The red clay of Rwanda clings to the body, the clothes and, perhaps, the soul. The people cannot escape it, just as they could not escape the genocide that shocked the world beginning in April 1994.
While Marie Kagaju Laugharn was on assignment with the United Nations, she received a call from a relative warning her not to go home to Rwanda. The call probably saved her life. Marie is a Tutsi. At that time, Tutsis made up 14 percent of the population and were the targets of a genocide orchestrated by the Hutu majority.
According to the United Human Rights Council, “Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped.” Marie remembers that gangs of men with AIDS were enlisted to rape women, inseminating their disease.
In the weeks that followed, 800,000 men, women and children perished in the Rwandan genocide. Marie lost members of her family, too.
But she continued her work with the UN Development Program in Mali, Kenya, the Central African Republic and Rwanda, and with groups like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, where she moved negotiations forward to the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Conventions by several African nations.
Then she met Peter Laugharn who shared her mission in life to help the powerless, particularly women and children. The couple married and lived in The Hague, where he served as an executive director for a foundation that supported early childhood development and children’s rights.
Unfortunately, The Hague has a large population of transient diplomats and nonprofit staff members from countries around the world, and as they began having children, Marie and Peter longed to find a home in a real community, a secure place to raise their family.
“Then the call came!” said Marie, with a smile and twinkling eyes.
The executive director of the Firelight Foundation in Santa Cruz called to ask Peter if he could recommend anyone for her position, which she would soon be leaving.
Peter, a native Californian and Stanford graduate, and Marie felt like their prayers had been answered. He assumed the position at Firelight in 2008, and the longtime emigrant from Rwanda had finally found a home.
Marie loves her home in the community of The Vineyards in Scotts Valley and the safety of allowing her children to run down the street to play with neighbors, something Americans may take for granted. She loves being a mom in Scotts Valley and chauffeuring her twin daughters and son to .
Yet, she continues to be an advocate of children’s and women’s rights, serving on the Projects Committee for One World Children's Fund, TeachAIDS and Scotts Valley Rotary Club, and as a board member of The Ihangane Project. Recently, Supervisor Mark Stone appointed her to serve on the Santa Cruz County Women's Commission.
“I think he wanted someone with a different perspective,” Marie said. “While my experiences growing up in Africa may be unusual, women's issues are the same the world over.”
The Women's Commission advises the board of supervisors on issues impacting women and girls, including employment rights and equal pay, the needs of women in Santa Cruz County, and federal and state legislation affecting women. The Commission has recently completed its report on the Status of Women and Girls (SOWAG Report) in Santa Cruz County
“Did you know that as women become more educated, the wage gap between comparable men and women widens?" Marie asks. “That women in jail have less opportunity than men for vocational rehabilitation? That 87 percent of girls have experienced sexual harassment?”
The womenn's commission will have meetings to receive comments from the community starting in May. But she has also started her own place and time for women to gather and share, too, that she calls “Tea with Marie,” usually meeting on Sunday afternoons.
“I ask, ‘What matters to you? What do you want to share in this friendly, open space?’ It’s not a therapy session. It’s a free discussion that stays within our space, sharing constructive experiences. My mother said that the most precious gift you can give to someone is your time.”
“I also ask, ‘If you had super power, what would you like to see in your life?' Each shared their issues like being bullied from the fourth-grade, social media that influence us to look skinny, and health care for women,” she said.
Marie said she feels that her tea events will serve as a conduit of women’s issues that she can take to the commission.
“Then it will be up to the supervisors to do something about them and make recommendations,” Marie said. “Maya Angelou, who was here last month, said that, ‘When women know better, they do better.’”
This Saturday, Marie invites the public to her home for “.”
“Every April is a time to honor those who were lost during the genocide," she said. "This year, in addition to honoring the tragic loss, we would like to focus on celebrating the resilience of incredible people who have risen above the tragedies they faced to create new lives for themselves, their families and their communities. Please join us for an evening of food, drinks and sharing.”
The event is a time to:
~Celebrate the progress made by a country determined not to be defined by its past.
~Learn about the Ihangane Project’s work.
~Shop for beautifully handmade crafts from the Covaru and Ihangane women’s associations.
There is a suggested donation of $25 for those who are able, and 100 percent of the proceeds will go to provide nutritional support to HIV-exposed infants in the rural community of Ruli, Rwanda.
To register for “Celebrating Resilience,” go to theihanganeproject.com and click on “Upcoming Events.”