Today, largely as a result of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, there are approximately 2.8 million orphans in Rwanda. With the highest proportion relative to the total population of under-18 year old children in the world, Rwanda has an immense challenge to tackle.
Earlier this summer, I went to Rwanda with my college in order to participate on a capacity-building and learning trip to the master-planned Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). The village was built in 2007 by founder Anne Heyman and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) as a school and home for orphans of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The first students arrived in 2008.
ASYV was built on the Israeli model of establishing youth villages for orphans of the Holocaust, and the village high school provides formal educational and vocational training through a contextual pedagogy and curriculum with the help of Rwandan staff. Moreover, the students are provided with a family in permanent groups which are housed with a loving and supportive ‘Mama’. ASYV hosts hundreds of these youth and focuses on healing the heart and the self in order for students to grow emotionally and intellectually. This is a huge challenge given the horror – if that is even the right word to use – that these students faced in the past. Their parents were murdered and they were left to fend for themselves. Hutus and Tutsis are accepted into the tightly-knit village, and ethnic identities are NEVER discussed or disclosed. No one knows. After all, they are all one nationality now – Rwandan – and they all are loving and devoted friends to each other.
A view of the dining hall (foreground) and the homes (background) from the school
Unlike the urban areas of Rwanda, most rural areas rely on subsistence agriculture and lack clean water, electricity, and other basic necessities while living in homes primarily built out of mud but sometimes with cement, metal, and other materials as well. Even the slum areas of the cities in Rwanda tend to have these needs met. ASYV is an exception to this rule in the countryside, providing students with three meals a day, showers, hot water, electricity, and countless other resources from computers to a carpentry shop; furthermore, ASYV has erected a security fence around their land in order to delineate these 144 acres. And despite the differences between their surroundings and their village, the students collaborate with the community on various service projects. However, the village can only accomplish these goals due to the physical planning and design involved.
The ASYV fence separates the village farm (right) from outside land (left)
First of all, the village is just that – a village. Instead of being in an urban environment, it is in the countryside on top of a very tall hill in order to provide a peaceful and healing environment for its students. The mantra of the village, “if you see far, you’ll go far”, is physically implemented through the construction of the schoolhouse on the very top of the modern campus. Students see over countless hills and valleys, not to mention over their picturesque village. Moreover, the school is purposefully separated from the rest of the village by a long path in order to distinguish between the roles of the teachers for academic development from the roles of the Mama’s for emotional development. Furthermore, the center of the village is home to a large mango tree, which symbolizes the supportive nature of the community – they are rooted here now, and this is their secure and stable home. Under the tree is a plaque which dedicates the land to ASYV and marks the purchase of the land by Anne Heyman from the numerous farmers that owned the land beforehand. And the dining hall is located in the center of the community as well in order to bring everyone together. There’s even an ASYV farm which helps to sustain the community.
The center of the village with the large tree
The village also has a lot of Israeli influence, beginning with its mission as a youth village for genocide victims, and with its name. Agahozo Shalom combines Kinyarwanda, the local language of Rwanda, and Hebrew. Agahozo is Kinyarwandan for a place where tears are dried and shalom is Hebrew for living in peace. It is a place where students can grow and prepare to help develop their country socially, economically, and politically.
But they only can complete their mission due to the physical infrastructure of the village. Indeed, in the end, urban planning is highly contextual, dependent on local powers, identities, and ideologies, as well as local social, economic, political, and environmental factors. Literally every aspect of this village was planned out. Buildings cannot just be plopped anywhere without context, because they are not just buildings – people use them. For instance, for most of these students, this is the first time they’ve lived in a home with water, electricity, and three meals a day. These homes could have been built as mud huts, but they weren’t. The village could have been haphazardly constructed, but it wasn’t. It is orderly and clean – a radical change from the chaotic lives these students had before – as the founders wanted the kids to dream big and have a real sense of family, friendship, and community. They wanted them to have a sense of place and think kindly of themselves. And if they’re living in ASYV, it’s not as difficult to do that. It’s not as difficult to dream. To be.
A view of the surrounding hills from the school on top of the hill
In the end, everything is integrated through physical infrastructure. From community development, economic growth, education, and environmental issues, to housing, public health, nation-building, foreign policy, and even genocide prevention, villages like ASYV can not only impact their students, but their country and the world as well. And when these factors are understood, urban planning can help to heal lives and create meaningful, content communities.
The village was not built in the city, where it could have been, perhaps, an enclosed and gated facility. Rather, it was built in the peaceful countryside, where it was felt that students would be more comfortable and at ease. But what does this say about urban life? Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, is the economic powerhouse of the country, and it is a relatively hectic place.
Should ASYV’s founders have embraced urbanity, rather than a ‘Jeffersonian’ mindset? Wouldn’t it have allowed students to be closer to opportunities, from jobs to training programs? Also, if they had built more densely and efficiently in the city, wouldn’t they have been able to serve more students, and scale their capacity-building better? Sure, but can an urban environment heal as well as the countryside? Humans need a balance, and ASYV strives to do that, with the limited resources that it has available…
If you are interested in donating directly to the village, which relies on donations, please visit their fundraising site. Our group raised over $10,000, but ASYV is working to become financially independent. The costs of running a state-of-the-art facility in the Rwandan countryside are substantial.
For more information about ASYV, please visit their website. Thanks.
In 1994, Rwanda suffered a devastating genocide leading to many social hardships. One of the leading issues lingering throughout the country is a high number of orphaned children and vulnerable youth. Despite this catastrophe, the country defies the odds as it rebuilds itself into a thriving and stable country. At ASYV, we preserve the value of Rwandan culture through our Rwandan staff and educators and by creating an inextricable link to our local community.
Modeled after Yemin Orde, an Israeli youth village established in 1953, which originally cared for orphans from the Holocaust, ASYV is a place where “tears are dried” (signified by the Kinyarwanda word, agahozo) and where vulnerable youth can “live in peace” (from the Hebrew word, shalom). ASYV’s model combines three essential elements to encourage our youths’ intellectual and emotional growth: loving support of a family, a structured education, and enriching extracurricular programs
The family structure is key to our youths’ healing. The village places each youth, by gender, into residential families of 16. The family environment fosters a ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ dynamic. In each home, a Rwandan mama guides our youth through their healing and holds the primary responsibility for each child’s physical and emotional well-being.
The youth of Agahozo-Shalom come from all 30 districts in Rwanda. We aim to select four representatives from each of these districts every year. All of the children carry the culture of their home, unique talents, and the insatiable desire to learn and grow. Despite bearing the weight of incredible hardship, the ASYV kids are survivors. Our students have insurmountable drive and the determination to overcome their past and create a brighter future.
We invest in Rwanda’s most vulnerable orphans with the confidence that they are capable of great accomplishments. The ASYV students are delightful, inspiring, and eager to grow up into happy, successful adults.