Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

Bronco Profiles

Loaves, fishes, and a microloan

By Justin Gerdes

Fidelis Udahemuka, S.J., MBA ’11 contains multitudes. An ordained priest, he completed a Licentiate of Sacred Theology at Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University in 2008. Born in Tanzania to Rwandan parents, he has traveled widely in Africa and has lived in Rwanda, Kenya, and the United States. Sworn to uphold a vow of perpetual poverty, he holds one business degree, is completing a second, and specializes in empowering small-scale entrepreneurs—which explains why he is in the second year of an MBA program at the Leavey School of Business.

Udahemuka sees no contradictions. Early in his Jesuit training, he wrestled with a question: Is the plight of the poor a result of lack of resources, or negligence on the part of those who are responsible? Answering that question, which to Udahemuka means honoring Jesuit ethics while empowering the poor, is now his life’s work.

“I want to get to the genesis of that slum, how it grew up, and how people are continuing to be, and then bring in a dialogue about Catholic social teaching and human rights. After my theology training, I said, ‘I need to go back to business school and be able to bring that economic element into the spiritual support of the people.’”

Pursuing economic sustainability: Fidelis Udahemuka, S.J.
Photo: Charles Barry
Returning to Rwanda

Udahemuka’s work and study today was shaped by his time at an orphanage and vocational training center in Cyangugu, Rwanda. Udahemuka was ordained a priest in the capital, Kigali, in 2005, but five years before that he served as finance and human resources manager at Centre Mizero, a home for orphans of the 1994 genocide. Part of his work was helping orphans who, reaching adulthood, were required to move out. “My work was to design a program that could empower them with skills they need to be economically self-reliant and live a dignified life,” he says. It was the challenges—and successes—from that experience that led him to Santa Clara.

In returning to Rwanda, Udahemuka repeated a journey made by his parents. In 1959, amid a bloodletting that presaged the 1994 genocide and resulted in the deaths of up to 100,000 Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu majority, Udahemuka’s parents fled Rwanda for Tanzania. An estimated 150,000 Tutsis joined them in exile. His father returned to Rwanda in 1995, and the family soon followed. Udahemuka, who describes himself as a Tanzanian of Rwandan origin, left the orphanage to continue his Jesuit training in Nairobi, Kenya. He traveled to Rwanda this summer to visit family. He found a changed country.

“Rwanda is a very exciting place to be,” he says. He cites economic improvement, a peaceful presidential election, and the fact that it is safe to travel and walk the streets late at night without fear of being mugged or harmed. “Reconciliation is a process that involves psychological, spiritual, and social healing. Sixteen years after the genocide, people live and work together, and support each other in moments of soul and joy.”

Empowerment without handouts

In ministering to his charges, Udahemuka has discovered that he is as likely to be asked to attend to material as spiritual needs. “When you listen to people, especially poor people, they might say, ‘Father, can I have a spiritual conversation with you?’ In the process, you realize that the spiritual conversation is an opening to other aspects of life: unemployment, poverty, social marginalization, lack of purpose in life.”

He tells a story about a woman in Nairobi. “Every third Sunday of the week, we distributed food and money to the poor people in the parish. To this woman, I said, ‘I think giving you bread wouldn’t resolve your problem. What if we gave you a loan—would you be able to pay it back?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ After three weeks, this woman brought all the money back. That was a big revelation for me.”

“The poor have problems—and solutions,” he says. “My empowerment is not through handouts but using the little resources poor people have to sustain themselves.”

Make way for the groom

By Mansi Bhatia
Wedding procession: Sati Hillyer atop the elephant on the streets of San Diego
Photo: Georgia Gregory Photography

On the morning of his wedding in April, Sati Hillyer ’02, M.S. ’04, brought traffic to a standstill in downtown San Diego. The reason: He rode atop an 8,000- pound elephant.

As camera shutters clicked and drums rolled, Sati waved and danced over the heads of approximately 200 joyous family members and friends. He was on his way to marry the love of his life, Neda Rahimian ’05.

Sati was a resident assistant and Neda a second-year undergrad when they first met at Santa Clara. Even though the couple lived across the hall from each other, they remained “acquaintances.” Persistent wooing on Sati’s part earned him the “good friend” badge in 2006 … replaced by the “fiancé” badge in 2009.

Their wedding, almost a year later, was a coming together of cultures: Weeklong festivities began with colorful Persian nuptials and concluded with a vibrant Sikh (Indian) ceremony.

For the Persian celebration, the Santa Clara couple participated in the Aghd (the legal part) and Jashn-e-Aroosi (the feasting)—first signing a marriage contract and then marking the union by exchanging rings and a kiss. Each of them then dipped a finger into honey and had the other one taste it—a symbolic gesture to “ensure a sweet and happy life together.”

Following the Persian wedding, the couple was engaged in the Sikh tradition, had a Mehndi (henna) ceremony, sang and danced through a Sangeet (pre-celebration), and finally had the Mayian (cleansing ritual).

The Sikh wedding, called Anand Karaj, saw the couple make four wedding rounds, walking hand in hand around the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Book). The highlight for Sati, though, was the majestic elephant ride to The Westin San Diego.

“It was a complete surprise, arranged by my mother,” he said. “I thought maybe I’d enter on a horse, but seeing that we were in downtown San Diego, I wasn't expecting any animals.”