by Karen Cadbury
With this issue, Jean Damascene Hakuzimana, who has served as a translator and writer for Amjambo Africa for the past two years, is beginning a new leadership position as the publication’s Africa News Editor. Hakuzimana, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2018, has written for numerous international publications on the experiences of African immigrants in America, and about the key issues facing many African countries, including desertification, community development, and incl usive financing (microfinancing).
As Africa News Editor, he will concentrate on presenting balanced articles and features – with a range of viewpoints – about the regions of Africa that are represented in Maine’s immigrant population. He will also produce news and articles that focus on the trends, activities, politics, and social life in other geographic areas of the African continent.
Prior to emigrating to the U.S. from Rwanda, Hakuzimana worked in Chad as a communication specialist for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). He also served as a communications expert for a European Union-funded program in Gabon; as a communication advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources in Rwanda; and as Advocacy and Communications Manager for the Association of Microfinance Institutions in Rwanda. Hakuzimana was also a fellow with the SEEP Network, a group of global organizations dedicated to combating poverty, and a communication professional with the African Wildlife Foundation in Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda. While working in these positions, he was a radio broadcaster at Radio Salus and then at Radio Isango Star.
In addition to being a regular contributor to Amjambo Africa, Hakuzimana is a community health worker at Ascentria’s Service to New Americans in New Hampshire, helping immigrants and refugees gain access to Medicaid’s medical and social services. His areas of professional interest and writing include agriculture popularization, the environment, microfinancing, biodiversity conservation, and governance. He and his family live in Concord, New Hampshire, where he is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in community development at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.
Where did you grow up? And when did you emigrate to the U.S.?
I grew up in southern, rural Rwanda. The place I lived is beautiful, with mountains, rivers, ravens, forests – all the wonders that Mother Nature can offer. I miss it. When I was little, I was skinny and tiny, but I enjoyed waking up at 5 a.m. and walking five miles to fetch water for my mom, and then walking 10 miles to the elementary school.
I emigrated here because my family is here. I am married and we have four kids. My wife came in 2017 and I joined her in 2018. Since I’ve been here, there have been big differences for all of us. So many things are different here. We had to get everyone settled in schools and find work – so new jobs, sustaining my life, new challenges for my family.
What have the past two years been like for you as you made the transition to living in the U.S.?
I didn’t know what type of job to take or what to do here. And, as an immigrant, you have to start all over, right at the beginning, and learn new things. My first job was in New Hampshire as a technician in a plant making a precast concrete product. Everything was totally fresh. I had to learn everything from the bottom up. But the job required lifting heavy things, and I got back pain and couldn’t sustain it. So I had to look for another job. I managed to get a resume together and I was able to convince the employer that I could do a job in the community service field. There was so much to learn: I had to learn about the job, and how to navigate the health and education systems here. Now, in addition to editing for Amjambo Africa, I’m also a community health worker, with the objective of helping people navigate the social and healthcare systems. And I’m also in a master’s program, specializing in development, agriculture and microfinance.
What is your perception of how the situation has changed for immigrants in your two years in the U.S.?
The current way that Governor Mills is treating immigrants is totally different than the way Governor LePage marginalized them. The situation has been much better recently. It was quite a big event when she had students from the Portland Public Schools (Casco Bay High School and the Reiche Elementary School) sing at her inauguration.
The number one thing to think about, when you are considering immigrants, is that they are people who have been going through hard times, and who want to contribute – not take away – to the development of this country. They’ve seen, sometimes, terrible things – murder rape, loss of their homes. And they’ve been denied a chance to contribute meaningfully to their own country’s development. They hope to have the chance to do that here.
The U.S. is definitely going to need these working people to improve and maintain its growth. The country can benefit from their experience. They will contribute in many ways, including paying taxes and the normal things that citizens do to keep communities healthy and strong.
What would you like for people to know about the immigrants in our communities?
Everyone who came here is wishing for the best, for their neighbors and for themselves. The members of the immigrant communities want to work, get an education, and live in a safe and protected environment.
Regarding the current pandemic and the recent upheaval, immigrants are people who have survived many – often terrible – things. They are trusting that the conflicts caused by this pandemic will come to an end and that everyone will go back to work. Many people, including me, rely on our religion to help us through these challenges. I hold dear being an active member of my church, where I worship and serve as a translator and a preacher. I am not worried about how people [in the immigrant and refugee community] will do in this pandemic. We have survived other things and we will come through this.
How did you get connected to Amjambo Africa?
A friend introduced me. They were just setting up the paper and needed a translator. I have worked in Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, and nine countries in the central part of Africa as a communication or press specialist. After I’d worked at Amjambo Africa for a while, I was given more projects: opinion pieces, African news reporting. I was able also, at that time, to offer some ideas and advice. My new position, editing African news, seems to correspond to my experience.
I’m a news junkie. I can watch cable news all day – it’s a burning passion. My wife used to ask me how I could watch such repetitive stuff for a whole day, but I hate to learn about breaking news from others. I feel very much empowered to be on top of current affairs. I am familiar with the issues that many of these countries are struggling with, and I have helped many people who come to ask me what’s going on out there.
What are your plans for the future of Amjambo Africa?
I would like to produce stories that can help the wider community understand our lives, families, and work. Most of the members of the immigrant community who live in areas where the paper is distributed know us. The columns are good and informative. We have African stories, news, current trends, and we have a good reputation for being responsible and showing both sides of an issue. Often reporting [in the U.S.] on African countries or affairs tends to focus on wars or the problems of governance, poverty, or human rights, but right now, people in Africa are feeling that the continent is rising – Africa is rising. They are quite optimistic. In the Sudan, after 30 years, things are improving. A new government forming, and the optimism about the future that is present in African countries is reflected in our immigrant communities here.
We have a growing African American readership at Amjambo Africa that is passionate to have information about countries from the Congo to Nigeria. We also have people in our communities who have had limited contact with immigrants and they may not know very much about the African countries where the immigrants come from, or about how or why people emigrating from those areas managed to come here. I think Amjambo Africa can provide a unique way of getting out stories that tell about the people in our communities and provide information about the countries of Africa. If you would like to write to Jean Damascene Hakuzimana or have questions about Amjambo Africa please email: [email protected]
Karen Cadbury is a communications and fundraising consultant from Tenants Harbor, Maine. She served as director of International Classroom at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Archaeology and as Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s (Quakers) staff for international human rights.