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Earth Day Voices: Terry Tempest Williams
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Art as a Spark for Social Change
by Terry Tempest Williams

There was no community, only a genocide survivor's village comprised of refugees brought together by the government's desire to help those Rwandans who were left with nothing – "worse than nothing."

Lily Yeh, a Chinese-American artist arrived with three other "barefoot artists" and asked if anyone in the Village wanted to paint.

Within three weeks, five of the grey-ash structures were painted, not "house-painted" but painted with the designs of children: a cow with seven teats; a striped red cat; an angel that appeared as a flower; a giraffe; a sun; banana trees. The children with their brushes and cups of paint were ecstatic. They were also very serious about their art. The bottom of the houses were also painted, borders with geometric designs and patterns that connected houses door to door, the patterns created by the villagers themselves: turquoise, yellow, white, and red.

The Rugerero Genocide Survivors Village was beginning to awaken with color.


Flashback: Tutsis. 1994. 800,000 individuals murdered by hand -- machetes, clubs, and hoes -- in 100 days by Hutu extremists called the Interhamwe, Kinyarwanda for "attack one place, now " which is what they did repeatedly, thoroughly, through April, May, and June. And the killings continued for years.

We know this story well. We turned our backs and refused to act, neglected to see how phrases like "Never Again" uttered religiously after the Armenian genocide, after the Jewish Holocaust, after Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Darfur, translate to "again and again" – the mantra of our collective denial that allows code words like "civil war" and "tribal conflict" to mean we need not get involved, just what the masterminds of all genocides count on as their methodical steps march toward mass murder, becoming the planned, calculated, and carried out horrors of corrupt governments. The manipulation of extinction is done most efficiently through bureaucracies and hateful rhetoric.

Removed, we disengage.

We stop listening.

How do we open ourselves to the stories of others? And respond?

Lily Yeh heard the story of the Rwandan genocide by listening to Jean Bosco Musana at a conference on sustainable communities in Barcelona. He works for the Red Cross in the northwest region of Rwanda near the Congo border. After his talk, Lily approached him with four words, "How can I help?"

"Come to Rwanda," he said. "And help us create a Genocide Memorial for the village of Rugerero."


Lily traveled to Rwanda. She met with the genocide survivors in the village. Most of them were women. They spoke. She listened.. They needed a place to shelter the bones of their beloved.

"The bones are not at rest." they said. "This is a matter of security." Many of their family members remains were kept inside their stark concrete rooms, wrapped in discrete bundles of cloth.

Lily Yeh returned a year later with a design inspired by their desires. The villagers and local officials approved. She returned with a team. The village and the team worked together.

In 2005, Lily stood on the site where the Genocide Memorial would be built with Jean Bosco, the president of the women's association in Rugerero and the contractor. Hundreds of children gathered around them, most of them orphans, jumping up and down, delighted over the visitors.

Lily called the children together. All eyes were on her. She picked up two rocks and raised the lava stones high above her head. She then ritualistically placed them down by her feet on a line set by twine to indicate the boundaries of the site. With the children's gaze still on her, Lily made a rectangle wth her hands in the air and then pointed to the children and clapped her hands. Immediately, they understood and began gathering rocks and placing them below the twine. Within minutes, the children had enclosed the sacred space with lava stones. The boundaries of the Genocide Memorial were set.


When asked how she had thought of this, Lily said smiling, "I'm Chinese, I know a work force when I see one."

As the Genocide Memorial was constructed, more houses were painted. The Village and the Memorial were undergoing a transformation. Hutus and Tutsis. Side by side. By hand. Many hands.

"This project has brought new mind to the people here. Usually when America helps, they help "Rwanda." But this project is done specifically for us here in this village. It elevates our dignity and our self-respect. This project is doing something great for this community. It is healing people. People here have so many problems from the war, the deaths of loved ones. When we see such beauty created, we feel we are not alone that we are together."

- Firkovitch, age 14 at Rugerero Genocide Survivors Village

Last week was the thirteenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. The nation just completed their National Week of Mourning, a week of remembrance and storytelling, processions, and still the new burial of bones buried, now found, restoring peace among families -- and for many renewed trauma.

On April 5, 2007, the Genocide Memorial in Rugerero was dedicated. 5000 people attended the ceremony from around the Gisenyi province. The village of genocide survivors had constructed and completed their own safe harbor. The Memorial's surface is a construction of mosaic, salvaged tiles from the war, taking that which is broken and creating something whole. Mosaics of sunflowers line the platform. The word, "IBUKU" is spelled with glass jewels in Kinyarwanda above the altar. Translation: Remember.

Bouquets of flowers wrapped with purple ribbons were left as offerings.

Over 200 individuals' bones are now housed in the Bone Chamber beneath the blue-roofed pavilion. Dorotea, a woman from the village, has become the caretaker. During the 1994 war, she lost over 68 members of her family in Kibuye. She and two cousins escaped the stadium killings by hiding and then swimming at night through the floating corpses in Lake Kivu. It took them almost three days to reach the shores of Gisenyi. Now, she seldom leaves the Memorial. She painted the floors and walls of the Bone Chamber turquoise. A glass coffin houses an intact skeleton. Rows of wooden coffins filled with collective bones line both sides of the room. "This is where my family rests."

"We must always remember – " said Joseph Habineza, Rwanda's Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports. "This memorial is not just for Tutsis. We must always remember what bad governance creates." He paused during his remarks at the ceremony. "We must never forget. We must share our stories. It is the path to our own healing and the reconstruction of our country."

Lily Yeh's remarks at the dedication were simple and eloquent, "Art is the spark that creates community. Beauty can create daring actions. We have painted a village. We have built a memorial. Together, we are creating a sustainable world of peace."


Terry Tempest Williams was one of the Barefoot Artists who accompanied Lily Yeh in 2005 and 2007. She is the author of "Refuge" and "The Open Space of Democracy." Her book, "Mosaic: Finding Beauty in a Broken World" will be published by Pantheon Books in 2008. To learn more about "The Rwanda Healing Project" visit

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What a beautiful story . . . and a magnificent reality! Thank you, Terry, and Lily Yeh.

Posted by: alisan on 23 Apr 07

What a beautiful story . . . and a magnificent reality! Thank you, Terry, and Lily Yeh.

Posted by: alisan on 23 Apr 07

Terry and Lily,
Thank you for your courage to go to Rwanda and share your writing and pictures with us. Your words are as vivid as the turqouise paint. How would we know and how can we remember what these people have suffered? We are so safe and insolated here. I am embarrassed to say that we practice complacency.

Posted by: cass sylvia on 24 Apr 07

Terry and Lily,
Thank you for your courage to go to Rwanda and share your writing and pictures with us. Your words are as vivid as the turqouise paint. How would we know and how can we remember what these people have suffered? We are so safe and insolated here. I am embarrassed to say that we practice complacency.

Posted by: cass sylvia on 24 Apr 07

I am one of those who sat helplessly as I heard and read about the genocide of 1994. I could not understand how this tragedy was any less important than others that the world community stepped in to stop.
I have appreciated all the efforts to help us never forget, through cinema, books, and now this wonderful memorial. Thank you Terry, Lily and the rest.

Posted by: Bart on 7 May 07

I offer tears of gratitude for this story, for this visionary work of love. As a founder of Art in Action Youth Leadership Program in Oakland, I have seen the power of art to save the human spirit. There is a war on our low income youth here in Oakland, and cities across the U.S. May we come together as creative beings to lift up our youth everywhere. We must unite and create opportunity and hope in these troubled times
Towards a healthy planet,
Alli Starr

Posted by: Alli Starr on 7 May 07



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