Remembering Rwanda

Margaret Bimenyimana, a prominent Rwandan matriarch, Tutsi businesswoman and indomitable mother, was second or third on the Hutu hit list in Kigali, the capital city torn apart by machete-wielding throngs 20 years ago this month.

The first time they came to kill her, a Hutu gang took all her money and jewelry, then laid her two sons on the floor, preparing to hack them to death.

Margaret Bimenyimana told them to wait, said she had something else to give them, then raced to get the family Bible. When she returned, she held it up serenely, commandingly, like a divine shield, and the startled assailants dropped their weapons and ran.

Anna Bimenyimana, her daughter, wasn’t there when the assault happened – she was living in Montreal – and she wouldn’t hear from her mother for two months, a nightmare time during which as many as a million Rwandan citizens were killed in one of the worst genocides in modern history. But looking back, she says her mother, who had constructed a life of service helping others, survived the mass executions because no one could muster the courage to kill her.

The genocide began on April 7, 1994, the day after then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, died when his plane was shot down and the Tutsi were blamed.

Tutsi and Hutu had been at odds with each other for decades, and Habyarimana’s assassination lit a powder keg. Bimenyimana, now living in Sonoma, running the Bon Marche thrift store to fund Rwandan micro-loans and support a food cooperative, says no one she knows was untouched by the violence.

“My grandparents were killed, my mom’s cousin had six boys, they all got killed ... My cousin, his wife was six months pregnant, they came and attacked him, but he fought them, he was a karate expert, but he finally grew tired, they killed him, they killed his wife and the baby, everyone ...”

Bimenyimana described the slaughter as methodical and routine. “It was like a job for them. Every night they went out and killed people ... One of the things that makes me so sad is the girls that got raped, they got infected with HIV, and they had babies born with HIV ... It’s just been a very, very long road,” she says, a still hopeful smile on her youthful face. “I’m proud of my people, they have lived through so much. But the country is very clean and green, it’s beautiful, and they’re going to make it, they’re going to be OK.”

Bimenyimana’s mother sent her to a Catholic boarding school in Belgium when she was 13, and after her graduation she decided to emigrate to Canada. There she eventually met her husband, Antoine Bigirimana, a software engineer who had lost his wife and children in the genocide. After 11 years in Montreal and a business degree, she followed her husband to Sonoma when he said he couldn’t take the cold any more. Now, as founder of the Kigali Center for Entrepreneurs, he spends more time in Rwanda than in California. But it is work Bimenyimana passionately supports. “We help women start their own businesses with microloan programs,” she explains. “We also give them goats. We give about 10 goats, then they have kids and give back four goats, and it keeps working like that.” To help support that effort, Bimenyimana started Bon Marche (a “good deal” in French) in 2007 in the old Nicholsen Turkey building on Riverside Drive, and has twice outgrown her quarters.

Now she occupies more than 2,000 square feet, filled with racks of cloths, walls of furniture, books, videos, appliances, art, Easter decorations, such a variety, in fact, that Bimenyimana laughs, “You could do your entire house here.”

One alcove of the store contains space occupied by Merryl Latini, aka Mrs. Fixit, who repairs clothes, furniture, anything that can be mended with glue or fabric or needlecraft. She will soon be offering sewing classes and other instruction in “fun, simple things to enjoy yourself.”

Near the front entrance, Bimenyimana is planning within weeks to install a coffee bar, serving fragrant Rwandan coffee.

Last year, Bon Marche was able to send $45,000 back to Rwanda; this year Bimenyimana hopes to make it $60,000. Her goal may be easier with another new enterprise – My Girlfriend’s Closet – the fashionable consignment store in Sonoma gifted to her by owner Fran Meininger who decided to retire. “It was the perfect exit for me,” said Meininger. “I love what she does.”

Bon Marche also supports Gardens For Health International, an American nonprofit providing sustainable agricultural solutions to combat childhood malnutrition in Rwanda, and she is hoping soon to raise enough money to open another health clinic in Rwanda.

And there’s one more dream on the back burner. “I want to build a place, mostly for girls, whose parents were killed in the genocide. After they leave schools, when they are 16-to-20, there is no place for these girls to go, no place to live. I want to build a place for a home and a farm. For some girls, it’s a dream for them to have a place for a traditional wedding. I want to provide that.”

For Anna Bimenyimana, 20 years seems like eternity and like yesterday. The genocide will be part of her life forever, and so, it seems, will her commitment to dress its wounds.

Bon Marche is located at 19445 Riverside Dr.