Rwandans Bring Art, Music, and Healing to Virginia

Oct 27, 2016

It’s 6,351 miles — as the crow flies — between Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and Charlottesville. But last month, a small group of artists made that journey, and they’ve been delighting school children in the area ever since.  WMRA's Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.

Pop into Piper Gary’s music class at Woodbrook Elementary School on a regular day, and this is what it may sound like. 

PIPER GARY (to students): Alright, deep breath. Here we go!

(children singing)

But recently, Mrs. Gary’s 3rd graders were treated to a different kind of music.

PACIFIQUE NIYONSENGA (to students): Those are Rwandan drums, have you seen them before?

That’s visiting teacher Pacifique Niyonsenga, with his brother Patrick on the drums. They’re here from Rwanda, on a 4-month trip to the U.S. 

PACIFIQUE: So how you doing?

STUDENTS: Good!

PACIFIQUE: Are you happy this morning?

STUDENTS: Yes!

PACIFIQUE: Alright!

This is actually Pacifique’s 3rd time in the U.S. visiting schools, so he knows how to handle a class of rowdy 3rd graders. Now, anyway.

PACIFIQUE: The first time it was like: Oh. My. God. Because it was hard for me to even just make them sit down and follow me, because everybody want to touch me, everybody want to hug me. But this time, I’m getting used to it.

PACIFIQUE (to students): We are from a place called Kigali. Do you know Kigali? Do you know Rwanda? Do you know Africa?

Pacifique isn’t really expecting these kids to know much about his country or its story.

PACIFIQUE: They don’t care what’s happening in the world until those things happen to them. They are kids. They are innocents.

PACIFIQUE NIYONSENGA (to students): One, two, three, let’s go! (drumming)

Pacifique was an “innocent” himself back in 1994, when the Rwandan genocide began. It lasted only 100 days, but an estimated 800,000 people died. Two years old at the time, Pacifique was separated from his father and siblings, and left alone with a mother who was too shattered to care for herself, let alone him. For years afterwards, he lived on the streets of Kigali, until a Canadian missionary took him in and helped put him through school.

PACIFIQUE: After I finished my high school, I decided to pay it back, to pay forward.

He “paid it forward” by founding a nonprofit called the NIYO Cultural Center and Art Gallery in Kigali. Here, 120 deeply impoverished street children learn the arts: painting, dancing, traditional drumming and singing — like what you hear right now.

(Sound of student performance at NIYO Cultural Center)

Pacifique’s hope is that these skills will help his kids earn a living, and give them the confidence they’ll need to tackle what lies ahead — whatever lies ahead.

PACIFIQUE: To be able to serve and help 120 kids, you need money, you need people to help you, you need everything.

So Pacifique is here in the U.S. to raise awareness AND funds. In addition to his drums, he’s brought boxes of original paintings to share — and hopefully sell. He also brought this guy:

FIGY: Well, my name is Fred Mafigiri, but I go by “Figy.”

Figy is a full-time artist in Rwanda, and he’s brought several of his eye-popping nature paintings here. Think parrots and elephants made of exploding rainbows.

FIGY (to students): What’s that color called?

STUDENTS: Yellow. Brown? Orangeish?

Today, Figy is teaching a class of 5th graders to paint a convincing giraffe.

FIGY (to students): And I’m going to show you how we gonna mix them …

Back home in Rwanda, Figy teaches lessons like this back at Pacifique’s Cultural Center. For the kids there, Figy says, art is a kind of therapy.

FIGY: I think it’s supposed to help them live through this kind of, you know, hard world. You know? So art is a good thing.

FIGY (to students): You’re going to want to wash your brush.

JIM RESPESS: It’s been a real learning experience for me.

That’s Jim Respess, a sculptor based at the McGuffey Art Center here in Charlottesville. He’s one of the many people who helped arrange this trip for Pacifique, Patrick and Figy. He’s driving them around, making sure they eat — even hosting them in his home for a month while they’re in Charlottesville. 

JIM: I mean, I feel like I'm getting the best part of the whole deal because I get to hang out with these guys.

EMILY: What do you hope students this age get from meeting Pacifique?

JIM: Ah, gosh! It humanizes the world in a way that looking at a map, looking at pictures, it doesn't work as well. And it normalizes what is a big scary world.

(Sounds of drumming class)

PACIFIQUE: Exactly! Can we do everything?

STUDENTS: Yes! Yeah!!

At a time when support for foreign aid and trade seems pretty low in this country, and fear of foreigners seems pretty high, Pacifique’s visit is a bright spot. Reminding these kids here in Virginia that people from other places are still people — kind, funny, resilient, and with lots to offer — for those who welcome them.

PACIFIQUE (to students): Yes!!! Yes! Yes, give me five everybody! That was so cool!

PACIFIQUE (to students): Next time we do more. Thank you.