In the village we speak a lot about tikkun olam, fixing the world, and tikkun halev, fixing yourself. To me, they are unavoidably intertwined. When I came to Rwanda to do something good for the world, I got something for myself too.

One particular incident in April reminds me of the lessons I learned at the village. I was very preoccupied with planning and executing the large mural before our big inauguration ceremony. I ran around all day, covered in paint, and probably looking very busy. One afternoon a boy came over to me and asked if we could speak in private. We went for a walk and he said to me, “Tanya, is everything okay? You don’t seem as happy as usual, you seem very worried.”

Wow. I thought. I have been worried- but about all the wrong things!

That boy and I went on walks together and had meaningful conversations every Saturday until I left.

I am lucky to have had the opportunity to work with exceptional people, and to create many fantastic art projects and build up the art program in the village. As my time at the village drew to a close, my students asked me, how will we do art without you?

But the art is not in me, and it’s not in the other staff who will continue teaching.

The art is in each one of them.

Keep dreaming and creating and sharing the ideas only you have with the whole world.

Now, as I head back to St. Louis and then New York, where I will continue to paint the stories of those I met in Rwanda, and find new ways to spread color to new parts of the world, Rwanda and Agahozo Shalom will forever be a part of me. And as the painted walls will attest, I will always be a part of them as well.

Thank you for joining me on this amazing, art-filled journey!

Stay tuned to see my Rwanda-inspired artwork and hear the stories of Agahozo Shalom at a presentation coming soon.

Painting a Massive Mural

The story of creating the mural is the story of the first seven months of the village. It all began when the kids arrived at Agahozo for the first time. I asked them each to draw a picture of their personal goals, feelings about the village, and ideas about Rwanda. They were a bit timid in those first weeks, not yet a cohesive group, but they found a way to state their nervous excitement in those initial drawings.

Over the next several months we sketched, brainstormed, and came up with a final design for the mural. We developed the biggest paint-by-number system in the world, and began by drawing the outline with the help of a projector at night.

Everyone participated in painting, kids and staff alike. I directed from below, mixing colors and sending paint up the scaffolding with a make-shift pulley. Spots of color started to appear, slowly at first. A blue sky, a purple tree, a pineapple, a person. I spent months covered head to toe in paint- no joke! As the mural came together, so did the village, for what had been a construction site was now feeling more and more like a home and a family.

After every painting session, the kids stood back and marveled at what they had accomplished that day. “When I come back to visit this village with my children one day,” said one kid, “I’ll show them the clouds that I painted!”

Part of the village inauguration on June 23 was held in front of the mural, the perfect backdrop to the kids’ dancing and singing. “Who helped paint this wall?” I asked the crowd gathered at the ceremony. Almost every staff and child of the village raised a hand. It is a big and beautiful expression of the hopes of the village, a testament to what a dedicated group of people, and whole lot of paint can do, and a work of art that will be admired by visitors to the village for years to come.

thoughts waiting on a crowded minibus

rain clouds rolling in push me here miss buy a banana I have no hand you have two.
little kids waving hi! Muzungo! White! Black women learning to sew learning to live. Do you know your body is your own - what they are willing to sell for money for the kids glued to their backs bending over sewing machine peddling one stitch after another sweat dripping-
sweet creamy coffee sipping in a cafĂ© too clean for these streets. Man on an apple computer white woman speaking too slowly. I can understand you I speak English too. White skin shining like a beacon, my white skin, a ticket to a little more room in this crowded minibus, this motorcycle zipping through crowded streets holding tight closing eyes past busy traffic because there’s nothing I can do anyway, and I DO and I CARE because I CAME but how much do my deeds and my words mean in this place with a past so ugly it seeps into every piece of present and future and finally someone else squeezes next to me in the van
maybe not so white after all.

Painting a Lifetime

I got lost in the deep shadows under the squinty eyes creased by laughter. Felt myself trace the long black braids cutting through the swirls of colorful fabric. I’m painting a lifetime, I thought, as I dipped my brush into black ink and moved towards the page.

For me, being an artist is about the space between myself and my subject, in this case fifty-two year old “Maman” Annette*, as we sit across the table from each other, staring, for two hours. As I spread a thin coat of ink across the page to form the smooth skin around her neck, she peers down to see her portrait. Sometimes she smiles, sometimes she breaks into a huge grin and laughs out load, shaking her head. Sometimes her eyes flutter closed, tired perhaps from a late night of caring for the sixteen young orphan teenagers who make up her “new” family. Especially tired because she has been sitting besides the bed of one who is sick. Sometimes she stares off into the distance.

Occasionally we speak. In bits of English, French, and Kinyarwanda, she shows me pictures of her family. She makes a telephone call to her daughter, Nelly*, only a year younger than me, to tell her she is having her portrait drawn. There is one photograph, an old black-and-white one with the year 1978 written on the back, that she cradles tenderly. I learn that it is a picture of her and her older sister who is holding a little baby. She points to the baby and in a mixture of languages tells me it is her son. She writes on a paper four other names. My children. Then she proceeds to tell me where they are. Nelly is in Kigali, going to Kenya soon to study management. The others are dead. The sister, also dead. genocide. I point upwards. Yes, she nods, they are there.

She looks at the finished painting afterward and nods, a smile spreading wide.

Together, we have created more than a picture of a face. In ink and color and line and shape, a reflection of a lifetime.

for LP

“The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation: as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we.”

-A.J. Heschel

Every Shabbat in Rwanda, I take a walk. As I follow the red dirt path away from the village and past fields of banana trees, all the worries of the week melt away. Colorful birds dart between the flowers, showing off their bright feathers. A tall blue heron steps out from behind a bush, then spread its wings and swoops into the sky. Clouds above drift quickly, playfully, choreographing a masterpiece for those who will stop to look up. Often I walk together with one of the kids, and when I point out to them the motion in the dancing skies, I find my amazement is contagious.

On my weekly walk I stop at the highest point in Agahozo Shalom, the school, and watch the village from a distance. Rows of orange, yellow, and green houses glisten in the sun and beam down at Lake Mugesera, a shimmering mirror in the distance. It is here that I am able to both physically and mentally extricate myself from the hustle and bustle of village life. From teaching my students to mix colors, from planning for the upcoming culture show, from questioning my impact as a foreigner in a developing country, from worrying about a particular kid. The village seems small out here under the big blue sky, and though I know the importance of our work in the village far outweighs its size, I am grateful for the perspective this hilltop brings.

Agahozo Shalom is a non-denominational youth village, and children from all religious backgrounds are respected and accommodated. Often they share their religions with one another through music, song, and dance. As a Jew in Rwanda I am certainly in the minority, but I have found everyone in the village to be very accepting, at times curious, and always respectful.

Observing the Sabbath, and its welcome change of pace, is only one way that Judaism affects my experience at Agahozo. Who would have thought that in this small town in rural East Africa there would be challah baked fresh every week (and even in a shape of an idea from the weekly Torah portion!), candle lighting every night of Chanuka, and a Purim party complete with megilla and hamentaschen?! It is common to hear kids on the Agahozo farm calling in Hebrew to Tzuf, the dog belonging to two Israeli volunteers, with shouts of “Boi hena!” (come here) and “kalba tova!” (good dog). Their Hebrew seems to be progressing faster than my Kinyrwanda (almost, I happen to have pretty good Kinyarwanda and can even ask the four questions of the Passover Seder.)

Because I speak Hebrew and came to Rwanda after working in Israel, many Rwandans assume I am Israeli. When I explain that though I am American, I have a strong connection to Israel and hope to live there, my Rwandese friends nod in understanding. Many Rwandans, and much of the staff at the village, lived for large parts of their lives exiled from their homeland. Banned from Rwanda by the Hutu government, Rwandans of the Tutsi ethnicity lived for over thirty years in Uganda, Kenya, Congo, and throughout Africa and the world. Nevertheless, they spoke, dreamed, sang, and danced of Rwanda, never forgetting their homeland. In 1994, after the horrific genocide, many of them returned. One of the counselors who grew up in Uganda described to me the scene when he moved to Rwanda in 1994. “Bodies on the sides of the road, in the grass, floating in the lakes,” he recalled, oddly casual, “the ground was stained red.” Yet they came back and are fiercely proud of their culture. The longing for a homeland that they recall is one that the Jewish people have felt, sung, prayed, and written about for thousands of years.

As Passover, the holiday celebrating the Jews’ redemption from Egyptian slavery, quickly approaches, I am reminded of a message particularly relevant to my work in Rwanda. Throughout the Torah we find constant reminders to be kind to the stranger, to the widow and the orphan, and the reason given? The Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. It is the common experience of suffering that creates a moral imperative to sympathize with and act on the behalf of others. I have never seen this more clearly than in Rwanda. Most of the Rwandese staff have suffered some type of loss, often a husband, children, or parents, and it drives them to give all they can to the children of the village. The Jewish people too, have the collective memory of the Holocaust still very fresh. The correlation between Israel recuperating in the wake of the Holocaust, and Rwanda struggling to rebuild itself now, was one of the initial reasons for the creation of Agahozo Shalom. I was reminded of this connection recently, when during a discussion about the closed nature of many Rwandans, an Israeli volunteer descended from survivors recounted his grandmother’s reluctance to share her emotions after the war. The Rwandans often seem to connect to the legacy of the Jews, because genocide is a memory they can share.

Atrocities have happened, and continue to happen to all people and all over the world. This Passover, I am reminded that if suffering does happen, we can at least use the experience to reach out to others, lift their spirits, their hearts, and their heads just enough to smile at the clouds drifting by.

Wishing you a chag sameach, a very happy Passover!

A Breakfast Story, and a day in the life of Agahozo Shalom

Breakfast in the village is served at 7 am each morning. According to the schedule, that is. To have any hope of receiving your fresh bread rolls - baked in the wood burning oven - and your mug of steamy African tea with milk (no refrigerator in the village, but milk is delivered fresh each morning from nearby cows owned by one of our staff), you had better arrive early. On Monday, January 12, the first day of school, kids were so excited they couldn’t sleep and arrived at breakfast at 6:30am so as to be up the hill and ready for school half an hour before classes began. To my surprise, the early breakfast pattern hasn’t wavered, and neither has the kids’ excitement for school. And their passion for learning continues long after the doors to school close and the stream of kids flows downhill towards the village.

The village is a separate entity from the school, a part of the Yemin Orde (Israeli youth village that ASYV is modeled after) philosophy of creating distinct home and school environments. While the kids are busy learning biology, chemistry, physics, math, English, French, Kinyarwanda, history, and more, the informal education staff (myself included) are busy preparing and managing life in the village.

Moments after school ends the village transforms into a bustle of energy and action! First begin the after-school activities, and kids fill the volleyball court and football field. The Art and Music Center, where I teach art classes, can be heard from across the village, with sounds of drums from “itorero” class, guitar lessons, and songwriting. Sewing, basketball, traditional arts, modern dance, drawing, cooking, karate, athletics, and music theory are only some of the many electives kids can choose to participate in twice a week.

At five o’clock the doors to the Learning Center swing open and soon it is filled with kids eager to learn computers, read books in the library, and get help with their homework. It is common to find kids pouring over atlases and chemistry text books, not for school but just to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. I host open studio time in the Art Center three evenings a week, and kids are free to try their hand at papermaking, drawing, and jewelry making, or at keyboard, guitar, and recording in the music studio across the hall.

The busy daily schedule calls for wake up at 6 and bedtime at 10, though at least a few of these teenagers push themselves even harder. Take Angie* for example. Angie is eighteen years old and, like all the other Agahozo kids, is beginning a catch-up year before Senior 4, the equivalent to beginning American high school. She knows her cousin of the same age is preparing for university, but she hasn’t been quite as lucky. As an orphan, Angie has faced many difficulties that children with parents who can provide for them have not known. Orphans in Rwanda often face teasing from other children and are discouraged from attending school, and often much worse. They live with the memories of their families being killed, and the hardships of the years since. Many don’t make it to secondary school at all, but those who do have a fierce determination. As acceptance to Agahozo Shalom is measured by a combination of vulnerability and completing a certain level of schooling, the kids here are a self selecting group of incredibly motivated individuals.

“I know I have a great opportunity now,” Angie told me, “and I am going to get everything I can out of it.” For Angie that means waking up at 5am and going to sleep at 11pm, while using every moment in between to learn as much as she can.

And for me, it means getting out of bed if I want to catch the early breakfast!

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Art Update 2

The Art and Music Center, now in a temporary location until the permanent building is built, is a hub of color and sound. I teach two weekly art classes, and our first project was sketchbook making. The young artists personalized book covers with colorful materials and sewed pages to make unique books that they can use to hold the many drawings they will compose throughout the year. The kids pursued the project with diligence and precision, making sure to cut every piece of cardboard to exactly the right size and make every line straight. But not without a little rap music to keep us going, and the occasional hip hop dance move!

I hold open studio time in the Art Center from 5 to 9, three evenings a week. During this time kids are free to come and use whatever materials they like. We have made our first sheets of handmade paper using paper recycled at the village, a hand mixer, and a makeshift sieve. Self portraits are another common Art Center activity, and the kids love to use mirrors to draw themselves as realistically as possible.

In the Art Center I work together with the house mothers, parental figures who live with the children, and they bring expertise in traditional Rwandan crafts such as basket making and decorative beading. They are wonderful women, and I am excited not only to work with them and learn from them, but hopefully to paint their portraits as well.