Adolphe Kayitare’s vibrant paintings pulse with color, rhythm and life. Yet the newly admitted Pennsylvania university student’s art emerges from much darker roots.
Adolphe’s father was one of many killed when he was two years old. His mother was brutally gang raped a few days later, “abused and ripped” to the point where she has never been physically and mentally able to take care of him, he said. After the genocide, he was sent to live with his grandmother, Emertha, in a hut with no running water or electricity.
“Adolph,” as he is known to his friends, relates the horrors he has experienced in slow but steady and perfect English, even though he only began learning the language in his teens. He saves his emotions for the canvas.
“I didn’t see any people who showed love or interest in me, and I also couldn’t talk much, so that’s how I started developing drawing skills,” Adolph narrates. “I was using only a pencil and a pen to draw because that was the only way I could connect to the world.”
Adolphe started drawing in primary school. Although his grandmother was extremely poor, she never stopped supporting her grandson’s education. He was able to attend school with funding from a stranger who paid his tuition.
He managed to excel academically, while also changed from “despite”helping his grandmother keep house and eke out a living by farming a small plot they owned. His good scores got him into high school.
Then, in 2008, his life took an unexpected turn when he was accepted into the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, a nonprofit residential community that nurtures and educates Rwandan orphans.
At ASYV,Adolphe learned English and started painting for the first time. As a child he’d often drawn but had never heard of paint. “I started drawing my own stories and other people’s stories, which I could present to other people,” he said.
He says his biggest moment arrived when he was selected to be the speaker during his class’ graduation and Rwandan president Paul Kagame was in attendance. Adolphe gave Kagame one of his paintings, which now hangs in the presidential office.
Yet during this time of success, this young man would experience one of the greatest personal tragedies of his life the death of his grandmother. Although he was aware his grandmother had been seriously ill for a while, “She didn’t get treatment because she couldn’t afford that. We all couldn’t afford that,” he said. “We didn’t know she had cancer until the last week of her life.”
The day Emertha died was the first time he had ever cried. “When my grandma died, I felt terribly depressed and lost courage to keep going, because I was going to keep my grandmother proud,” Emma remembered. “When she died, I was hopeless.”
He turned to Heyman, who had become his mentor, and his church for help. They gave him a new purpose to help Rwanda heal. “They told me that my mission is beyond being to my family but being to my country.”
He states, “We can develop our country so we can flourish again, the only thing I can do is contribute.”
Once at Penn, he hopes to transfer to Wharton. “Business is my passion. I want to come back and create jobs for many people so we can be able to have at least the majority of people in the middle class,” he said.
Jonathan Iyandemye, a classmate who will be attending Harvard University next year, believes that Adolphe is part of the new generation of Rwandan youth that can help Rwanda develop. “I think Adolf will be a great leader and change maker in Rwanda. I would like to see him in business, owning a big company and employing many people so that they may all learn from him.”
Kayitare’s mother is now the only family he has left. “She’s very proud that I’m going to study abroad, but that’s it, because she doesn’t know what going to Penn is or going to America is,” he said. “I tried to explain that America is the most powerful country in the world, but she never went to school so she doesn’t know.”
Kayitare is the only one in his family who has ever graduated high school or knows how to speak English. He finds it hard to imagine what attending Penn will be like, although he has done extensive research on American culture. However, he knows that, “I want to adapt myself in every situation. I want to be challenged and i want and I want to learn,” he states.