WAKAYAMA – As an office clerk in her 20s in Japan, Mami Rudasingwa never imagined herself as someone who would go on to help thousands of people in Rwanda with missing limbs.
Rudasingwa, 49, founded the nonprofit organization Mulindi Japan One Love Project in 1996 with her Rwandan husband, Gatera, and has since made and supplied artificial limbs for free for roughly 6,000 amputees in the East African nation, which went through years of civil conflict.
“Certainly there were rough times, but I have always been encouraged by the smiles people in Rwanda show when they put on artificial limbs,” she said, looking back on the last 16 years.
After graduating from an international school, Rudasingwa, a native of Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, worked as an office clerk for six years. Fed up with everyday desk work, she decided at the age of 26 to study abroad.
There weren’t any special reasons for her to pick Africa as her destination.
“I just thought it would have more impact if I went to Africa than the United States,” which is a popular destination among Japanese students who want to study abroad, Rudasingwa said.
She flew to Nairobi in 1989 to study Swahili and met Gatera, who was seeking refuge in Kenya.
Gatera’s right leg is paralyzed due to poor medical treatment he received in childhood.
Rudasingwa learned that roughly 1 million people, or some 10 percent of Rwanda’s population, have some sort of disability and many are unemployed.
Gatera told her that during the civil war some of his compatriots had their arms and legs cut off by soldiers, and that those who had lost both legs were forced to crawl on the muddy ground in rain. Some have to beg for a living.
Rudasingwa used to have an impression of Africa being “cheerful,” but that was gone by the time she returned to Japan.
Gatera visited her in Japan in 1991.
During his stay, his artificial leg broke. While watching it being repaired at a factory, he wondered if the technology and knowhow for making artificial limbs could be brought to Rwanda and if he could help his compatriots lead more comfortable lives.
Rudasingwa shared his vision and obtained a national license as a prosthetist after five years of studying and training at a manufacturer in Yokohama.
The couple established Mulindi Japan One Love Project in 1996 and opened a factory in Kigali the next year, followed by another in Burundi, south of Rwanda, in 2007.
Mulindi is the name of a northern Rwandan village near the border with Uganda that served as a base camp for rebels against the government during the 1994 genocide that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives. It is also where Gatera had in 1993 for the first time the opportunity to talk about his plan to help people with disabilities in front of Rwandans, including then President Paul Kagame.
The organization has so far offered free of charge not just artificial limbs but also crutches, wheelchairs and medical devices to about 8,000 people in Rwanda and Burundi.
The organization currently relies on donations and subsidies from the Rwandan government to cover the material and transportation costs, which total about ¥30,000 per artificial limb.
Because its ultimate goal is to help people with disabilities in Rwanda and Burundi live independent lives, Rudasingwa hopes the organization will soon be able to offer them vocational training.