By Divine Muragijimana
There is no better place to start than one’s mother when speaking of women who have inspired you. My mother, Marie Nizigiyimana, is probably one of the smartest women I have ever met. Yes, I know, most women would probably say the same about their mothers. For as long as I can remember she has played so many roles in people’s lives; a mother, a student, an activist, a community leader and a pastor with a sense of humor that rivals none. Suffice it to say I was terrified. I knew that no matter how much I tried, I would never be half of the woman that she was. I knew that this woman who I called “mum” was no ordinary woman. With four children, she went back to school and got her degree in Business Administration after having spent almost a decade as a high school teacher. She went on to get her Masters degree and added three more children to the lot.
I was not an easy child. In fact, I was prone to getting myself into more trouble than my mother cared to punish me for. I was quick-witted and liked to express my feelings about people and issues rather freely. Some might say that I was, er… rebellious? But my mother had a truly annoying habit. As the first-born, and the first girl, she paid particular attention to me. At that time it was almost like punishment. Every so often, my mother would call me to her room and unleash her lectures of doom. I would sit beside her on the bed and listen to her as she “downloaded” nuggets of wisdom to me. Men, sex, education, children, responsibility, leadership – she covered it all. She did not know it then, but in those lectures she scared me into becoming a good cook. God-forbid I find myself one day being sent back home to my mother because my husband could not tolerate my cooking!
Somehow, during the 16 years that I was under her tutelage, I learned important values that have shaped me today. After years of trying to understand my mother, and myself for that matter, I found in her a woman who inspired me to live-out my life. And to do so courageously. To this day, four values still carry me through:
1. Don’t change who you are to fit other people’s molds of you
I saw it. Over and over again. I would see family, friends, colleagues and community members abuse my mother’s generosity. Maybe it couldn’t be helped. She is that type of person who goes out of her way to help people no matter the circumstances. I guess that would explain why I now have three adopted siblings. While my reaction to seeing this was always outrage, my mother always responded by saying, “if they are taking advantage of me, let God deal with them. It is not my place to judge their motives.” As a young girl, I didn’t think highly of such an attitude, especially when she would get home (often very tired) with yet more work that needed to be done. However, as I grew up, I saw the wisdom in her words. My mother knew that if she allowed people’s actions to change who she is, then she would spend her life reacting to people’s ideas of who she is and what she should be doing. Despite our large family, she stays true to herself. As her daughter, the “let it be” attitude concerned me; now I’m told that I have become quite like her. It took me several years, but I finally learned (first hand) that the best way to journey peacefully through life is when you get to determine the terms of the journey and which roads you are willing to take.
2. Life is precious, don’t waste it
It might have been the combination of a civil war and an exceedingly hectic family life, but my mother thought it important to never let me forget that life is short. She would always ask, if you died today, how will people remember you? At 15, I didn’t consider myself “memorable”; a couple of good grades, extracurricular activities and a penchant for trouble. My mother understood that she was blessed and smart and she made sure I knew that, as her daughter, I was to carry her mantle. She instilled in me the value of hard work and making sure that whatever I did, it counted for something and that I tripled the talents given to me. Yes, the parable of talents was quite popular in my family.
3. Don’t let your circumstances determine your outcome
As long as I can remember, my mother has always championed other women. As a child I would accompany my mother to her meetings with women in the community as they provided a place for support for each other. Often I would accompany my mother to these meetings and listen to some of their discussions as they shared recipes, advice on how to handle a family matter and take part in community service projects.
It was no secret how society viewed a woman’s role. It was taught to me in school and reinforced at home and in the community. However my mother made sure I understood that I had options.
One day, she came home with a recipe for a butter cake. We had no oven and no measuring cups or spoons; however, she said “we will improvise”. And we did. After we had made a makeshift oven with sand and coals I opened, what would become, my first “business”. I baked the cakes and my mother would sell them for me. At that time it seemed so insignificant, but now I realize just how much that meant to me. I didn’t end up owning a bakery; but I never, and will never, lack options. She made sure that I knew that my choice on the outcome of my life was guaranteed, no matter the circumstance I would find myself in. (Now only if she could stop worrying about me being single at 30…..).
4. Above all, have faith
If faith could move mountains, my mother has moved several. I am the daughter of a bishop and pastor. Faith, in this instance, seems “guaranteed” – the obvious choice. As a young girl, it was easy for me to follow my mother and father to church and do what every minister’s daughter does – follow instructions with blind obedience; but eventually rebellion set in.
Even through those years when I found myself lost, in so many ways, and trying to figure out where I fit in this world, my mother refused to give up on me. She would call, email me and keep asking me to have faith. I spent many years “riding” on my mother’s faith – that belief, without doubt, that ALL will work out. It is that faith that she passed to me, even while I was figuring out how to grow into myself, that I never forgot. I will always remember that just a bit of faith carries one a long way.
If I could be half the woman that my mother is, I would count myself lucky. My mother has taught me to live life with open hands. To be a custodian, rather than the owner, of my blessings. Because of her strength, I have found my own. In many ways, she has allowed me to be “heard” in a society that believes that women should just be seen.