Rugerero Survivors Village, Gisenyi, Rwanda (2004 – Present)
(Left) “No room to sit” by Chris Noble, (right) at community celebration in 2008
Rwanda is a beautiful country filled with green hills and mountains. Bordering Congo in Western Rwanda, Gisenyi, a beautiful city on Lake Kivu, is a three hour drive from Kigali, the capital city.
When my host Jean Bosco Musana took me to visit the Survivors’ Village in Rugerero, I was delighted to see the greenery and open space. But the silence and the grey cement-blocked houses with panel-less windows made the village feel desolate and forlorn. We knocked on the door of Mama Emma, the only adult I saw on that day. Elderly and thin, she greeted us graciously but with silence.
I visited her every time I returned to the village; I don’t remember that she ever talked much. I found out that during the genocide, Mama Emma lost all of the family members on her father’s side. Ever since, she rarely spoke.
The Survivors’ Village contains 100 families, comprised mostly of widows, orphaned youth and very young children. After the genocide, the government quickly erected simple structures to house the poorest. There was no electricity, running water, or facilities in these houses. People were thrown together; they did not know nor trust their neighbors. No one smiled or laughed except for the very young. Having lost their homes and family members and with no income or job opportunities, villagers suffered in isolation. I sensed a pained stillness in the village during my first visit in July of 2004.
For healing to occur, we needed to address both the past — the dark, evil, and destructive force manifested in the 1994 genocide, and the present -– the survivors and their upcoming families. The building of the Rugerero Genocide Memorial helped the survivors to honor their dead and to heal. The transformation of the Survivors’ Village, which unfolded through a ten-year period of infrastructure building and skill training, empowered the villagers to create self- sustaining work and to prosper.
This comprehensive transformation project included: installing rain harvesting devices for the villagers, building vented sanitation facilities for all families, creating a basic health system, launching a micro-lending program, setting up goat and chicken rearing, and sponsoring multi-year, multi-faceted skill training activities in sewing, basket weaving, sunflower seed oil production, charcoal production from leaves, solar energy panel assembly, and art and sculpture making.
Grass-roots driven and community lead, this extensive community building project benefitted greatly from the expertise of many local and international professionals including the Rwanda Red Cross, Engineers Without Borders, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, University of Florida in Gainesville, Skyheat Associates in Maine, and more. We greatly appreciate the support from many visionary funders and private donors that helped to make this project a success.
The Rwanda Healing Project demonstrates the power of art in transforming brokenness into wholeness, and desolation into vitality and hope. Art is not merely a luxury to be acquired, it is essential to the well being of the human soul. Creating art in despairing places is like making a fire in the darkness of a winter’s night. It illuminates, beckons, and brings hope. Art lays the foundation for the possibility of profound social change, and artists can play a central role in that change.