibilities and even then most of them could not afford to.”
Mahuku has a huge scar near his right eye which was caused after he was hit by a club that later resulted into losing vision. He lives with painful scars and memories.
I shifted the conversation to something light; like the reason behind his name “Mahuku” which loosely means “cats” in English.
His father lost 9 children in a row for allegedly “spiritual reasons”. So he decided to give his children bad names so that spirits will have no interest in them. He laughed out loud when he said this.
“Of course I do not believe that, but that is the reason he gave us.”
Life as a centenarian
On January 31, over a hundred people gathered to celebrate Mahuku’s 100th birthday. He cut a very big cake with a crowd cheering him on. It was the first time he was celebrating a birthday.
“I can’t believe that a man who witnessed Ruzagayura [an intense famine that hit Rwanda in 1944 and claimed approximately 50,000 lives] and the 1994 Genocide would get to see a sparkling candle and cut a birthday cake,” he told me later.
Today, Mahuku lives the life he never thought he would live. Everyone around him, he says, is kind and caring. The country is safe and he is happy to grow old in such a place.
“I hold strong gratitude for President Kagame and First Lady Jeannette Kagame. I hold dear their kindness and I hope I will get to tell them myself one day.”
Mahuku has been living in the hostel for three years now. He was brought from Nyaruguru district where he was being taken care of by the district administration. Seeing the life he currently lives, he believes he has many more years to live.