Refugee using artistic skill to earn a living

Shaban Matabaro and some of his young students who he trains. Photos by Lydia Atieno.

Shaban Matabaro found himself in Rwanda as a refugee five years ago, settling at Mahama refugee camp in Eastern Province due to instability in his country Burundi.

When he arrived, he thought there will be more to learn or even acquire from the camp, unfortunately, this wasn’t the case; the only thing they were given were food, shelter, and other necessities.

The thirty-year-old knew the kind of life in the camp was going to take him nowhere in terms shaping his life as a young man.

Since going back to Burundi was the last thing he would think of, he decided to start doing what would then see him independent.

Some of the artist’s products.

After spending a few months in the camp, he decided to start using his hands to improve his way of life, and at the same time do what he likes most, which is making jewelry.

 The young man makes bracelets, necklaces, anklets, rings among others for both men and women and sells them in different cities of Rwanda.

The inspiration

The skills, he said he acquired them as a young boy from his mother, who by then used to teach him while in Burundi.

He said that his mother was a vendor selling foodstuffs at a market near their home, but again making jewelry as a side gig.

Some of the materials used by Shaban Matabaro to make jewellery. 

“My mother would come with beads, teach me how to make something meaningful out of them. She would do this on a daily basis just to ensure that I master how to make the jewelry without her support,” he said.

According to him, the mother wanted him to learn using his own hands to make a living, not to depend on others when he grows up.

She also wanted him to grow up knowing how to hustle despite the challenges.

Through the support of his friends and other well-wishers from the camp, he managed to get RWF 50, 000, which helped him, start making a few pieces of jewelry; selling them to some of the people around and inside the camp.

“I wanted to develop my skills and at the same time become open minded to opportunities, therefore I didn’t mind about what I had to start making a difference,” he said.

The starting out was not easy but since he knew what to do and the passion inside him, luckily he managed to put things through with what he had.

Moving forward

Through this, he said it has helped him link up with different personnel, which according to him is one way of being open-minded which wouldn’t have happened had he  been  contented with what they were being offered at the camp.

He said it’s through this that he gets the money to help him take care of himself. In fact, the money he gets helps him pay all his bills including renting a house whenever he is in Kigali to showcase or selling his products in exhibitions.

Besides, the little money he gets also helps in supporting some of the family members back in Burundi.

As part of exploring his talent, Matabaro also teaches some kids in the camp how to make different pieces of jewelry.

He uses the profit he gets to buy materials to work with the kids learn how to make jewelry.

“This is one way of helping nature young people’s talents, there are many of them with different talents but they don’t have someone to help and direct them, making it hard to discover what they are capable of doing,” he said.

He added that by teaching the kids, the aim is to ensure that when they grow up, it will be easier to find ways to earn a living without necessarily depending on other people or government welfare.

The kids, he said are from five years and above.

He said that there is still a misconception about refugees which include some people viewing them as limited in regards to how much they can achieve in their lives.

According to him, this is a big challenge and it demotivates young and talented people and stops them from venturing into activities that can improve their lives.

In the refugee camps, he said there are many young children with different talents who if supported can be turned into meaningful opportunities with the only challenge is that there are few people willing to help.

He advises that for one to develop their skills they don’t need look at their background or their situation at hand, what is required is to have ambition and vision.

“Young people shouldn’t look down on some jobs, anything that can make them make a difference,” he advised.



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