As I walk into the Village an aura of silence welcomes me. It’s not the usual scene of jolly girls and boys running up and about. As I get close to the Village hall, my attention is grabbed by a table under a mango tree with a portrait. On the sides are wreaths which have just been placed.
A few metres away people gather in the Village hall. The mood is somber. The last time I was here it was a celebration time as the Village passed out graduates, but today the entire school is engulfed in sadness. This was the scene at Agohozo Shalom village when I visited. The village is still trying to come to terms with the death of its founder Anne Heyman. Heyman passed away last Friday after falling in a horse jumping competition in Florida, USA at the age of 52.
At some point, one of them recounted a tale she had heard about Heyman while on a mission to raise money for the village.
While meeting a potential donor, the late Heyman was challenged to a tennis match with a promise that on winning, she would be granted a donation for the Village. Heyman took it on and made sure that she won so that the cheque is signed for her charity.
Mukamitari is one of the 144 employees of the village who saw Heyman as more than just an employer.
“I lost my parents in 1973 and was educated by well wishers. I have seen so much kindness in my life but never as much as Anne’s. The most I can do is to honour her and ensure that I give all the children going through the village all I have,” Mukamitari said.
In the same room were volunteers from various countries who had only shared brief moments with the late founder but the slight moments they shared had lasting impressions on them.
Samantha Reynolds, a volunteer from the USA who has been at the village since December 2013 had hardly known Heyman for a month but it was enough for her to have a lasting impact on her.
“I only had the privilege to know her for about a month. She was an incredible woman. Her death is an important reminder that some day we will all go. We cannot control how we die but we can control how we live and what impact we have on society,” Reynolds says.
The village, which sits on 144 acres, nine Kilometres from Rwamagana Town in Eastern Province, came into place after Heyman and her husband Seth Merrin heard about Rwanda’s recovery after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
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 had connected the challenge of the Rwandan orphan population, then at about 1.2million to a similar challenge that Israel faced after the Second World War.
Israel had built residential communities called youth villages. She decided to bring the same model to Rwanda.
The Village takes in orphans and vulnerable children from all over the country, taking at least four from every district at a girl to boy ratio of 60:40.
They live in family structures within the Village where they are cared for with the help of a surrogate (family) mother.
They go through the normal education system as well as various skills development programmes in agriculture, hospitality, arts and information technology, professional skills training programmes and career-counseling programmes to deal with the trauma they have been through.
During this time, they are helped to develop innovations and play part in the community’s development with a weekly community service where they reach out to the community around them in ways such as building shelter for the elderly and teaching English to students in other schools
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.
At the graduation ceremony earlier this year, the graduates moved the attendants to tears as they recounted the ‘hopeless’ state they were in to the extent that some had relied on drugs to numb their emotional pain.
On the 144 acre Village, there is a mango tree with inscription; “It is under this tree on February 17, 2007 that Anne Heyman, the founder of the village, got into a purchase agreement with the previous 96 owners in 2007.”
It is under the same mango tree that the youth village community has been holding daily night vigils as they come to terms with the demise of Heyman.
Up a hill in the same compound, there is a high school ‘Liquidnet high school’ which is part of the village where the youth at the village attend classes. Wednesday was the first day they resumed school ever since they received the news of Heyman’s passing.
On receiving the news on Friday night last week at around 3am, Bonaventure Mujyeneza the school’s principal went to the school not for work but to break the bad news to the students.
“At some point I remember a girl running out of the hall, crying out that she had been orphaned a second time. They were not able to get on with school for the next few days but they are slowly coming to terms. Though she was only at the village for about four to five times a year, Heyman knew all the students and staff at the centre by name, that’s the kind of interest she had in the children. She followed everyone’s development,” Mujyeneza says.
An emotional Mujyeneza went on to recount how she always wanted the best for students at the Village and would occasionally send teachers for refresher courses to the US, Israel and London.
When she joined the Village, Coralie Keza, a Senior Six student at the village’s school had doubts on whether she would fit in the institution.
“I didn’t think I would fit in, but Heyman assured me that all would be well. She looked out for everybody, before I knew it, I felt at home. I cannot express my gratitude in words, it is beyond,” Keza says.
Keza is not afraid that the demise of the founder will be the beginning of the village’s fall, “She not only inspired us but also inspired the staff, the country and the world. Even in her absence, Agahozo and all she stood for will always be there. We will also honour her by always coming back to give back to the village.”
Shema Kalisa another students described her as her first ever role model who gave her a second chance at life when she thought she would never amount to anything.
“If I had a chance to bid her farewell, I would pour out my heartfelt gratitude to her for making me what I am,” Kalisa says.
Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura, the Village director said over the weekend the village will hold an event to celebrate Heyman’s life.
“This Saturday we will honour and celebrate her life. She inspired us with her values, such as the art of giving. She not only gave money, but love, her whole heart and her lifetime,” Kalisa said.
Assuring support to all the beneficiaries, Seth Merrin, the husband said everything will go on as planned and no project will stall.
Anne Heyman was laid to rest on Monday in New York. She lives behind a husband and three children.