It had been the longest journey.
Through desert sands, visa lines, bus rides and the pressing patience of waiting, Natty Mitali arrived at the gates of Zion. The young guitarist had taken the bus from Cairo, dusty and hard-skinned, a journey that had begun further south, near the heart of Africa.
“Like the old Israelites,” says Mitali, who goes popularly by Natty Dread in Rwanda, where he is one of the country’s most famous Rastafari musicians. “Right up to the border.”
It was 1983, and the world was looking dangerous. Israel had just gone to war in Lebanon. The Americans were pushing the Soviets. Mitali was fleeing problems of his own. Tensions between Tutsi and the majority Hutu were surging in his tiny sundrenched home of Rwanda.
His family had grown up as refugees in Uganda, and as tremors of ethnic violence pulsed Rwanda, Mitali moved to nearby Kenya and soon applied for an Israeli visa.
“It was my destiny,” he says.
THINGS IN RWANDA took a turn for the worse.
When the president’s plane was shot down in 1994 it sparked a genocide that in three months wiped out nearly one million Tutsi – including 18 members of Mitali’s family.
From afar in Israel, Mitali grew up, toiling as a farmhand and playing guitar at the Soweto Club on Rehov Frischmann. When there wasn’t enough money, he did like many, and took to the land. Mitali says his time working on the kibbutzim throughout the country – from Na’an to Amirim, Ein Gedi to Achziv, and Shefayim, where he met his first wife – gave him a sense of self, a sense of worth.
Now he has come back, part of a surging Tutsi diaspora flooding home with money and purpose to rebuild a new Rwanda on top of the ruins. They are the followers of President Paul Kagame, who grew up, like Natty Mitali, in Uganda before leading a rebel group to end the genocide.
Deep in Rwanda’s south, between banana plantations and tea fields, Mitali is making his own contribution, the thing that helped him through the darkest times – his own self-styled kibbutz, the Amahoro Youth and Cultural Village.
DESPITE ALL OF Rwanda’s economic progress – its economy grew by 11% in 2008, and it is considered one of the least corrupt countries in Africa – much of its countryside remains poor, and very young.
On over 15 hectares along the southern tip of Lake Kivu in between Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo including two islands, Mitali is setting up a school for some of Rwanda’s most vulnerable – orphaned children, kids taking care of younger siblings with no one else to help, AIDS victims, and child survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
From carpentry to tourism, courses in ecology and music, Mitali is seeking to at once resuscitate life and help develop the country.
Over 70 students, in an admittedly Zionist – and Rastafari – fashion, will work, learn and live together, trying their best to live off the land.
“My time in Israel enlightened me,” Mitali says. “Kibbutzim, collective farms, that’s how the State of Israel was born. Seeing people homeless, with no relations, no orientation, helpless in our present world, I felt the kibbutz kind of solution was the answer to the suffering.” Amahoro means “peace” in local Kinyarwanda, and Mitali envisions a sanctuary – top-notch facilities from a medical clinic to agricultural farms, basketball courts to an eco-lodge. Students won’t just be taught in classrooms, they will receive vocational training.
The plans are coming along nicely – land has been donated by the government, a senior minister is helping advise the project, and architectural designs are being reviewed.
“We are looking forward to it,” says Fabien Sindayiheba, the mayor of Cyangugu district where the school will be. “It will create employability for its graduates, especially for the youth.”
True to the Rwandan spirit not to depend on handouts, Mitali argues, the school will be offering something to the outside. Students will spend time mastering nature conservation and eco-tourism, hallmarks of the national development strategy. A guest house and lodge will be run by the school on one of its islands in Lake Kivu.
“We are socialist on the inside and capitalist on the outside,” says Mitali. “The kibbutz will be a great weapon for fighting poverty.”
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