From Rwanda to SA: refugee lawyer’s in­spir­ing story

He trekked 6 000km from Rwanda to Mzansi with only his ma­tric cer­tifi­cate to his name – now Kennedy Gi­hana is a lawyer


ALL HE had were the clothes on his back and a pair of san­dals made from an old rub­ber tyre. Kennedy Gi­hana was well aware that he was hope­lessly ill-equipped to walk al­most 6 000km from Rwanda to South Africa – but he had no other choice. He’d been la­belled a traitor and there was a tar­get on his back. To stay would mean cer­tain death.

But to go also posed many life-threat­en­ing risks: on the re­mote back roads he planned to walk, the odds of en­coun­ter­ing bandits, po­lice and wild an­i­mals were high.

Yet it was a risk worth tak­ing, he de­cided, for the chance at a bet­ter life.

And so, early one morn­ing in 1998, he started walk­ing. He had no idea how he was go­ing to fend for him­self but along the way it soon be­came clear.

“I sur­vived on Ubuntu,” Kennedy (47) says as he chats to us in a ho­tel in Cen­tu­rion, near Pre­to­ria. “It was African hu­man­ity that helped me stay alive.”

Ev­ery­where he went, help mirac­u­lously ma­te­ri­alised. “Peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas, peo­ple in town­ships, peo­ple in African vil­lages – they don’t have a prob­lem. They’ll help and will share what­ever they’ve got.” It took him six months but at last he ar­rived in Jo­han­nes­burg. Only to dis­cover that that’s where his real jour­ney be­gan. With hardly any money to his name, he was forced to sleep on the streets. Then came a se­ries of poorly paid jobs and an up­hill bat­tle with home ­af­fairs to ac­quire refugee sta­tus.

But through­out it all, Kennedy re­fused to give up. Hav­ing risked ev­ery­thing to get here, he wasn’t go­ing to al­low red tape or any­one to stand in his way.

More than two decades on, he’s a suc­cess­ful hu­man rights lawyer with his own firm – liv­ing proof of what can be achieved with a bit of guts and de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“If you want some­thing in this world, there’s no­body who can do it for you,” says Kennedy, who’s now the sub­ject of a doc­u­men­tary, Rat Roads, on the His­tory chan­nel (DStv, chan­nel 186).

As he speaks, there’s a steely glint in his spec­ta­cled eyes. “It’s all up to you,” he adds. “If you’re suf­fer­ing to­day, per­se­vere and it will be a chan­nel or tun­nel to a bet­ter fu­ture.”

HE’D had to learn to fend for him­self from an early age. His mom is Rwan­dan and his fa­ther was Bu­run­dian of Rwan­dan ori­gin. Kennedy was born in Bu­rundi. When po­lit­i­cal un­rest flared up in Bu­rundi, the fam­ily moved to Uganda. By this point his dad had passed away and he was largely raised by his grand­par­ents while his mom tried to keep things to­gether.

“It wasn’t easy,” he re­calls. “When you’re a refugee or you’re an im­mi­grant from an­other place, you have to start from zero.”

Kennedy worked on a ba­nana plan­ta­tion and coffee farm to pay his school fees.

He moved to Rwanda at the end of 1991 but with ten­sions ris­ing there, he was soon re­cruited to the army. At around the age of 19 he was in the Rwan­dan Pa­tri­otic Front, try­ing to put an end to the geno­cide tak­ing place in the ­coun­try.

But by 1996 he’d had enough of fight­ing. He’d lost his sis­ter and grand­par­ents in the bru­tal civil war and he couldn’t take any­more. So when the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Paul Kagame, or­dered his sol­diers to fight in the Repub­lic of Congo, Kennedy dug in his heels and re­fused to go. This act of de­fi­ance landed him in hot wa­ter and he was branded a traitor.

“I knew that if I didn’t leave there, I would die,” he says.

In Jan­uary 1998 he left on foot with his ma­tric cer­tifi­cate wrapped in plas­tic, tied to his body with ba­nana rope. His epic six-month jour­ney saw him walk­ing through Tan­za­nia, Kenya, Malawi and Zim­babwe.

In Malawi he made a friend who gave him $100 (then R500) to help him along his jour­ney. This came in handy when he had to pay a bribe to get across the Zim­bab­wean bor­der into South Africa.

With the money left over, he boarded a bus to Jo­han­nes­burg. It was the only bit of the jour­ney he didn’t do on foot. In June 1998 he ar­rived in Hill­brow. “It was the first time I saw tall build­ings and lights,” he re­calls. “I was just so ex­cited, I didn’t even care where I was go­ing to sleep.”

He spent two months liv­ing on the streets ­be­fore meet­ing a Kirundi-speak­ing cig­a­rette ven­dor. They bonded over their shared lan­guage and the man ­of­fered Kennedy a place to stay and R100

to en­rol in a se­cu­rity course to help him get started.

Kennedy fin­ished the course and was able to find em­ploy­ment at a se­cu­rity com­pany in Four­ways.

At just R700 a month the pay wasn’t great. But, de­ter­mined that the job would just be a step­ping stone, he saved R300 to reg­is­ter for a part-time law de­gree at Unisa.

While at­tend­ing a com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Rwan­dan geno­cide at the em­bassy in Pre­to­ria in 2001, he caught a lucky break. He started chat­ting to a diplo­mat, who was so touched by his story that it landed him a job.

Once he was work­ing at the em­bassy as a se­cu­rity guard, he was able to en­rol at the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria.

He would at­tend classes be­tween his shifts and dur­ing his lunch breaks. It was all go­ing well un­til one of his ­for­mer army su­pe­ri­ors ar­rived at the ­em­bassy one day.

He in­stantly recog­nised Kennedy and promptly had him fired.

With no in­come, he was soon home­less again.

“It didn’t dis­cour­age me. I knew that I could go to the library and then at night when the other stu­dents went to res­i­dence, I would sleep there at my desk,” he says.

When univer­sity of­fi­cials found out about his plight, they were sym­pa­thetic and ar­ranged ac­com­mo­da­tion for him. News quickly spread across the law fac­ulty and var­i­ous peo­ple started pitch­ing in to give him gro­ceries, clothes and other as­sis­tance.

IT WAS a proud mo­ment when Kennedy com­pleted his de­gree in 2005. He joined a Pre­to­ria law firm and com­pleted his ar­ti­cles two years later, go­ing on to at­tain his master’s in in­ter­na­tional law. In 2010 he opened his own prac­tice, Kennedy Gi­hana & As­so­ciates, spe­cial­is­ing in in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law, com­mer­cial law, im­mi­gra­tion, di­vorce law and third-party claims.

It was also around this time that he mar­ried his wife. She’s also from Rwanda but they met here while he was still study­ing.

For se­cu­rity rea­son he asks us not to re­veal the names of his wife and their kids. Even though he’s been in SA for over two decades he’s still wary.

“Be­cause I’m so vo­cal and be­cause I rep­re­sent many of those peo­ple who are vic­tims of those gen­er­als who are rul­ing in Rwanda, I’m a tar­get,” he ex­plains.

In 2012 vet­eran jour­nal­ist Jac­ques Pauw wrote a book, Rat Roads, about Kennedy’s in­cred­i­ble jour­ney.

The book in­spired the re­cent doc­u­men­tary of the same name. But Kennedy in­sists he’s not out for fame or glory. He just wants his story to of­fer hope to oth­ers – and not just refugees, but also South Africans.

“If I could do it, what would stop a cit­i­zen of this beau­ti­ful coun­try?” he says. “You can’t tell me that with your of­fi­cial South ­African ID you can­not touch the sky.”

‘If I could do it, what would stop a cit­i­zen of this beau­ti­ful coun­try?’

From liv­ing on the streets to own­ing his own law firm, Kennedy de­fied the odds when he left Rwanda in search of a bet­ter life.

Kennedy at his grad­u­a­tion af­ter re­ceiv­ing his master’s de­gree in in­ter­na­tional law.

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