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'How do you find the will to live?'

A Rwandan community devastated by genocide gets a boost from a Phila. art and development project.

Artist and activist Lily Yeh with a local project in 2005, the year after she first started working to bring business and art to refugees in Rwanda. "I feel my calling is to bring beauty and joy to people in despair," Yeh says.
Artist and activist Lily Yeh with a local project in 2005, the year after she first started working to bring business and art to refugees in Rwanda. "I feel my calling is to bring beauty and joy to people in despair," Yeh says.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Inquirer Staff Photographer

RUGERERO SURVIVORS VILLAGE, Rwanda - When Hutu extremists 13 years ago led this African nation on a machete-fueled slaughter, tearing through the hills in pursuit of ethnic Tutsis, 34-year-old Josephine Uwimana managed to survive.

Little else of her life did.

Most of her family, including her husband and one child, were among 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed in the 100-day genocide.

She was left to support the four children of her slain brother and sister, plus her own remaining two. And she had no home; the killers had destroyed that as well.

So bleak was her situation that the government in 2003 gave her a home in a community built here, in western Rwanda, to house the area's most destitute genocide survivors.

Philadelphia artist Lily Yeh, who runs a volunteer organization devoted to uplifting impoverished communities through grassroots art and development programs, visited the village a year later. She saw that Uwimana and her neighbors needed a whole lot more.

"Their eyes were so sad. There was no joy. It was devastating.

"I thought: 'How do you move forward like this? How do you find the will to live?' "

Three years ago, she set out to bring some hope to Uwimana and the 100 mostly female-led families of Rugerero Survivors Village.

Today, the village - like the rest of Rwanda - is still desperately poor, living on subsistence farming. Uwimana, now 47, who helps others with their sewing and gardening, is lucky to make $10 a month.

But signs of new life have started springing up among the banana trees and simple mud and clay homes.

Vibrant murals cover the once-drab buildings. Every home has its own water tank, installed by locals trained to do the job. And Uwimana is a member of one of two new cooperatives formed to produce and sell sunflower oil.

As Rwanda continues to rebuild and repair its wounds after one of the worst massacres in world history, this tiny corner of it - with the help of Yeh and her crew of Barefoot Artists - is undergoing a rebirth of its own.

"Life is much better now," Uwimana said with a shy smile, "and I hope the future will be even brighter."

Yeh first learned about the village from Jean Bosco Rukirande, a regional coordinator for the Rwandan Red Cross she met at an international development conference in Barcelona, Spain.

For almost two decades, the Chinese-born artist had worked with residents and volunteers to convert, with murals and education programs, a downtrodden piece of North Philadelphia into the Village of Arts and Humanities. And over the years, Yeh had launched art-as-healing projects in far-flung places such as Kenya and Ghana.

"My canvas is living and breathing," Yeh, 66, said in a recent interview in Center City. "I feel my calling is to bring beauty and joy to people in despair."

So when Rukirande told her about a community of genocide survivors and the decrepit monument marking the mass grave of their relatives, Yeh was moved - and intrigued. Just weeks later, she was on a plane to Rwanda.

Rukirande led her first to the memorial site. It above all needed her help, he said.

Yeh developed a design for a monument, and over the next few years, oversaw its construction. She trained 10 locals to complete the intricate mosaic work adorning it. The villagers provided commemorative wording.

The new monument, a splash of purple and turquoise against the countryside, was named the official memorial site for the region and dedicated in April.

Its caretaker, Dorothée Nyiranshuti, 30, lost a dozen family members in the genocide, several of whom were buried in the mass grave. Their bones, along with those of about 300 other area victims, are now tucked away in purple-cloth-draped coffins under the gleaming new structure.

"I feel like they're in a safe place now," Nyiranshuti said.

Yeh wasn't about to stop there.

"You can't just deal with the bones," she said. "You have to deal with the children and widows, too."

So even as the memorial to the dead was taking shape, Yeh was rounding up volunteers and raising funds to start working on the living.

Yeh returned to the village with a few others, including Exton businessman Alan Jacobson, chairman of the board of the Village of Arts and Humanities, in tow.

First, they held art workshops. Draw your lives, they told the villagers. Draw your dreams.

What the children came up with wowed Yeh.

"I said: 'Man, those are great drawings. Let's put them up.' "

Yeh and Jacobson, who owns a graphic-design firm, started to sketch out the images on the village houses. Then they handed out paints and brushes, and children squealing with delight, brought the drawings to life.

"I think it was the first time since the genocide," Jacobson said, "that they had a feeling of producing something of value."

Soon, the walls were filled with brightly colored flowers, cats and books, computers, motorcycles, soccer players, helicopters and cows. And the village, Yeh said, was filled with a sense of purpose and community.

"I'm a firelighter," she said. And the fire was now lit. The villagers were engaged.

From there on, they were the ones dictating what happened with the project - and their future.

"The more the people are involved," Yeh said, "the more this thing is going to continue to grow and evolve."

Evolve it has.

On a sunny Saturday in September, the village was alive with activity.

Just outside the main square, in a building newly painted white with bright blue trim, two men struggled with a giant green lever. Finally, they heaved it down with a loud crunch.

A thick yellow liquid dribbled out a spout on the side of the contraption, prompting a cheer from about 30 villagers. They hope someday to live off the sale of this sunflower oil.

After consulting with the villagers, Jacobson bought them two seed presses from Nairobi, Kenya, figuring each can generate $10,000 a year. Half the earnings would be split among the two cooperatives, while half would go to buy supplies for the whole village.

Right now, the villagers are just learning how to use the machines.

"It requires a lot of effort," said Diogéne Gakwaya, a cooperative leader, as he watched the two men struggling with the lever. "It's a real challenge."

So are the economics.

The cooperatives plan to start growing their own sunflowers but for now buy seeds from eastern Rwanda at roughly 40 cents a kilogram. And it's taking five kilograms to make one liter, about a quart, of oil.

"We still have a loss," Gakwaya said. "We're trying to make the process more efficient."

A lot still has to be worked out, Jacobson agreed.

"It's just going to take a lot of time," he said. "And you know what? It could fail.

We'll have to see."

But at least, he said, they're trying.

Business prospects were looking a bit brighter on the other side of the square, where six young women were bent over six old Singer sewing-machine tables.

All are orphans of the genocide. And every Saturday since July, they have been meeting here to learn how to earn a living.

Behind them, on the dull gray walls, their first work was proudly displayed - cobalt-blue school uniforms they plan to sell.

"They're learning quickly," said Clementine Mutumwinka, one of the class' two teachers. "It took me a year to get where they are now."

Student Mary Mukasana is grateful to have a marketable skill.

"After all we've been through," she said, "now we'll at least be able to look after ourselves in the future."

Down the road, the sound of tiny voices raised in song drifted from a one-room brick schoolhouse. Inside, children dressed in vibrant purple and yellow-patterned uniforms clapped, jumped and swayed as they chanted.

Twishimire Uyu Munsi. Let's be happy for today.

The children come here every week to learn traditional Rwandan song and dance, take English and art lessons, play soccer and run.

Chantal Umurisa, 10, said it's fun having something to do on Saturdays, especially learning English. English, she noted seriously, is "very important to know."

Especially if you want to be a famous English writer, which she does.

Behind her simple home, "Maman Emma" Nyiraminani filled a large yellow jerrican with water from a large tank.

This is, the village elder said, the best thing that has happened to her in years.

"It used to be so difficult to get water," she said. "It's so easy now. It has improved my life so much."

Nyiraminani used to have to line up, with all the other villagers, at a central water tap. The water cost 10 cents a jug - when it was flowing.

The outdated pipe system was often shut down for maintenance, so the villagers had to trudge four miles to a tributary of Lake Kivu to get water that was contaminated - increasing their already-high chance of disease.

Getting clean water was, the villagers told Yeh, one of their biggest problems.

She found a solution when she noticed that the homes all had corrugated roofs - perfect for collecting rain during the wet season.

Yeh asked Rukirande and the villagers to come up with a design for a water harvesting and storage system, then hired an engineering firm from the capital, Kigali, that worked with local masons and trained villagers to install them at all 100 homes in the village.

To make sure the water was clean enough to drink, Yeh arranged for a year's worth of water treatments.

The 10 villagers who form a new health and hygiene group have been tasked with making sure the families use the solution properly.

Trained by medical students and faculty from Jefferson University who visited the village at Yeh's behest, the group also educates their neighbors about good sanitary practices and good nutrition.

Jacobson donated enough money to buy mosquito nets for the entire village and he plans to do more to improve sanitation and hygiene in the village, using the $11,000 he raised by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro this summer.

Yeh also wants to work on creating an education fund to help the village children go on to high school. A secondary education costs $150 to $200 a year - far out of reach for villagers.

Thaddeo Sharamanzi, a village elder with a heavily creased face, said he was thrilled with everything happening around him.

Now all he needs is a finished concrete floor in his home. And electricity. It would be really nice to have electricity, he said.

"It's coming," Rukirande assured him. "We're going to have solar energy."

Nyiranshuti, the memorial caretaker, said she already had more than she ever could have imagined, aside from having her family back.

"We have hope now that everything will be OK," she said.

"Maybe now," she said, "we can finally forget the sadness of the past."

More from Rwanda at the artists' Web site via