As the long awaited first born in the family, my parents decided to name me ‘Kazeneza’, which means welcome in Kirundi. Bringing a child into this world was something so precious to them, that I’ve always aspired to live a purposeful life. My story is one of a soul in search of its mission. Of many questions with found and unfound answers. I was one of those kids, who would not let five minutes go by without questioning why things are the way they are. That inquisitiveness hasn’t changed until today.
Growing up in a middle-class family, my parents pushed me and my brother to go beyond the little education they got themselves. In primary school, my mum used to go around the neighborhood with my score card, boasting to everyone in town about how great her daughter did in school. At that age, this was so embarrassing, but growing up it made me realise how much she cared. She just really wanted me to climb mountains she didn’t get to climb. And I did. Today I am the first one in my extended family to have a Masters degree and I am not planning to stop before I have a PhD. The only PhD holder from my community died recently. I hope not to become the only one, but to be one of many critical thinkers who can lift up our place.
Without his knowing, my father sowed the seeds that turned me into a critical thinker. There wasn’t a day that he would miss the news or political discussions on the radio. Because of that he always knew exactly what was going on in my country and in the rest of the world. I joined him and every day we listened to the national, private and international radio. The weekends were my favorite, as we would wake up and listen to political discussions. Not books, TV or social media, but radio made me a conscious Burundian, African and Global citizen.
The more I listened the more I learned to be critical, the more I questioned things, until it influenced the choice of my studies and drove my passion for peace building and youth. I lived the best years of my life doing two years in Philosophy and three years in Theology at a Jesuit University in Rome called Pontifical University of Gregorian. My studies helped me to understand who I am. In my first semester in Philosophy, I wasn’t just the only black person in class, but I was also the only black woman. This felt uncomfortable and made me doubt myself at first, but by the time I had reached my last year in Theology I had become more confident. I shattered the stereotypes that had been projected upon me, as a black woman from a tiny country in Africa known for wars, and became the very first black and female class representative. For the record, only 12 out of 153 students in my class were women. That is how I started understanding the meaning of patriarchy and what it means to push for equal rights for men and women.
After finishing my studies in Italy in 2015, I found myself returning to a country in political crisis. Seeing my country going through such a difficult time influenced my choice for a Masters in Peace Studies and International Relations. Having lived in war from a young age, for me peace is not a concept. Peace is built every day. It is not just about politicians. What everyone does to contribute to this process matters, from our small communities all the way to the top leaders.
Nevertheless, the reality is that people have given their will and decision-making power to politicians, or as we say in Kirundi ‘abo heruju’ which means ‘those up’. That is why today my efforts focus on engaging young people. I currently work at East Africa Youth Leadership Program (YouLead) which seeks to unlock youth leadership potential for a prosperous region. I get to work with youth led or youth serving organizations in the East Africa Community. The most inspiring part of my job is to meet and empower other youths on the continent and beyond. Personally, I want to make fellow young people understand that we are not just the future of our society. Why should we wait for that future to arrive, if we can change our reality today? Now is also our time, so let’s start building our tomorrow and leave a more solid foundation for next generations to come.
My advice to other women and Africans is: Your life matters, so find your mission. Do whatever you can to make the world you live in better than how you found it. Don’t let anyone make you feel useless. Have a purpose in life which goes beyond your needs and the needs of your family. The world needs you, the world needs me, the world needs us!