When you meet the award-winning writer Sakina Ntibanyitesha it is difficult not to be touched. Moved by the pain, grief and anger. But you will also be amazed at how much a human being can endure without losing faith in humanity.

Sakina Ntibanyitesha has been on her own since she was twelve. Her life has been marked by several wars, abuse, torture, evil people and some good. Unlike many others, she has chosen not to be quiet and bury what has happened inside her. Instead she has written several books on what she has experienced, about her childhood, about a life of war and of her escape. The reason Sakina started writing was pure anger, the anger over the fact that some people are doing well while others do very poorly.

“I don’t know if it makes any difference that I write books and tell my stories. But I think that all people deserve to have a good life and if my books can change it for anybody, it is worth it,” says Sakina.

Sakina was born in Burundi but her parents moved early to Rwanda. Her parents separated and she began living with her grandmother. She lived there until she was twelve. Sakina’s gaze becomes warm when she talks about her grandmother. They lived in poverty and had to work very hard to survive. But they were happy, and Sakina often dreams back to the time with her grandmother.

“My grandmother never got angry. Not even if I did not want to help out. She just nodded. Later in the evening, she told a tale. In the fairy tale there was a girl and a grandmother. And the saga ended with ‘… and because the girl did not help her grandmother with the wood her grandmother had to do it herself. Out on the road she met a large animal that ate her up. Who will now take care of the little girl…?’. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice and all her wise thoughts about life.”

Sakina’s grandmother smoked a pipe and had a very wrinkled brow. Sakina thought that the wrinkles were beautiful and that she also wanted wrinkles. She asked her grandmother how she could get a wrinkled brow. "Go and fetch water and you’ll get wrinkles." Sakina drew the water but there were no wrinkles. She took courage and asked why she had not gotten any wrinkles.

“Go and fetch firewood and you’ll get wrinkles.” Sakina fetched firewood. Still no wrinkles".

“My grandmother then explained, ‘wrinkles are like a diploma; if you fetch water and firewood for a lifetime, listening to and helping others - then you will get wrinkles’.”

Given that life expectancy is not as high in Africa, you have to live a good life in order to get the wrinkles.

Life changes

But the time with her grandmother ran out because they got increasingly poorer. Sakina’s grandmother thought it was better for Sakina to move back with her father where she would have the chance to go to school and be able to have a better life. But she didn’t get to go to school. Instead Sakina had to work on a farm and her circumstances were even worse than they were with her grandmother.

“My father had five wives, or really five cohabitants because he did not remarry, and I got along well with all of them except one. When my father gave me a house, as an anticipated inheritance, she became jealous and hired a man to kill me. When I was out walking, I was hit by a motorcycle and woke up several days later, strapped to a bed. He said "I thought you were so cute so I wanted to keep you.”

Then he raped me.

Sakina is silenced, and closes her eyes for a moment, with the memory. When she looks up again anger shines in her eyes.

“I’m good at forgiving. But that man, I cannot forgive!”

But the man who wronged her, had a nice wife. She told Sakina’s aunt how it was, and together they got Sakina to Congo-Kinshasa, where she got a job as a housekeeper.

“I think it was in 1990, time is blurred ... It was a wealthy family, and the woman in the family was very kind and gave me a hug every night. The man I did not like because he made advances towards me.”

Sakina thought it was nice to sleep outdoors, both to avoid the man’s advances, and for the pleasant air. But one evening she forgot to lock the door to the house and there was a burglary. Sakina was accused of being a thief and was severely beaten. After the beating, she was dumped in the waters of Lake Tanganyika. The large waves pulled her further out into the lake. A fisherman who was going out with his boat saw her in the water and saved her. He took her to the Red Cross hospital, and for two months she hovered between life and death.

“The nurses told me that the man who found me brought me food every day but I was too weak to eat. He was a good man, one of the few good men in my life.”

After leaving the hospital Sakina constantly moved between different families. At some point she became pregnant and gave birth to a son.

“When war broke out in the eastern Congo, I felt a relief, now I can finally die. I had my son on my back and thought, "if I get a shot in the chest my son will also die, I can’t leave him alone."

But Sakina did not get shot. Not in the chest anyway.

“The time in the Congo between 1998 and 2002, was the worst of my life. We walked several miles every day. I was shot in the leg. I escaped a massacre because I knew the language and convinced the executioners that I wasn’t from Rwanda. When I finally was able to seek asylum through the UN, I was so tired. Tired of everything.”

In February of 2003, Sakina and her son made it to Luleå. And life took a new turn. She now had the chance to study for the first time in her life. And her son was able to go to school. But when the news came that she would be granted asylum, she had difficulty feeling joy.

“I had given up. I had gone through so many bad things that I could not even feel happy about escaping the misery. It was really hard to come to another country. I did not speak the language, did not understand the culture. At the same time, it is great, but a little cold in Luleå. But I am almost ashamed that I have it so good when so many others do not.”

Sakina is silent, but her words still hang in the air. Her life story is in no way unique. What might be unique is that she survived at all. Time after time.

Text: Fredrik Palmqvist
Photo: Susanne Lindholm