Art project brings together Congolese refugees and Tanzanian students

Making a Difference, 1 February 2012

© UNHCR/S.Starke
A young artist works on her still life of a vase of flowers.

NYARUGUSU REFUGEE CAMP, Tanzania, February 1 (UNHCR) Himidi stood back from the canvas and, brush in hand, looked with a critical eye at his work. "I decided to draw a waterfall and a bridge, because when disaster strikes, towns and countries are torn apart bridges can connect them," he noted, adding: "I think that people can create bridges through relations."

That, essentially, was the point of the art workshop that he took part in last week in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in north-west Tanzania. The budding artist joined about 140 other students in the course, which was organized by the UN refugee agency and the Ujamaa Art Gallery in Dar Es Salaam.

Around 100 of the young people were Congolese refugees studying at primary and secondary schools in Nyarugusu, while the rest were from local host communities. Together, they learned about how to use water colours, pastels and acrylics and how to make collages.

Leading the workshop were Belgian art teacher Soline de Laveleye and three of Tanzania's top artists: Obadia Mbise, Thobias Minzi and Haji Chilonga. They were impressed by the childrens' talent and their eagerness to learn as well as by the spirit of cooperation between the refugees and local children.

"This is like fresh air for the refugee children. They are excited. But also the Tanzanian students are very involved," said de Laveleye. "They help each other and are keen to share their experiences. Some are even making new friends," she noted.

"I have never coloured before, I only knew how to sketch," revealed 16-year-old Baraka Danford, who said he hopes to become a professional artist. "This is like magic, it is a big gift to me," added the excited teenager, who paid careful attention to the teachers, anxious to take in everything.

The young students carried on painting and drawing during the breaks and after the day's class was over, experimenting with line, colour, shadow and light. Some depicted the things they saw around them, while many of the refugees delved into their traumatic past for inspiration, including images of soldiers and guns in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

© UNHCR/S.Starke
Congolese refugees and local Tanzanian children happily learn about art techniques side by side.

"This project has brought the two groups [refugees and Tanzanians] closer together and fostered their interaction," said Oluseyi Bajulaiye, UNHCR's representative in Tanzania. "We can see how imaginative the children are and how their life gets colourful through art. They are used to playing with dirt," added Sunil Thapa, head of the UNHCR office in the nearby town of Kasulu.

The initiative is the first of its kind to be carried out in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, but UNHCR and the Ujamaa Art Gallery hope the programme can continue and incorporate other art forms such as drama, music and literature.

An exhibition of the best works created by the young Congolese and Tanzanians at the workshop here in Nyarugusu will go on display from February 15 at the Ujamaa Art Gallery.

The gallery's director, Lorna Mashiba, said proceeds from the sale of paintings, drawings and collages would be used to organize more art and educational projects to benefit refugees and host communities. "These kids are hungry for it and we would like to give them a chance to develop their skills and make a positive impact in their life," she explained.

By Sabine Starke in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania