Faces of 2018 | Emmanuel Nkundunkundiye painted a path from Rwanda to Penn
One of Nkundunkundiye's paintings hangs in Rwandan president Paul Kagame's office
April 17, 2014, 7:56 pm · Updated May 15, 2014, 7:21 pm·
Emmanuel Nkundunkundiye’s vibrant paintings pulse with color, rhythm and life. Yet the newly admitted Penn added Pennstudent’s art emerges from much darker roots.
Emmanuel’s father was killed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 when Emmanuel 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.
“Emma,” as he is known to his friends, relates the horrors he has experienced in slow but steady andadded “and” perfect English, evenadded “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,” Emma said during a Skype phone call. “I was using only a pencil and a pen to draw because that was the only way I could connect to the world.”
Emma started drawing in primary school. Although his grandmother was extremely poor, she never stopped supporting her grandson’s education. Emma was able to attend the overcrowded local school with funding from a stranger who paid his tuition.
He managed to excel academically, while alsochanged 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, Emma’s life took an unexpected turn when he was accepted into the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, a nonprofit residential community thatchanged from “which” nurtures and educates Rwandan orphans. Founded by 1982 College graduate Anne Heyman, the school is set on the top of a hill where the approximately 500 students are often reminded of Heyman’s motto, “If you can see far, you can go far.”
At ASYV, Emma 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. Emma gave Kagame one of his paintings, which now hangs in the presidential office.
Yet during this time of success, Emma would experience one of the greatest personal tragedies of his life — the death of his grandmother. Although Emma 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 Emma 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.” Although many in his situation might want to leave the country that had caused so much pain, Emma has a lot of love for his homeland. “Running away? That’s not a solution,” he said. “We can develop our country so we can flourish again … the only thing I can do is contribute.”
Emma threw himself into his studies. By then he had been accepted into a program called Bridge2Rwanda, which helps exceptional Rwandan students apply to international colleges. Emma set his sights on Penn because it was Heyman’s alma mater. She is his “great hero and inspiration,” said B2R’s Country Director Tom Allen.combined two sentences here Heyman died in February, before she could see Emma accepted to Penn.
Students from countries like Rwanda face significant obstacles when applying to colleges, and Emma was no exception — he first heard about the SAT and TOEFL, both required tests for admissions, last year. Although his first set of SAT scores were not good enough, Emma was determined to get into Penn. “It’s where my dreams make sense and where my stories make sense,” he said. Sleeping only three hours a night to study for the SAT, he managed to increase his score by 600 points and was accepted into the College. He is only the second student Penn has accepted from Rwanda.
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 B2R classmate who will be attending Harvard University next year, believes that Emma is part of the new generation of Rwandan youth that can help Rwanda develop. “I think Emmanuel 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.”
Emma’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.”
Emma 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 to learn … And I’m looking forward to meeting new friends.”