November 25, 2012
I just received the heartbreaking news that my beloved friend and inspiration, Sifa Nsengimana, has been killed in a car accident in South Africa.
Death is hard to handle no matter the circumstances, but for this world to lose someone who had survived so much, who had managed to see the worst human nature could throw out but then reflect back to the world only radiance and light, seems especially unfair.
Sifa and her beautiful family left Boston in 2008, but I saw her again the following year in Rwanda where I’d traveled for book research – timed for the grand opening of the youth village she had poured her soul into establishing. I’m re-posting below what I wrote then about my visit. Many people say they believe in the power of youth to create change. Sifa invested all of herself in actually helping to make that happen.
The last email I got from Sifa was just a few weeks ago, congratulating my husband and I on the birth of our son. But prior to that she’d emailed me about a new project she was starting, for youth stigmatized by HIV/AIDS in South Africa. In her words, she hoped to “inspire them to not only succeed but impact their environments as well, be activists, strengthen civil society and eventually force leaders -and parents- to be more accountable.”
The challenge is out there for all of us to make sure that Sifa’s vision is not lost. There is no doubt that she will live on forever in ASYV and the lives of all of us that she has inspired during the too-short time we were blessed with having her with us.
June 24, 2009
I spent yesterday at Agahozo Shalom Youth Village-about an hour’s drive from Kigali. It is a project I started hearing about three years ago from my dear friend Sifa, who is Rwandan and worked with me on Darfur advocacy in Boston. The concept for the village arose in Israel, as a way of caring for the orphans of the Holocaust. At Agahozo, the students, who are orphans of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, live in family groupings of eight kids with a house mother (typically women who were widowed in the genocide) and a ‘counselor’ – who is an older sibling kind of figure. On site there is a school, community hall, and sports field.
Yesterday was the formal opening of the village, and I met the first class of students. I’m not sure I have ever been in such awe of a group of teenagers. They have all lived through the kind of trauma that would kill most of us, and yet they are grabbing onto life- they are moving beyond survival and slowly starting to thrive.
I had lunch with a student who looked, to my eye, about 13. He is 17. He spent half an hour telling me everything he was learning in chemistry class (I didn’t finish high school so have no knowledge of chemistry whatsoever . . needless to say, lunch was a hugely educational experience!). He told me that in the future, “I would like to have my own lab – to conduct my own research.”
We have had utterly different lives, but there was something about his enthusiasm for this new-found world of chemistry that reminded me of how I was after a social worker convinced me to think about going to university. I had been out of the education system for 7 years at that point, but I got into a sort of “catch up” program to prepare people without high school for tertiary studies. The students at Agahozo are having their own “catch up” year this year, before starting the national high school curriculum next year. And they too seem to be experiencing the joy of the possibilities that education can bring. (I could easily launch into a rant now about how outrageous it is that we so undervalue teachers – but in an effort to keep this vaguely on one topic, I’ll spare you)
- Family time at Agahozo (Photo: ASYV website)
Another student I spoke with is President of the Art Club (the students have extra-curricular activities organized in clubs), and he walked me with pride along an exhibition of some of the students’ artwork (some of the poetry associated with the abstract art pieces revealed the depth of the students life experiences more than anything I could describe would – I will transcribe for you in another post). He wants to get a scholarship to study to be a pilot.
In the afternoon I got chatting with a girl who put her hand in mine and took me for a walk around the beautiful grounds of the community hall. “Before, every day I would wake up and be crying. I couldn’t stop crying. I would think – I have no Mum, I have no Dad, I have no sisters anymore. There is nothing for me. I am alone in the world. Everyday I was sick. I went to the hospital. They said there was something wrong with my head. But now I am at Agahozo and I don’t feel like crying everyday. I am not alone.”
The students performed a song that they wrote themselves that had me in tears (Rwanda seems to make me both laugh and cry more than most places). Sifa is sending me the translation from Kinyarwanda to post – in short it is saying to the parents they lost, we miss you, but don’t worry – there are people looking after us until we see you again.
There is so much more to say on this topic, but I need to head offline to apply to attend one of the final Gacaca sessions (they are closing this week – more on that bundle of issues later). Tomorrow I head up north to speak with more of the commanders who were working for AMIS, and then UNAMID, in Darfur. I will be back in Kigali and online again on Sunday.