Dec 11, 2008

Finding Your Rwanda Part II

What about the human condition needs improvement?

Claiming a personal and a collective uniqueness can be achieved in the participative action of designing our environment.In its essence, this declaration of uniqueness through the design and transformation of place, speaks to the power of branding and is illustrated in the Rugerero Genocide Survivors Village in Rwanda (see my previous blog post, Finding Your Rwanda, designing and debating our role in social responsibility). The cooperative design and building of a genocide memorial and the painting of murals on the mud brick homes of the village changed the spiritual and physical essence of this wounded place.

Our human need to be seen, to be appreciated, to be loved, and to create value during our life are powerful motivators in our self-development. For the villagers in Rwanda, the process of creating a memorial and painting the village facilitated the realization of their unique abilities and the exposed the power they each hold to make a difference. The same holds true for us, the visiting designers and participants who had the privilege to enter the lives of these beautiful people. As the spirit of hope and confidence grew, the community joined together, and our conversation moved to action towards “sustainability” and improving our condition.

This process has morphed to other initiatives that do address the basic needs of the village but all share the common denominator of colaboration and “creating together”.

As “designers”, we know very little about methods to reduce poverty. We know little about helping others create food and water sources, preventing and curing malaria, improving access to education or creating opportunities for people to apply their talents towards generating income.We do know how to help people express themselves, communicate a message, design their environment and engage in the process of creativity.

As I refer back to the phrase “improving the human condition” I ask; what about the human condition needs to be improved? We can measure the human condition qualitatively and quantitatively. These measures may vary drastically from person to person.

Qualitatively, improving the human condition would speak to comfort and happiness. Quantitative measure would be and years of healthy life. What is required to be comfortable and happy? How many years of life are considered successful?.

Yes, it was clear that the human condition in the Ruggerero Survivors village on the outskirts of Rwanda,needed improvement. Still suffering the scars of the Genocide in 1994 the one hundred families of the village have minimal access to food and water, shelter consisted of mud brick dwellings with dirt floors, serious vulnerability to malaria, access to only primary education and, for most part, zero opportunity to generate income. Genocide marks the bodies and spirits of most and life exists with little hope of change ahead.

How does engaging in the process of creativity and expression “improve the human condition? From my experience and observation, when we have the opportunity to create, and to express ourselves, we begin to access our individuality. We find our unique identity.Expression through the arts helps us heal the wounds that we have collected on our path. The tangible result of our effort, be it graphic, built, spoken or written, then stands as proof that we have value, and that we are an integral and important part of our community. We gain confidence in the process and in that act of participating. The conversation has no borders; all are invited, welcome and valuable.

As I look back over the past three years I have begun, only just begun, to understand how the building of the genocide memorial and the painting of the village has changed the “human condition” within the Rugerero Survivors Village. I have begun to understand what has changed. Yes the Village looks different, our collective human condition of those who worked on this project has changed the most. We may not live longer because of the work we are doing together, but we are happier.

Most people naturally assume that the victims of the Rwandan genocide need our help. We go to help them heal, to save them from poverty and to help them come closer to joining society as we know it. I soon understood that those I came to know and love in the village were helping me to heal, and saving me from a very different poverty, the poverty of comfort, They helped me join a society as they know it…heavy with heartbreak, but filled with sense of community and love.

Those of us in the design community regularly apply our talents and experience in the commercial world. We help organizations communicate their identity, their products, and services, and in return we receive financial compensation, and the satisfaction of a tangible result; a design we are proud of. Our careers are enhanced, our value rises and others ask us to work for them. We begin to accumulate a body of work, a legacy that feeds our need to be significant during our time here.

We ARE significant when applying our individuality and unique talents towards improving the human condition for others. We succeed once we realize that it is our condition that we seek to improve as well. It is in those moments when we are helping each other that we are most powerful.


  • “We ARE significant when applying our individuality and unique talents towards improving the human condition for others… It is in those moments when we are helping each other that we are most powerful.” – I’m thinking this is a sign of the fact that many disciplines, including Art&Design, are going to be better recognized for their role in Humanitarian efforts. Thank you!

  • OK you Paul Simon wannabe….why don’t you start with West Oak Lane, Philly, and environs first?

  • I think Mr. Kertez misses the point. I think Alan is saying that this mural painting coud be done anywhere on earth with the same results. “Our careers are enhanced, our value rises, and others will ask us to work for them.”

  • So why in the hell did he have to go to Rawanda? If the walls in Philly where already tagged he coulda gone to Camden to save the world.Where you on this vacation too?

  • Andre,
    Your frustration is real but misguided. While there are problems in Camden and many parts of our own backyard, they are nothing like Rawanda. And your assumption that this was a “vacation” only takes away from the importance of your own words.
    Sometimes you have to go a great distance to bring attention to the same things that are close by. While Alan does work in Rawanda he also does similar work in North Philly but doesn’t differentiate between the two because their location is not whats important but the work that is being done.

  • Well said Jeff, may I call you that? You sound like like a very sensitive and caring person. Andre is very misguided in his random attack on Alan. He probably voted for Joe the Plumber. But I think you and I should continue this chat at the next AIGA function. Yes we can!

  • yup, André, you missed the essence of Alan’s experience. Check out his previous post here:

    He pointedly asserts that social responsibility has another side: it can be a selfish act of self-realization and fulfillment, much like a job, or any other kind of relationship. I’m convinced it would be a mistake to limit one’s expression of social responsibility to a particular location or project if it doesn’t resonate with you. That’s like a bad relationship :)

    Once I figured this out, it made my quest for community projects much easier and more fun. Now I seek out projects & people that make sense to me and my values instead of trying to force myself to sign up for the first opportunity and “do the right thing”.

  • Andre
    Thanks for your comment. It has sparked some good discussion, which is why we come here. On a side note, I have been told I do look a bit like Paul Simon.

    I understand your point, and while my writing has been about this project in Rwanda, far more of my time is invested at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Phila and at Golden Slipper Camp for deserving kids ,both local organizations committed to providing youth at risk a window of opportunity.

    My point is about doing what you can, not about traveling across the world to work on a project. Most of the time doing what you can happens around the corner where it should.

    I never imagined I would be in Rwanda on a project. Someone asked me to help, and I said yes. Of course it has widened my horizon, I have had the wonderful opportunity to experience Africa and have learned things about people I would never have understood other wise. I have learned that I have receive more than I could ever give when doing this work…so yes..there is great pleasure in return.

    There is real need everywhere and we each participate as we can and where we have the opportunity to do so .

    One of the great challenges most people have in finding their community work is they do not know where or how to begin.

    People always ask “how can i help?”. Just as I did when Lily Yeh told me about her project in Rwanda. If she told me about a project that i felt strongly about in West Oak Lane that’s where I would have be working.

    Her invitation changed my life. and I will continue to work where ever I can to make a difference. I hope that you have found the place where your unique abilities are making a difference. If not, you are invited to join me at the Village of Arts in Phildelphia.

  • Good your reply and encorage you to look always forward!

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