All he had were the clothes on his back and a pair of sandals made from an old rubber tyre. Kennedy Gihana was well aware that he was hopelessly ill-equipped to walk almost 6 000km from Rwanda to South Africa – but he had no other choice.
He’d been labelled a traitor and there was a target on his back. To stay would mean certain death. But to go also posed many life-threatening risks: on the remote back roads he planned to walk, the odds of encountering bandits, police and wild animals were high. Yet it was a risk worth taking, he decided, for the chance at a better life.
And so, early one morning in 1998, he started walking. He had no idea how he was going to fend for himself but along the way it soon became clear. “I survived on Ubuntu,” Kennedy (47) says as he chats to us in a hotel in Centurion, near Pretoria.
“It was African humanity that helped me stay alive.”
Everywhere he went, help miraculously materialised. “People in rural areas, people in townships, people in African villages – they don’t have a problem. They’ll help and will share whatever they’ve got.” It took him six months but at last he arrived in Johannesburg. Only to discover that that’s where his real journey began.
With hardly any money to his name, he was forced to sleep on the streets. Then came a series of poorly paid jobs and an uphill battle with home affairs to acquire refugee status. But throughout it all, Kennedy refused to give up. Having risked everything to get here, he wasn’t going to allow red tape or anyone to stand in his way.
More than two decades on, he’s a successful human rights lawyer with his own firm – living proof of what can be achieved with a bit of guts and determination.
“If you want something in this world, there’s nobody who can do it for you,” says Kennedy, who’s now the subject of a documentary, Rat Roads, on the History channel (DStv, channel 186). As he speaks, there’s a steely glint in his spectacled eyes.
“It’s all up to you,” he adds. “If you’re suffering today, persevere and it will be a channel or tunnel to a better future.”
He’d had to learn to fend for himself from an early age. His mom is Rwandan and his father was Burundian of Rwandan origin. Kennedy was born in Burundi. When political unrest flared up in Burundi, the family moved to Uganda. By this point his dad had passed away and he was largely raised by his grandparents while his mom tried to keep things together.
“It wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “When you’re a refugee or you’re an immigrant from another place, you have to start from zero.”
Kennedy worked on a banana plantation and coffee farm to pay his school fees. He moved to Rwanda at the end of 1991 but with tensions rising there, he was soon recruited to the army. At around the age of 19 he was in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, trying to put an end to the genocide taking place in the country.
But by 1996 he’d had enough of fighting. He’d lost his sister and grandparents in the brutal civil war and he couldn’t take anymore. So when the country’s president, Paul Kagame, ordered his soldiers to fight in the Republic of Congo, Kennedy dug in his heels and refused to go. This act of defiance landed him in hot water and he was branded a traitor.
“I knew that if I didn’t leave there, I would die,” he says.
In January 1998 he left on foot with his matric certificate wrapped in plastic, tied to his body with banana rope. His epic six-month journey saw him walking through Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
In Malawi he made a friend who gave him $100 (then R500) to help him along his journey. This came in handy when he had to pay a bribe to get across the Zimbabwean border into South Africa. With the money left over, he boarded a bus to Johannesburg. It was the only bit of the journey he didn’t do on foot. In June 1998 he arrived in Hillbrow.
“It was the first time I saw tall buildings and lights,” he recalls. “I was just so excited, I didn’t even care where I was going to sleep.”
He spent two months living on the streets before meeting a Kirundi-speaking cigarette vendor. They bonded over their shared language and the man offered Kennedy a place to stay and R100 to enrol in a security course to help him get started.
Kennedy finished the course and was able to find employment at a security company in Fourways. At just R700 a month the pay wasn’t great. But, determined that the job would just be a stepping stone, he saved R300 to register for a part-time law degree at Unisa. While attending a commemoration of the Rwandan genocide at the embassy in Pretoria in 2001, he caught a lucky break.
He started chatting to a diplomat, who was so touched by his story that it landed him a job. Once he was working at the embassy as a security guard, he was able to enroll at the University of Pretoria. He would attend classes between his shifts and during his lunch breaks. It was all going well until one of his former army superiors arrived at the embassy one day.
He instantly recognised Kennedy and promptly had him fired. With no income, he was soon homeless again.
“It didn’t discourage me. I knew that I could go to the library and then at night when the other students went to residence, I would sleep there at my desk,” he says.
When university officials found out about his plight, they were sympathetic and arranged accommodation for him. News quickly spread across the law faculty and various people started pitching in to give him groceries, clothes and other assistance.
It was a proud moment when Kennedy completed his degree in 2005. He joined a Pretoria law firm and completed his articles two years later, going on to attain his master’s in international law. In 2010 he opened his own practice, Kennedy Gihana & Associates, specializing in international human rights law, commercial law, immigration, divorce law and third-party claims.
It was also around this time that he married his wife. She’s also from Rwanda but they met here while he was still studying. For security reason he asks us not to reveal the names of his wife and their kids. Even though he’s been in SA for over two decades he’s still wary.
“Because I’m so vocal and because I represent many of those people who are victims of those generals who are ruling in Rwanda, I’m a target,” he explains. In 2012 veteran journalist Jacques Pauw wrote a book, Rat Roads, about Kennedy’s incredible journey. The book inspired the recent documentary of the same name.
But Kennedy insists he’s not out for fame or glory. He just wants his story to offer hope to others – and not just refugees, but also South Africans.
“If I could do it, what would stop a citizen of this beautiful country?” he says. “You can’t tell me that with your official South African ID you cannot touch the sky.”