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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v14n26 (07/02/2015) » Independence Day Feature

Rwandan immigrant Mukunzi Rubens wants to start a free newspaper

Mukunzi Rubens
Welcome = Karibu
Rwandan immigrant Mukunzi Rubens wants to start a free newspaper

Mukunzi Rubens would have been about 15 years old when his homeland of Rwanda, composed of three ethnic groups—Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa—suffered through one of the most shocking examples of genocide in human history. In a matter of weeks in April 1994, over 800,000 men, women, and children died. Though world leaders were aware of the carnage taking place, they “declined for weeks to use their political and moral authority to challenge the legitimacy of the genocidal government,” according the United Human Rights Council.

Rubens with his painting of Nelson Mandela

It was shortly thereafter that the teenager decided he wanted to put out a newspaper. So, he started at the top of a blank page and drew, by hand, a colorful logo and masthead for his new publication L’Oasis Gazette.

He then filled the columns below with stories, again, hand-written. “When I needed a photo to go with a story,” he recalls, “I would just cut one out of another paper and paste it into mine.”

He still has a copy of his early effort, which he grew to become an actual, full-color typeset journal on newsprint, with a staff of writers, covering education news in several languages in the capital city of Kigali.

Rubens, now 36, recounts the story of how he came to leave his homeland.

“Rwanda is a poor country. So if a student brings a cell phone to school, it’s a distraction. If the headmaster would catch a student with a phone, he would take it, and the student would not get it back until vacation—until the end of the term,” he explains.

One day, the Minister of Education paid a visit to a school and noticed a box of phones that had accumulated over the course of the school term. The headmaster explained that they had been confiscated from the students, but that they would be returned.

The Minister of Education saw it as a different kind of teachable moment. He ordered that the entire student body be assembled in the yard. There, the phones were dumped out into a pile on the ground in front of the students. Then, the Minister of Education took a garden hoe and began smashing them to bits.

A reporter for the Oasis Gazette was there and filed the story, which Rubens published. This provoked a call from the Minister of Education.

“Why would you publish this?” He asked. “You are not to publish things like this or you will be shut down.”

He told Rubens that he would need to see the stories that Oasis was planning on publishing beforehand.

Undeterred, Rubens went about his business. But he began receiving threatening phone calls and messages. One day, as he was driving along a crowded road in Kigali, a car deliberately swerved directly into his path from the oncoming traffic lane. Though he was alright, his car was totaled. And the offending driver ran away. When Rubens reported this to the police they did nothing.

“It was then I realized: The next time could be the last. And if I can’t write and publish the truth, then I can’t practice my profession here. If there is no free speech, I cannot be a journalist,” he concluded.

He left Kigali and came straight to Buffalo, where a host family helped him get on his feet. Today, he wears several hats, including working as a tutor at the International Institute. While he chatted through our interview, he took a call to book a lesson he would be giving in Swahili. A talented artist, he then showed off some of photos of paintings he has done since arriving here, including one of his hero, Nelson Mandela.

His true vocation seems to remain the one he took to as a teenager, when, undaunted by any obstacle he produced his first newspaper—handwritten. Based on his experiences here as an immigrant, meeting others who find themselves in a foreign culture, he is pursuing a new dream of starting a free publication called Karibu Community Newspaper. Karibu translates to “welcome” in Swahili.

Rubens is recruiting writers from within the new ethnic groups in town, to tell stories of their experiences here, in their native languages. He envisions his new publication to include articles written in English, Burmese, Arabic, and Nepali. To find out more, including advertising opportunities to help support his dream of a free newspaper devoted to providing a voice for the newcomers to our area, send an email to: or call 716-536-6617.

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