How Red Rocks Rwanda is connecting community tourism and conservation through art

How Red Rocks Rwanda is connecting community tourism and conservation through art

How Red Rocks Rwanda is connecting community tourism and conservation through art

Right at the entrance of Red Rocks Cultural Centre in Nyakimana village, Musanze district, northern Rwanda, is a small edifice that houses various arts and crafts. Exhibits include exquisite paintings by Zulu, the center’s resident artist, as well as various handcrafts made by local women. At first glance, you may think this is just another art gallery in Rwanda… Until you get the story behind it.

In 2011, Red Rocks Cultural Centre started a program that aimed to promote artist-related activities as one way of conserving the environment around the Volcanoes National Park. Six years later, the local community now has an avenue through which they harvest natural products to make aesthetic pieces of art, which they sell to visiting tourists. This has in essence made them self-reliant, especially the local youth and women with the skills and talent to make such products.

Greg Bakunzi, the founder of Red Rocks Cultural Centre, says of his initiative: “We want to promote environmental conservation through arts and crafts. There are several arsenals in our armory through which we are going to achieve our objectives. After all, arts, crafts and environmental conservation are inextricably linked.”

He adds that everyone is welcome to Red Rocks to expose his or her talent, and that the country’s natural heritage must be preserved at all costs.

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Bakunzi believes that involvement of the local communities is significant for sustainable management of protected areas. “As a tourism professional, I have come to realize that local communities are responsible for exerting constant pressures and carrying out illegal activities like poaching and harvesting of forests. I came up with this initiative of arts and crafts as a means to achieve our conservation efforts. Eventually, through the education and advocacy programmes that we have initiated at Red Rocks, we are going to succeed in our efforts to save the environment and our proud natural heritage,” he says.

At Red Rocks Cultural Centre, all the arts and craft are made from the natural products, something Bakunzi says is also a natural way of preserving Rwanda’s rich heritage.

He adds that a good number of both national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now committed to working with the state-run Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to promote community development through arts and crafts. Some of the organizations Bakunzi mentions include Gorilla Conservation Program, Virunga Community Program, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGG), Care International, the Gorilla Organization, Art Conservation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Rotary Club of Musanze (of which Bakunzi is currently the serving chairperson).

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“At Red Rocks, we intend to bring all these organizations together to promote tourism, conservation and community development. That’s what we stand for,” says Bakunzi.

He adds that one of Red Rocks Cultural Centre’s initiatives, Hands of Hope, has seen local community women successfully market and sell their handcrafts to the international community, and Red Rocks hopes to hatch on the success story to market a number of initiatives they are coming up with.

“When Red Rocks was established, we just knew about the hardships faced by local community members in marketing their products internationally. But as we grew, we discovered there are a number of youths who were also talented in making arts and crafts. It is these youths we are now using to promote conservation efforts around the Volcanoes National Park… They use their talents to have their own income instead of depending on illegal activities,” says Bakunzi.

Thanks to Hands of Hope, rural women in Nyakimana village and neighboring villages have achieved economic empowerment, and in the process a ray of hope.

The narratives of some of these women bare it all. 33-year old Marie Nyirabigirimana, a resident of Susa Village, is your typical rural woman. She dropped out of primary school before getting married in 2002. The mother of three is the fifth born in a family of six and none of her siblings went beyond Primary Six.

“Our parents could not afford school fees to take us to secondary school,” Nyirabigirimana says. Her family entirely depended on subsistence farming.

“Farming was my only way of survival and I even got married to a farmer. But today, a lot has changed in my life and that of my family. I was introduced to a project called ‘Hands of Hope’ in my village and it changed my economic, social and emotional status,” Nyirabigirimana says.

With the Hands of Hope project, Nyirabigirimana says that she attained skills in weaving and financial literacy, among others.

“Besides learning how to weave baskets that we sell to tourists, I can actually speak English with the tourists unlike before. When I meet a tourist in my village, if he or she is lost, I introduce myself and give them directions in English,” Nyirabigirimana adds. The literacy programmes at Hands of Hope are held on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.

“During these literacy classes, I’m able to learn many things and make informed decisions for my family. All my children are in school and I hope to continue supporting them to have a bright future, thanks to Hands of Hope,” says Nyirabigirimana.

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