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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A Born Survivor

Apr. 22, 2015

One woman who’s seen the worst that man and nature can do is putting her experience to good use. Marie Louise Towari grew up in Rwanda, where she worked teaching people to make clothes. But her life changed forever in April 1994, when genocide left more than 800,000 people dead in the country. Towari lost many friends and relatives before fleeing the country with her husband and children.

She had some connections with people in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, so she moved there to join them. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was just 60 km away, but she never gave it a thought. Then in March, 2011, another tragedy struck. A magnitude 9.0 quake rocked Northeaster Japan and a tsunami smashed into the power plant.

Many people fled Fukushima after the accident, but Towari stayed. She wanted to help the people who were being forced to abandon their homes, as she had been nearly two decades earlier. And she began using her experiences in Rwanda to inspire people all over Japan. “When I fled Rwanda, I only could carry the most important things I had, my children and my life,” she recalls. “I lost everything else, but being alive is what counts.”

Today, she goes back to Rwanda whenever she can. She’s been raising funds to support children’s education there.

Towari stayed in Fukushima to support residents. She has been visiting people who had to flee their homes after Fukushima’s nuclear accident. She goes every month to the local temporary housing communities.

When she visits, everyone comes together over a cup of Rwandan coffee. It’s a taste of home for her, and a chance to show that there’s more to Rwanda than its brutal past.

Every month she meets with more than 50 people living in the local temporary communities. And evacuees living further afield have been coming to meet her and hear her stories. One resident remarks that Towari is so straightforward. Another says, “she’s got an African appearance, but the heart of a Japanese person.” Towari says the purpose of her visits is to “meet them and to share this same moment, to let each other know that we think about each other even in our daily lives.”

In 2001, Towari opened the Umuco Mwiza Academy using donations from people in Japan. The Japan International Cooperation Agency and Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers help run the school. Towari wanted to make sure everyone had access to education. Her school provides financial assistance for poor families and now 260 students are taking classes. Towari visits the school every year.

Last month, she helped to set up a kitchen to start a school lunch service. She says for the children to learn, they have to be healthy. Umuco Mwiza has a broader curriculum than other schools. Students learn presentation skills, and can take classes in artistic fields such as music and drawing. That’s rare in Rwanda.

This month, Towari brought back a message from the Rwandan school children. She’d told them about the evacuees in Fukushima, and they wanted to send some words of encouragement. They wrote the message: “Don’t worry. I’ll be with you.”


Beppu: And Marie Louise Towari joined us. Marie Louise, what was it like when the killings began? When did you first realize what was going on?

Towari: I was just spending my life as usual, going to work, coming back and feeding kids. And everything turned for the worse. Everything changed. We had to leave the house and go far away, looking for a safer place.

Beppu: Did you know the violence was approaching your daily life?

Towari: I didn’t even know what was going on, but my host family back in Japan were the ones to call me and inform me what was happening in Rwanda at that time.

Shibuya: And how about the earthquake? Where were you?

Towari: I was just living my daily life, as I had been in Rwanda. I was filing my taxes, on the 4th floor of a building.

Beppu: What did you think about the power of the earthquake?

Towari: I thought it was the end. It was like the end of everything. It was very scary. In my family, everyone was working, and so everyone was at a different place.

Beppu: And it wasn’t just the earthquake. There was also the nuclear accident.

Towari: It was such a shock, because we didn’t have electricity, or even water. The lifeline had stopped. So it was just worrying every day, wondering what was going to happen. And at that time the earthquakes were coming and going. The first two days, we couldn’t sleep.

Beppu: So many people left Fukushima, or even Japan after the nuclear accident. But you stayed to help the people there.

Towari: You know, when I was in the refugee camp, what supported me were people who came to the camp. Especially, people in Fukushima were thinking of us. I even received a letter from them. They were just worrying about us. So this is maybe my time to be connected to them, more than before.

Beppu: A lot of people were leaving Fukushima. Didn’t you feel that you should leave at all? Towari: I didn’t think about leaving, because I have a very strong connection with Fukushima people. They are just a part of me.

Shibuya: And you are trying to help people in your former home?

Towari: Yes, and I am getting help from people in Japan for that.

Shibuya: I heard that the school children in Rwanda came up with the idea of writing to people in Fukushima. How did you feel when you saw their message?

Towari: I was just really happy. We didn’t say “you have to do this.” It was from the children. After they heard about Fukushima, they went and asked the headmaster. They are very interested in what is happening in Japan. It is a good lesson to be interested in Fukushima.

Beppu: The school is open to students of all ethnic backgrounds. How important do you think this is for the future of the country?

Towari: I think the classroom is the only place where people gather together and think about the future together. They are full of dream, which each child should have and then share with others. In the classroom, there are dreams.

Beppu: How do you teach them about the past?

Towari: We don’t usually teach them at this age, because just being together in the classroom is the best way to learn to accept each other. Then when they are in the 5th grade or 6th grade, they go to the genocide memorial for themselves. In April, people go to different places to listen to the history of people, so they can themselves understand. And when they come back to school, sitting in the classroom and talking among themselves about the better life they are building is the best way, I think.

Beppu: This remedy can be applied to a lot of conflicts around the world. How do you think we can overcome these problems?

Towari: I think our differences should not be a problem. You see, everyone who is happy smiles. And everyone who is sad cries. This is true of every human being. You have to bring the two sides together to see that, instead of seeing what separates us.

Shibuya: Marie Louise, thank you for joining us.