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How Justus Uwayesu Rose From the Garbage Dump to the Halls of Harvard.


The antecedents of his birth didn’t in anyway offer many options.

Justus Uwayesu was only 2 years old in 1994 when the untold fate that befell most Rwandans at the time bore an indelible mark in his life. He lost his parents that year, during the genocide. His father first, by immolation and then his mother; in a manner quite unclear to him. It was only gathered that she ran for her life abandoning her two year old and most probably met the same fate as her husband.

Now what’s this Rwandan babe to do? Fend for himself?

How fate led Justus for the next six years of his life remains a mystery, as most children his age at the time died every day, most, in the hands of their cruel brethren-turned oppressors and others of hunger. Some Red Cross workers found Justus and his three siblings and decided to care for them until 1998, when the growing number of parentless children forced the workers to retire.

The genocide ended eventually, having claimed about 800,000 people in 100 days. But the days following would indeed create even more horrific nightmares for this little boy.


Parentless, homeless, drying out in hunger and with barely a piece of clothing to cover his back, the 8 year old in response to the tugging survival demands that assailed him, meandered several kilometers with his brother, and ended up in Ruviri, a straggling garbage dump on the outskirts of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. A place that would eventually become home for Justus and hundreds of other orphans who were laden with the same fate and of course a herd of pigs. And amid the lingering stench, Justus found a meal for his stomach each day.

His shelter was a burnt out, tireless car, in which he slept; each time with dirty pieces of cardboard between him and the corroded floor. This was definitely no comfort, but it sure provided some kind of protection from the burning sun and stifling dust, even though the car had no windows.

“There was no shower, no bathing at all,” he said. “The only thing was to keep something warm for the night, something really warm.

The castoffs from the restaurants and hotels were definitely a treat, nothing like his usual garbage scrap, and so Justus learnt to spot the trucks as they arrive to discharge for the day. He remembers how on one occasion he narrowly escaped being buried alive by a truck emptying piles of garbage into a pit.

He had no reason to look forward to Sundays; in fact he wished they never existed because they were days he went without food. No trucks came on Sundays, and for obvious reasons, the bigger children hectored him and took for themselves whatever remaining garbage he found.


But more than anything Justus longed for the one thing he knew was nowhere near his reach at the time. For this one thing, his heart ached each day.

 “At noon,” he said, “kids would be coming back from school in their uniforms, running and playing in the road. Sometimes they would call me nayibobo” — meaning, forgotten child. They knew how different we were from them.”

Pain seared his heart daily; there was just nothing to look forward to, as hopelessness constantly engulfed him.

“It was a really dark time, because I couldn’t see a future,” he remembers. “I couldn’t see how life could be better, or how I could come out of that.”

The turning point………

2001 was the year providence smiled on Justus Uwayesu, reminding him that there is always a day for every man.

For Justus that day was a Sunday, the day of the week he always wished never existed, as it was his day of compulsory fast and hopelessness. But this one was different. It held an unimaginable promise and hope, not just for Justus, but for a few other children who were at the time, the only family he knew.

justus www feat

Mama Clare Effiong’s, presence at the garbage dump that afternoon made all the difference. She had just arrived on a visit to Rwanda from America and felt a compulsion to visit the dump. On seeing this group of scrawny little orphans, she was moved with compassion. She ordered the taxi driver to stop. And after some conversation, and with the help of an interpreter, offered to take the children to a safe place. (you can read Clare Effiong’s story here)

The children were overwhelmed with delight; all ready to begin a new life. But for Justus it was different, he knew this was his opportunity and he wasn’t going to toil with it.

“I want to go to school” was all he muttered. Now, this was a reply Mama Clare never imagined could come from a child who was almost drying out in hunger. But indeed she was pleased.

“I took him to where I was, cleaned him up, changed his clothes, dressed the wounds on his body and eventually sent him to primary school,” she recounts.

Indeed, the little boy proved he was ready for school, in his first grade, he finished at the top of his class and then proceeded to the high school, where he finished with a distinction; all A’s. He also learnt to speak four more languages besides Kinyarwanda, which was the only language he could speak before he got into school.


As an exceptional math and chemistry student, Justus was selected to join 30 students (out of 1,200+ applicants) in the Bridge2Rwanda Scholars Program, a program run by a charity in Little Rock, Ark that prepares Rwanda’s most talented and promising students to compete successfully for international scholarships.

Beyond the general training, Justus studied tirelessly for his SAT and TOEFL tests. And with the help of his Bridge2Rwanda coaches, he applied to Harvard University and was subsequently admitted. His joy was boundless. This was the beginning of a beautiful and long awaited life.

Interestingly, of about 25 African applicants who made this year’s cut, three are from Rwanda, including a second Bridge2Rwanda scholar.

Mr. Uwayesu has now enrolled as a freshman at the prestigious Harvard University on a full-scholarship, studying math, economics and human rights, while adjusting beautifully to his new life- the Boston life.

In an effort to give back to his community, the young Rwandan helped found a youth charity that has now spread to high schools nationwide, buying health insurance for poor students and giving medical and scholastic aid to many others.

“I want to go to school” was the statement that launched Justus into the life he always desired; his dream. Now I ask, what do you want? Want is your dream? How much are you willing to work, to bring it to reality?

Think on these things…………………….

Lovelyn Okafor
Lovelyn Okafor
Lovelyn Okafor is a Journalist/Writer, Poet, Lawyer and God-Lover. She enjoys a good read and sees everyday as an opportunity to live and enjoy her calling whilst working towards perfecting it. She believes that someday soon, Africa will reach her full potential as the light-bearer of the world. You can find her on Twitter: @lovelyn_o

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