The street artist fighting AIDS in Rwanda

The first time Bonfils Ngabonziza held a paintbrush, he was 19. Now 26, he has never stopped painting. ‘My goal is not to become famous,’ he admits, ‘but to use arts as a vehicle for positive change and see my work have a lasting impact on society.’

His decision to become a self-taught artist and muralist was not easily accepted around him. However he persisted, graduating from portraits to murals. In 2014, fellow artists from Ivuka Arts,the first community arts centre in Rwanda, and Ngabonziza joined forces with Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga (To Create, To See, To Learn), a public arts social enterprise based in Kigali. They wanted to use their art as a tool for social change. The team gathered in different parts of Kigali, including Remera and Nyamirambo, to make the most stunning murals which address the stigma around HIV and AIDS.

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The strong messages carried by these murals and the example of his close neighbours being affected by AIDS made Ngabonziza feel the urge to participate. ‘These murals were raising awareness about HIV and AIDS and telling my fellow Rwandans, especially those who haven’t gone to school, to fight stigmatisation.’ To make the messages easier to understand, Ngabonziza preferred to use a semi-abstract and realist technique.

‘I want to make kids the main subjects of my murals,’ he says. ‘They build strong ties without caring much about looks or money.’

In Rwanda, the government is in charge of leading the HIV response, working in partnership with NGOs. According to Judith Kaine, the founder and director of Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga, the country has had a marked success in the clinical fight against HIV. Indeed, the UN’s HIV and AIDS estimates from 2013 show that there is a prevalence rate of only 2.9% amongst adults aged 15 to 49. Stigma, however, remains the norm. ‘It was from this “position” that Kurema started’, she says, ‘trying to address the social challenges through a public forum, that only reinforced the work of the Government of Rwanda’.

The talented artist is now in the process of designing his own mural project which will speak to all Rwandans, regardless of social status, ethnic background, education levels and the like. Ngabonziza aims to illustrate the concepts of peace, unity, love and life. ‘I want to make kids the main subjects of my murals,’ he says. ‘If you look at kids, their love is unconditional and they build strong ties without caring much about looks or money for example.’ Focusing on the people of tomorrow, especially the youth, Ngabonziza believes that reconciliation is possible. When you look at Ngabonziza and the work he is doing, you can’t help but think it might come true.

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