Desange Kuenihira Is Living Life on Her Own Terms
We spoke with the 22-year-old CEO, author, and recent graduate on finding meaning in a world determined to silence you.
For much of her life, Desange Kuenihira’s closest companion was fear. Fear and hatred accompanied the now 22-year-old author and CEO as she escaped civil war in her home country, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and entered a Ugandan refugee camp at the age of two. Fear continued to tug at her sleeves as she battled the ignorance that comes with xenophobic ideologies. Having survived abuse — to her body and character — and multiple instances of sexual assault, Kuenihira prevails. Now, the founder and CEO of the Nonprofit organization UnDefeatedhas made that fear her power, as she pushes to empower those around her. Her autobiography Undefeated Woman,released in 2022, tells the story of a little girl who clawed her way out of the black hole life tried to bind her to.
As a child, Kuenihira was referred to as a “meaningless girl”. Ripped from her familial foundation at the age of two due to the Second Congo War, she spent most of her younger years in an Ugandan refugee camp, living in a one-bedroom structure with her siblings and aunt Tibasima. In her book, Kuenihira details how cultural clashes with tribalistic fellow refugee dwellers caused tension and feelings of insecurity as she and her family waited for their asylum case to be approved by the Ugandan courts. The young lady’s fierce strength of will was apparent from her youth, as the hate she felt from those around her fueled the anger brewing within herself. “I wanted to be seen as a normal human being,” she writes in her autobiography, “not a murderer, which is what many people saw when they saw the face of a tribe different than theirs.” Kuenihira’s childhood began to look up as she was welcomed by older women in outlying villages.
At age 13, Kuenihira and her family got on a plane to the US. Landing in Utah, the young woman would endure years in foster care before her aunt and eldest brother could be cleared to look after her and her younger siblings. Kuenihira flourished, going on to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in 2022 from the University of Utah.
The anguish she experienced in her youth still fresh in her mind, she started a non-profit organization in January 2020 to give back to those in her community who weren’t awarded the same opportunities. “It wasn’t easy through finals, through graduating, wrapping up my book, being a founder of, and running a non-profit. I wear so many hats," Kuenihira told OkayAfrica. "But, here we are. We’re still going.”
We spoke with Kuenihira about her tumultuous foundational years and the life-long lessons she hopes to share with the world.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Something so apparent throughout the book is how strong your voice has always been. What do you think needed to happen for you to become allies with that voice and use it towards creating the life you wanted?
I had to find [it]. I grew up around women who tried to teach me not to speak up, to be quiet and I refused to be that woman. The women who raised me said, “Oh, you can’t speak when men are speaking. You can’t speak because of this…”I respect them, but I refused. I stood up for myself. My voice is who I am, and I refused to let it be taken away. It protected me from a lot of things.
Having grown up in the US foster care system what has it been trying to stay close to your roots and the cultures you grew up with while adjusting to western American life?
It's hard. It's hard to balance them – especially at the beginning.
[Having] to learn to know when to use my African culture and when not to use my African culture. I grew up speaking my native language, Kihema, and it just comes so easily. Even when I'm with my siblings it's so hard to speak in English. It was difficult to embrace my culture while being in foster care, especially within the families. But, that's who I am, those are my roots. Yes, there may be some things that I disagree with in my culture, but that's who I am. I know where I come from.
I never really tried to fit in with American culture. I always did my own thing and I always drew the right people to me. Especially friends who really wanted to learn about where I come from – my culture, language, and stuff. You always draw the right people to you when you stay true to who you are. But, eventually, you’re able to naturally shift between the two.
Kuenihira pictured with her family, 2022
Image courtesy of Desange Kuenihira
Have you been back to visit Uganda since your childhood?
I went back in June 2022, after I graduated. It was not the same. It was very, very different from what I remember as a child. I mean, living in the US now and traveling to European countries and stuff, the big cities in Uganda used to wow me as a kid. And when I went back I was like, it was way different. But, it was very nice to be back home. You don't have to worry about thoughts like, "I'm the only Black person in this area." It feels like something is taken off your chest. It feels like your mind is not even worrying about the color of your skin and stuff like that. It was just so peaceful. I was so happy.
And what was it like to rediscover this place you called home from a position of safety and security?
Oh, it didn’t feel like home. I found out that my grandma passed away, and she and her daughter were the two women that felt like home. I also had a grandpa who passed away in 2015. So, it was hard – going back and finding out they were not there anymore, It felt good to be back to see how life has changed, but my grandma’s passing felt like half of my world went with her. When I was growing up in the refugee camp with my aunt, I went back and forth to the village to visit her. She was someone who knew me, completely. She knew my next move, what I was going to say next. She was my person. But, I’m trying to rebuild that world with her daughter now.
It felt good to be back home, to my roots, and see the women and community who helped me. And to be able to help and work with youth and women within the community was great. It made a big difference. I’m no longer just this little girl. I’m here to help as a woman who has been given different opportunities, and she wants to give back to others who were not given the same opportunities.
Throughout your book, you referenced times when you were called “a meaningless girl” and how young girls were taught to not take up space. How has your relationship with yourself changed over the years?
I have come to terms with the fact that we are here on earth to learn things. And at the same time, trauma is necessary for us to grow and learn. The things that have happened to me… I have used them as my power. My trauma is my power. I have healed from it. I’ve asked myself, “How can I use this to inspire others, and talk about it in a positive way?” Finding meaning within myself was accepting that everything happens for a reason, and I got to the point where I refuse people to define me. I refuse to let a culture give me meaning. I was born with a purpose, there's more to me than just marriage. It was a big mindset change. “Who are you to define me? Why am I not allowed to define you?” Every person has their own opinion of me, but the most opinion that matters is mine. How do I clearly think about myself, and what do I really believe that I offer to the world? I'm grateful for everything that has happened to me. It has allowed me to be the first in my family to break generational patterns.
Congolese activist, CEO, and author Desange Kuenihira at her 2022 graduation
Image courtesy of Desange Kuenihira
Can you tell us about your organization UnDefeated?
In 2016, I started supporting family and friends back home. I was working part-time and making money while studying at the University of Utah on a full scholarship. I just decided to send it home to someone who needs it, someone’s children. I supported one guy through University and his graduation, and now he’s supporting his own family. Then, I sponsored a few other kids for a year’s tuition, school supplies, and stuff like that. I just wanted to give back. To give others the opportunities that I was never given. After the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, people were freaking out and needed my help but I wasn’t working. So, I was faced with the decision to start a non-profit organization—mind you, during my second year of University. And I was like, “Okay, let’s do this,” and I just started to Google. A friend helped me with research and reading, I chose board members from the community of people who have mentored me, we built teams, and just kept going. Right now, UnDefeated is sponsoring three kids and has seen them through to university. We’re moving in the right direction.
How does it feel to be the person you needed when you were growing up?
I'm glad I did not give up on myself. There were so many times when I just wanted to give up and allow the world to define me. But, I'm glad I didn’t. I had to go through things so others won’t, I was made to be someone’s blessing. It’s incredible to see us sponsoring and supporting students and to see the community that UnDefeated is creating. I’m just so happy I didn’t give up on myself. It was tough, but I’m happy to be doing what I love. I found my purpose.