Agahozo-Shalom, where broken youthful hearts are mended

  • By Collins Mwai
  • January 11, 2014
Graduates cheer up during their graduation ceremony on Thursday. Below, some of the orphans who graduated with various skills from Agahozo-Shalom. The New Times/ Collins Mwai.

When he stood to give his speech on behalf of the other graduates during the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village graduation on Thursday, Pacifique Rutamu began by quoting Nelson Mandela.

Anne Heyman, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village Founder
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” he said.

The graduate then told his fellow graduates and guests at the ceremony how they had been taught to love during their time at the institution.

At some point in his speech, the 20-year-old was moved to tears, recalling how vulnerable and destitute he and fellow graduates felt when they joined the institution to the point that some had turned to alcohol and drug abuse to hush the demons in their heads.

As he wiped his tears, several guests, including dignitaries, did the same.

“When we first came here, we doubted that we would be able to live together and be integrated into family set ups as we had been promised,” Rutamu said.

“We doubted that we would ever get close to achieve our dreams. But this home saw the uncertainty of our dreams and nurtured us. We had no hope then, we were labeled orphans, but we no longer are, we are a family.”

Rutamu and his fellow graduates are and will be forever grateful to Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

The founding

The village, which occupies 144 acres, nine Kilometres from Rwamagana Town in Eastern Province, was founded after Anne Heyman and her husband had had a talk about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

After the talk, it hit her that one of the greatest challenges through the healing process was the vast number of orphans with no systemic solution to support their well-being and development.

She connected the challenge of the Rwandan orphan population to the similar challenge that Israel faced after the Second World War.

Israel had built residential living communities called youth villages. She decided she was going to bring the same model to Rwanda.

At the compound of the 144 acres that the institution occupies, there is a mango tree with inscription that it is under this tree that Anne Heyman, the founder of the village, got into a purchase agreement with the previous owners in 2007; although it may seem like a small milestone, it was the beginning of what would change the lives of many orphans.

“What drove me was the idea that we have so many orphans in this world and there seems to be a perception that there is no solution for it.  But there is a way to reintegrate these kids into society and get rid of the orphan problem once and for all,” Heyman, a mother of three and ‘grandmother’ to more than 500 children at the Village, told Saturday Times.

At the Village, learners get more than just formal academic training; they get informal skill as well honing of their talents such that they have options to choose from on completion of school.

They get to make use of their various skills and talents while still in the institution not only for their own benefit but also for the community around them. 

With about 20 enrichment programmes (both academic and informal skills) and more than 20 student-run clubs to build leadership skills among the learners their learning is now a model for the country.

Every year they take in orphans and vulnerable children from all over the country, at least four from every district at a girl to boy ration of 60 per cent to 40 per cent. 

They live in family structures within the Village where they are cared for with the help of a house mother. 

The learners go through the normal education system as well as various skills development programmes in agriculture, hospitality, arts and information technology professional skills training programmes as well as a career-counseling programmes.

During this time, they are helped to develop innovations and play part in the community’s development.

In the recent past, they have put up a radio station at the village, developed web sites and IT applications, developed solutions for the nearby health centre among other things.

Replicating ideas

It is seeing the success of the home in churning out confident and inspired young people that caused the Minister of State for Technical and Vocational Education, Albert Nsengiyumva, who was the guest of honour at the graduation, to seek to replicate the same model throughout the country.

“Today, the focus is to build the necessary skills needed in the country, but before one can acquire technical skills we need to build the core values. This school’s model is one from which others can learn, talks are already ongoing to see how we will do it,” the minister said.

After graduation, most of the learners get scholarships to various higher learning institutions in and out of the country.

“Graduating from here doesn’t mean everything ahead is set to be easy, but we have learnt to tackle challenges as we have learnt to develop solutions to challenges rather than wallow in self pity,“ Rutamu said in fluent English.

Jean Claude Nkulikiyimfura, the institutions director, said coincidentally this being the year of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, most of the graduates were aged 20 years.

“They were born during the troubled times of the Genocide. Odds were stacked against them and chances of most of them amounting to anything were low. They lost parents and siblings. They grew up without a mother’s comfort, went through life without a father’s warmth and missed a sibling’s advice,” Nkulikiyimfura said.

He said the learners had overcome the challenges and made something off themselves through the chances the institution had presented.

“They overcame the trials and tribulations, they embraced surrogate mothers at the home and took an education philosophy to heal and develop themselves as they moved forward. They are now transformed youth from whom they were when they first began. They have further honed the art of compassion and of giving back to the community. If the perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide were here to see this today, they would be ashamed,” he said, sending audience into releasing pent up emotions.

Yet that is not the end of the road for the home but rather a milestone in the journey to transform lives as Heyman told Saturday Times.

“We are looking to build income generating activities for the village so as to rely less on donations and develop the home further, everything is a work in progress. As of now we can celebrate the success of these kids considering where they came from.  We already have partnerships with various organisations to develop a self sustainable model. We have 88 per cent of our graduates going to higher learning and others continuing to develop their skills in various ways. ”

Concerted efforts

But with humility, Heyman refuses to take credit for the success of the Village and it’s agenda, saying the facility has an extraordinary team both within and outside the country who work to make the project a success.

“We have had support from government and other partners to develop the school. We have a dedicated staff. (They have a staff of over 150 persons in various capacities providing employment to the community around) we have support from donors some of them we have never met,” she says.

She welcomed the Government’s interest to reciprocate the model elsewhere around the country and promised to offer support.

“I think if we would be able to put many of such villages, instead of having 125 graduates a year, we would churn out thousands making it a lot quicker to get rid of the orphan problem.  Reciprocating the model all through the country would spread its benefits.”

 As she was receiving her certificate while in a flowing green gown during the ceremony, 20-year-old Raiissa Tumukunde  told this paper that when she walked in, she was a bit sceptical about her chances of becoming a designer.

“I was not so sure then, but as of now I have it in sight. I feel expressive and free. Having the model replicated all across the country to reach out to vulnerable youth across the country will heal wounds,” Tumukunde said.

While giving her speech, the village founder described it as “a place where tears are dried,” but not really, through all the day’s speeches and presentations by the beneficiaries, there were lots of tears shed.

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