After Elisée Niyonsenga lost his mother and siblings in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 he found new hope by setting up an acrobatic troupe. He speaks to Veronica Stivala ahead of his visit to Malta this week.
“It was like a very dark nightmare and it still feels like a heavy burden on my shoulders to think that my little brother does not even know what his mother looked like. This is too heavy for me and I can’t think about it without shedding tears.”
There are no words for the unspeakable atrocities that took place during the genocidal mass slaughter that left an estimated one million Rwandans killed during the 100 days between April and mid-July 1994, among them Elisée Niyonsenga’s family members.
Niyonsenga was still a child at the time and found himself living aimlessly on the streets. But it was a performance by contemporary circus act Cirque du Soleil he came upon that changed his life.
“It was like a new door had been opened for me,” recalls Niyonsenga. So impressed was he by what he saw that he started practising, together with another friend on the beach, trying to emulate what he had seen.
“It was the only way I could find happiness and to feel open and relaxed. It helped me escape the pain, laugh for a short while and temporarily forget what had happened,” he comments.
Niyonsenga went on to found the Future Vision Acrobat (FVA), through which he teaches the sport to children to help them find new hope. It was the same joy he discovered through acrobatics that he wanted to pass on to other children: “Through acrobatics I made new friends, I found myself laughing and smiling again,” he explains.
One thing led to another and soon children wanted to join. “We felt like real trainers because it did work and soon more and more members started joining,” says Niyonsenga proudly. And more than trainers, he felt like he had started a family, a “house of joy and peace”. Having created this space for a “peaceful mind and true love”, Niyonsenga found himself one step closer to realising his dream of building a circus school in Rwanda.
There are no words for the unspeakable atrocities that took place during the genocidal mass slaughter that left an estimated one million Rwandans killed
Future Vision Acrobat went on to perform in various Congolese refugee camps in Rwanda and subsequently in Sweden, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Belgium. Niyonsenga reminisces about his experiences working with children from all over the world.
“I have seen how children are all the same. Once they are happy, they do not want to leave. Children are true angels and I love being like them. I wish the whole world would be and think like children and in this way no more conflicts will happen again.”
The group’s path crossed with that of Malta’s in 2013 when Daniela Gusman chanced upon the group during her time in Rwanda.
Philanthropist Gusman founded a not-for-profit organisation called ‘Rise’ (relationships inspiring social enterprise) because, in her eight years of working in southern and eastern Africa, she had “got frustrated with seeing so many incredible young, talented Africans with so many great ideas and yet not able to access the networks they need in order to allow their initiative to grow and prosper”.
Rise’s mission is about connecting local social entrepreneurs from low-income countries to resources that they need in order for their enterprises to thrive.
Struck by Niyonsenga and his team’s optimism, resilience and ambition, she tried to help them promote their work to people she knew in Uganda and Rwanda in order for them to get bookings for shows and workshops.
However, she had the opportunity to help them in a more meaningful way, when she met Flavia Zimmerman from EURHED, an NGO in Malta. They combined forces and put together a capacity strengthening workshop so that FVA could focus on their business plan, marketing strategy and plan forward.
At the end of the week they had some pretty amazing meetings with various UN agencies such as Unicef, the British Council and embassies so that FVA could become better known on a national level.
Speaking further about her motivation to promote the group, Gusman explains: “I did this because I believe that what FVA has to offer is very unique and powerful and that the world should know about them and learn from their incredible talent and life philosophy.”
Malta is lucky to have them visit. The group is currently conducting a children’s workshop in collaboration with Aġenzija Żgħażagħ that started yesterday and runs until Wednesday.
On Friday they will perform at De Porres Hall in Sliema, at 7.30pm and on September 23 they will be performing at St George’s Square in Victoria.
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