More Than Just Forgiveness: A Journey Towards Reconciliation

May 12th, 2014 · No Comments

The following story, written by Blythe Riggan, was written in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide:


“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”  - Harold S. Kushner



April 7, 1994: the beginning of the horrific Rwandan genocide. I was an infant, barely two months old, so the events occurring across the ocean had little effect on my comfortable world. In the span of three months, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, as the Hutu majority was called upon to rid the country of the Tutsi minority. Neighbors killed neighbors, friends killed friends, and in some cases, family killed family.

In the summer of 2013, I traveled to Rwanda with The Nyanya Project, a nonprofit that empowers African grandmothers raising AIDS-orphaned grandchildren. In addition to spending time with those remarkable women and hearing about their farming projects and survival stories, I had the opportunity to learn about and visit key sites of the genocide that devastated this country nearly 20 years ago.

I had the privilege of dining with a couple at the Hotel des Milles Collines, the location made famous in the film “Hotel Rwanda.” I heard their amazing tale of surviving the genocide by seeking refuge in that very hotel for three weeks. I toured the Kigali Memorial Centre, a powerful monument to the horrific loss of life, and visited the Nyamata church, where the clothes, possessions, and skulls of victims remain. But perhaps the most powerful of all was the time spent in a reconciliation village.

Reconciliation is the act of re-establishing a close relationship. Before my time in Rwanda, I likened it to the act of forgiveness. We forgive others for their trespasses just as God forgives us for our own. We all make mistakes, we hope for forgiveness, but do we strive for reconciliation?

As of December 2013, there are six Reconciliation Villages in Rwanda funded by Prison Fellowship International, a Christian nonprofit, along with several partner organizations. Residents are permitted to live in the village under the condition that survivors and perpetrators of the genocide agree to coexist peacefully. The founding members of the community vote on who can live there, giving preference to the most vulnerable families in terms of poverty and/or illness. Despite their background, the villagers farm together and care for one another as true neighbors.

A widowed Tutsi mother whose family was killed during the genocide explained a dynamic of her village life: Whenever she goes to purchase groceries, she leaves her young children with her neighbor, a Hutu man who confirmed he was a perpetrator of the genocide. She trusts her children with him, and purchases groceries for him as a sign of appreciation. Together they have reached a point beyond forgiveness; following the horror, trust and reconciliation were the only means to move forward.

After my time in Rwanda, I feel that reconciliation means not only forgiving someone for his sins, but agreeing to love him, respect him, and commune with him at God’s table.  Reconciliation does not allow for superiority or judgment; it establishes that we are all equal because we all sin, we all love, and we are all part of God’s mysterious plan.

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Updates from our Nyanya Grandmothers in Ndahti: A Continuation of Blessings

April 24th, 2014 · No Comments

Jambo Friends and Family!

The New Year has brought a continuation of blessings for our grandmothers in Ndahti, Kenya. Last year we challenged you, our donors and biggest supporters, to help us raise at least $5,000 from a total of 40 different donors for our online campaign, “Sheep for Life in Africa.” $7,125 and 58 donors later, The Nyanya Project became an official partner with GlobalGiving and our sheep project in Ndahti, Kenya was launched.

That was half a year ago. What has your time, money, and support created since then? On average, each grandmother received three newborn sheep. In the month of November, the original 14 grandmothers in the group were given an additional lamb. Furthermore, some of the grandmothers’ older sheep have now given birth. Our Nyanya Project grandmothers have used the money earned from their sheep for school fees, clothing, medical needs, and/or food. More of their grandchildren are now able to attend school because our grandmothers have earned income from butchering some of their herds.

Talking with our grandmothers at the start of our Global Giving campaign last year, they were encouraged by their past success in raising sheep and cows which TNP had given them and looked forward to further success with additional sheep, thanks to the Global Giving campaign.

As one of our newest grandmothers, Lucia Mukami (age 73), said: “I have been looking for this group. I have been admiring what they are doing. I have three orphaned grandchildren, so I think The Nyanya Project will help make life better for them like it has for the other grandmothers in the group.”

Without your support, the success of Lucia and all of our grandmothers wouldn’t be possible.


Keeping the faith…

The Nyanya Project

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Giving Thanks: Our Success on Global Giving

November 30th, 2013 · No Comments


Nyanya Project Grandmothers in Ndathi, Kenya

As we enter the holiday season, The Nyanya Project has much to be thankful for, much of which has stemmed from the generosity and support of our friends and Nyanya family.

This past September, our organization joined GlobalGiving, an international online fundraising platform for registered non-profits, for our online campaign, “Sheep for Life in Africa.” Participating in Global Giving’s “September Challenge,” The Nyanya Project would be offered a permanent membership with the fundraising site if we were able to raise at least $5,000 from a total of 40 different donors.

$7,125 and 58 donors later, The Nyanya Project has become an official partner with GlobalGiving. Our campaign, “Sheep for Life in Africa,” provided fencing and sheep for our current grandmothers in Ndathi, Kenya as well as sheep for our newest grandmothers in the there. Furthermore, the campaign was able to bring in enough funds to train two of our grandmothers in butchering, a vital skill as we have found many of our grandmothers are losing money when dealing with local butchers.

Last week our Project Manager in Kenya, Julius Okatch, delivered the money from the campaign to our Ndathi “Sheep Grandmothers,” who were completely unaware about the Global Giving Campaign and its success. Julius described the surprise visit as one of “jubilation.”

“Honestly, I’ve never seen such happy people in a longtime,” Julius wrote of visit. “They asked me to tell you “ASANTE SANA (Swahili for thank you).”

Asante Sana. We thank those of you who helped us find such great success with our GlobalGiving campaign. We thank those of you who helped us provide a holiday surprise for our “Sheep Grandmothers” in Ndathi delete Kenya. Finally, we thank those of you who have loved and supported us and our Nyanya families in Africa since the very beginning.

Asante Sana and have a wonderful holiday season.

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TNP Founder Honored by Wake Forest University

October 25th, 2013 · No Comments

TNP’s founder, Mary Martin Niepold, was recently honored by Wake Forest University as one of 20 alumni who represents the University’s motto of “Pro Humanitate” (“for humanity”).

She was cited as someone who “makes a difference in the world,” at a  gala on Oct. 17. Niepold, who earned her BA at the University in 1965, joined other alumni at the event after their portraits appeared in the October issue of Wake Forest Magazine. The University’s president, Nathan Hatch, gave a brief history of the various projects of each honoree at the event which was attended by some 400 guests.

Niepold, obviously moved by the recognition, said, “The truly remarkable women are the grandmothers who hold their families together in the face of extreme challenges that would break most of us. This recognition is really theirs.”

Niepold’s daughter and TNP Board member, Mil Niepold Pierce, joined her mother at the event.

“You really have to be in Africa to see our TNP grandmothers to know the enormity of the impact. From being women forgotten by their communities and their governments – today, they are women who have learned skills and are role models for women everywhere.

“My mother always knew the key to TNPs success: She always asks the women what they need. She and TNP have never asserted their will on the women, a cause of failure for many non-profits. Instead, she always listens and lets the grandmothers point the way.”

“The grandmothers know what they need and what will work best,” Niepold added. “Our job is simply to assist them in getting there.”

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Self-Reliance is Powerful

August 24th, 2013 · No Comments

Self-reliance is Powerful.

A few months ago, we talked with the grandmothers of TNP’s Dwight’s Place Sewing Center during our visit to Kenya. Many mentioned her wish for her grandchildren to one day reach independence.

Rhoda Mwkali (age 60) said, “The reason why I take my grandchildren to school is so that when I die, they will have knowledge for their own self-reliance.”

The Nyanya Project has seen great evidence of this transition towards self-reliance in all of its project areas, including the projects located in Kenya. The Nyanya Toto Preschool, in Nairobi, Kenya, has now reached a remarkable milestone as it is now fully-operating without the financial aid of The Nyanya Project. This achievement can be accredited to the grandmothers who work both in the preschool and the adjacent Dwight’s Sewing Center, as the sewing center grandmothers donate half of their total profit towards the maintenance and operation expenses of the preschool.

There are seven Nyanya Project grandmothers working in the preschool,in their households are 35 grandchildren and approximately 62 people.

To approximate extended social impact of our programs, we calculate that each of the family members in Kibera impacts another 10 people in the community, bringing direct impact to 620 people from our group of seven grandmothers.  With another 25 grandmothers now working in the Sewing Center, several hundred more community people are impacted by our work in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, most likely the largest slum in Africa, with nearly 2 million residents.

Self-reliance is Powerful.

When talking with TNP’s Sheep Grandmothers in Ndahti, Kenya, one mentioned her recent milestone of independence. Edith Gaathoni Munene (Age 76) said, “Recently, I was sick and I was able to pay my hospital bills without any help.”

Our sheep grandmothers have grown their herds since 2009:  30 sheep have grown to 139; one cow has grown to 11 cows; and they have added 17 goats.

The grandmothers reported that they continue to earn income from selling their livestock.  Income helps them with school fees, food, and occasionally, they will sell a goat or sheep to meet unexpected needs of one of the group members. The grandmothers’ income allows the families to look towards the long-term future, instead of bracing themselves for the next emergency. As Lucy Wanunku (Age 65) of Ndahti, Kenya said, “[The Nyanya Project] helps me take my grandchildren to school. I have no worries for my grandchildren…once in a while, we feast.”

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Success in Rwanda: Getting Up, Standing Up

August 24th, 2013 · No Comments

The Nyanya Project grandmothers of Jabana Hills, Rwanda are finally experiencing success after many years of hardship. We trained 15 Rwandan grandmothers in 2010, 30 grandmothers in 2011; today we have assisted 110 grandmothers in Rwanda. We now have two pilli pilli pepper fields and a mushroom hut. The hard work of The Nyanya Project and our grandmothers is beginning to pay off.

Understanding that there are no realistic ways to compare levels of poverty or need, The Nyanya Project hesitates to compare the different grandmother groups within the organization. However, it is hard to forget events that happened not too long ago. The 1994 Rwandan genocide adds a different dimension to the hardships of our Rwandan grandmothers, as each of them was affected. These grandmothers are resilient. Single and uneducated, our grandmothers raise up to 11 orphaned grandchildren, supporting their families torn apart by AIDS and the genocide.

This remarkable resilience can be accredited to the strength our grandmothers find from within their nyanya community. As Anastatsie Musabende (age 70) shared, “Before, I felt alone. But now, being in a group has helped me communicate better. I speak up in front of people now.”

Our grandmothers have certainly begun to speak up. Just last week our Nyanya Project grandmothers participated in an International Trade Fair in Kigali, Rwanda. They spent two weeks in the trade fair displaying their mushroom harvest and selling their produce. The fair was their idea and local people helped pay the fees for them to participate. The community wants them to succeed and is inspired by their dedication and hard work.

Since their involvement with the fair, our grandmothers are now reciveing large orders from new clients. They are becoming full-fledged business women, and their families have even more income for stronger futures.

Clearly, the Rwandan Nyanya Project grandmothers have shown us that success is getting up and standing up, no matter how difficult.

2013-08-06 16.08.20

A Nyanya Grandmother at the International Trade Fair in Kigali, Rwanda.









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A world of Wake Forest connections:

June 19th, 2013 · No Comments

This was a blog post by Maria Henson (Associate Vice President and Editor-at-Large at Wake Forest University, ’82) appeared on The Deacon Blog on June 17th, 2013. It can be found at


If you’re like me, you get a kick out of how Wake Foresters can pop up anywhere in the world and find easy-going, common ground.

A few weeks ago I heard from Blythe Riggan, who had just finished her first year at Wake Forest and was writing from Kigali, Rwanda. Participating in the Institute for Public Engagement’s summer nonprofit immersion program, Riggan was traveling with Mary Martin Niepold (’65), a senior lecturer in journalism and founder of The Nyanya Project, which helps African grandmothers support their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren.

Mary Martin Niepold ('65) with Kenyan grandmothers on an earlier trip

Mary Martin Niepold (’65) with Kenyan grandmothers on an earlier trip

As you’ll see from Riggan’s blog post, Wake Forest was not her first choice of universities. Reynolda campus was all-too familiar terrain for this Lexington, N.C., young woman who dressed as a Wake Forest cheerleader for Halloween when she was little. Black and gold seemed old hat. But her first year was more than she could have hoped for, and, as she wrote from Rwanda, “Somehow everything fell into place and I am now in Africa having the experience of a lifetime.”

She and Niepold visited nyanyas (Swahili for “grandmothers”) in the slums of Kenya and the hillsides of Rwanda, assuring grandmothers they would not be forgotten and surveying them on their economic progress to track the nonprofit’s impact. One day, in Kigali, she wound up at a dinner table with Niepold and Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06). I visited Craigwell-Graham last year in New York, where she was an associate at Shearman and Sterling LLP, a blue-chip law firm. I wrote about how her two-month stint doing pro bono work in Africa ignited a passion to figure out a way to return. In a few weeks, she had found the way. She left New York for Kigali, for a job in the Strategic Investment Unit of the Rwanda Development Board.

Observing the immediate rapport between Niepold and Craigwell-Graham, Blythe wrote, “As we sat under the cool shade of the tin roof of a local restaurant, Zaffran’s, I listened to these two highly intelligent women discuss the government situation of various African countries. My surroundings flooded over me and I thought, ‘Wow. How did you end up eating at an Indian restaurant with these two women in Rwanda? Can you believe that you are eating lunch in Rwanda with two Wake Forest alumni?’ … I continued to listen in awe as the two swapped stories and discussed the development of African countries. My next thought? ‘Wow. Did you ever think this was possible? Now, can you even imagine the future possibilities?’”

When I saw Blythe in Winston-Salem last week, she said she had no words for how deeply the trip had affected her. She planned to continue working with Niepold this summer and found herself drawn to elders now that she was home.

Blythe Riggan ('16) at Mary Martin Niepold's ('65) home last week

Blythe Riggan (’16) at Mary Martin Niepold’s (’65) home last week

I zipped off a note to Craigwell-Graham to ask about her impressions. Not only had she welcomed Blythe and Niepold, she’d also hosted other Wake Forest community members in May: Ajay Patel, a business professor who heads the Center for Enterprise Research and Education, and, separately, a group of Wake students traveling with Mary Gerardy, associate vice president and dean of campus life, and with Marianne Magjuka, director of campus life.

“Tracing back to the conversation I had with Maria Henson one year ago in a midtown restaurant, we were talking about the mission inherited by all Wake Forest students: Pro Humanitate,” she wrote. That’s why she was “hardly surprised” and “neglected to remark ‘what a coincidence’” to see all of these Wake Forest visitors.

Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham ('06) in her old life in Manhattan

Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06) in her old life in Manhattan

“It’s no coincidence that a certain type of person would be attracted to Wake Forest,” Craigwell-Graham wrote. “Therefore (if I may be forgiven to make this logical leap just once), it’s no coincidence that some of those same people might end up in Rwanda. To meet, analyze, assist, learn — all different forms of action but aligned with the idea of service to mankind.”

Craigwell-Graham was pleased to see all the visitors and catch up on campus news, including whether Shag on the Mag still exists. (It does.) Most important, she wrote, the visits provided “clear and unequivocal reassurance” that she had attended the right college.

“Just one year ago I was stuck in a concrete jungle,” she wrote. “Now today I am in a place, Africa, Rwanda to be more specific, that is known for them and I couldn’t be more free.”

She was on the right track all along, she said. It was one more way she and Blythe share common ground on a planet that feels smaller every day as connections widen and strengthen. As Blythe would say: Imagine the possibilities.

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TNP Grandmothers 5 Years Later: Reflections on the Past and Hopes for the Future

June 19th, 2013 · No Comments

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“Before, I felt alone. But now, being in a group has helped me communicate better. I speak up in front of people now.” -Anastasie Musabende (Age 70), Jabana Hills, Rwanda

Rwanda 020

“I have been looking for this group. I have been admiring what they are doing. I have three orphaned grandchildren, so I hope The Nyanya Project will help make life better for them like it has for the grandmothers in the group.” – New Grandmother, Lucia Mukami (Age 73), Ndahti, Kenya


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“…I would like to see my granddaughter have a better future than me. Through her own education, her descendants would be stronger too.” -Beline Mukantabana (age 49), Jabana Hills, Rwanda

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“[The Nyanya Project] helps me take my grandchildren to school. I have no worries for my grandchildren…once in a while, we feast.” -Lucy Wanunku (Age 65), Ndahti, Kenya

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“To be a Grandmother, is to be lucky.” -Phoebe Mmboga (Age 62), Kibera, KenyaMom 183


“The reason why I take my grandchildren to school is so that when I die, they will have knowledge for their own self-reliance.” -Rhoda Mwkali (Age 60), Kibera, Kenya

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“[The Nyanya Project] makes me happy. I have a feeling of independence.” -Catherine Gathonia (Age 48), Ndahti, Kenya

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“When I joined The Nyanya Project, I liked two things. First, I felt part of a group and more confident. Second, this group that I joined, we have a common vision…” -Esperance Murebwayire (Age 56), Jabana Hills, Rwanda

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“Recently I was sick and I was able to pay my hospital bills without any help.” -Edith Gaathoni Munene (Age 76), Ndahti, KenyaMay 2013 098


“I don’t depend on anyone to support my needs. I feel independent and encouraged. My faith is stronger than it used to be. God sent you to help us. I am blessed.” -Margeret Mjeri (Age 60), Jabana Hills, Rwanda

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“The Ebenezer Nyanya Project has given me an identity and strength.” -Ruth Maringo Mwanki (Age 80), Ndahti, Kenya


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“By taking my grandchildren to school, I want them no to live in the slums. I want them to have a better life than I had.” -Florence Kasuvu (Age 62),  Kibera, Kenya




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Across the Table: How my Wake Forest University Education Has Gone From the Classroom to Dinner Tables in Africa

June 18th, 2013 · No Comments

May 2013 352

“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.” -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


 Just over a year ago, I finally made the decision to attend Wake Forest University. It was a difficult decision. I had been rejected by my top three choices, with the rejection letters all arriving on the same day. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. After much persuasion from my parents and teachers, I composed myself and returned to my list of college options. I knew my best choice would be Wake Forest University.


Wake Forest University had always been my ideal school, but my biggest fear was that it would be too familiar. With two parents and two uncles being Wake alumni and the school being only 40 minutes from home, Wake Forest did not exactly feel like the place where I would learn to become independent and grow on my own. I did not feel like I would be expanding my horizons if I attended the university where I went to soccer camp, choral competitions, and the usual football and basketball games. My parents met at Wake Forest University Medical School, my father proposed to my mother on the steps of Wait Chapel, I owned a pair of Wake Forest baby shoes, and I once was a Wake cheerleader for Halloween- my entire life, until that point, had been connected to Wake Forest University. So as the college process came around, I found myself looking for schools exactly like Wake Forest, but refusing to consider the Wake Forest right in front of me.


Clearly God has a sense of humor. The fact that I’m writing this from Kigali, Rwanda, serving as an assistant to a Wake Forest professor, is firm proof that I’m having the “growing up” experience of a lifetime. Clearly, God has a better plan than I had hoped for.


I am currently on a two-week trip with Wake Forest University Journalism Professor Mary Martin Niepold, founder of the non-profit organization, The Nyanya Project, which empowers African grandmothers who are raising AIDS orphaned grandchildren (Nyanya is the Swahili word for grandmother). We were connected to each other by a mutual friend, Bett Hargrave, and soon I found myself in Niepold’s office. After learning about The Nyanya Project, I expressed interest because of my wonderful experience in Botswana, Africa, in 2011 and my desire to enter the non-profit sector.


Somehow everything fell into place and I am now in Africa having the experience of a lifetime. We’ve visited The Nyanya Project grandmothers located in both Kenya and Rwanda. In Kenya, there are two project sites: Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, is the location of the Nyanya preschool and sewing center. Now fully sustainable, half of the profits earned by the grandmothers working at the sewing center go towards the preschool in order to keep it running. In Ndahti, Kenyan grandmothers raise livestock in order to generate income. Similarly, in the Jabana Hills of Rwanda, grandmothers raise livestock and harvest mushrooms and peppers. While independence is a major part of the Nyanya Project Vision, Niepold looks beyond the concept of income. She wants her project to assure African grandmothers, who are typically overlooked by the government, to know that “they have not been forgotten.”


It’s clear that Niepold’s vision is coming true by just looking at the surveys we have conducted over the past two weeks. One sentiment repeated by multiple grandmothers involved in the Rwanda project was, “Before I was alone, but now I’m part of a big group… I speak up in front of people now.” Niepold’s vision has given grandmothers the opportunity to have the confidence to raise their voices and tell their own narratives. While these narratives have opened my eyes and my heart, the narratives told around the dinner table with Niepold each night have really my expanded my perceptions.


Niepold is both the ultimate storyteller and has an uncanny knowledge of a wide range of topics. Considering this, it would be expected that she would be intimidating, especially for a freshman like myself. That is certainly not the case. Over dinner, she has explained the difference in Kenyan and Rwandan governments, she taught me the basics of the Rwandan genocide (using room keys to represent different groups), shared stories of those who survived the genocide, and counseled me on how I can continue to learn about Africa while dealing with inevitable feelings of guilt and helplessness. We have also discussed breast cancer (both her and my own grandmother are breast cancer survivors), the importance of being “big” in terms of moral character, and how “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” I have already joked with her that this trip is more than a crash-course on non-profits, but a crash course on life.


Two days ago, I had another “learning experience” around a dinner table. I was eating lunch with The Nyanya Project founder (and my travel buddy) Niepold and Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham, a young lady who Niepold learned about from friend and colleague, Maria Henson (’82) Associate Vice President and Editor-at-Large. Jeannetta initially worked in a prominent law firm in New York City that advises on major deals across the world. However, after working in Tanzania for a month, assisting with the ICTR, she discovered her job in New York City was leaving her disconnected with her true self. Jeannetta is now living in Rwanda and works as a Transaction Adviser at the Rwanda Development Board.


As we sat under the cool shade of the tin roof of a local restaurant, Zaffran’s, I listened to these two highly intelligent women discuss the government situation of various African countries. My surroundings flooded over me and I thought, “Wow.  How did you end up eating at an Indian restaurant with these two women in Rwanda? Can you believe that you are eating lunch in Rwanda with two Wake Forest alumni?”


It was startling. There were, in fact, two Wake grads and one current Wake student sitting around a table in Rwanda: Niepold (’63), Craigwell-Graham (’06), and I (’16), introduced by Henson (’82).  Furthermore, all four of us grew up in North Carolina. Who would have thought Wake Forest would allow me to have a seat at a table in Rwanda with two such fantastic women? I continued to listen in awe as the two swapped stories and discussed the development of African countries. My next thought? “Wow. Did you ever think this was possible? Now, can you even imagine the future possibilities?”


Who knew that one “future possibility” would present itself the very next day, once again around a dinner table? Niepold is the master of making connections and so she had met a recent Medical School grad, Sandrine Crane, in Winston-Salem, where she is a resident at Wake Forest Baptist Health, before our trip. Sandrine, who grew up in Kigali, Rwanda, asked if Niepold could deliver a package to Sandrine’s parents once we arrived in Rwanda. Niepold happily agreed and we set up a meeting with the couple at a prominent hotel within walking distance of our own. When Niepold asked Sandrine’s father, Joesph Habyarimana, over the phone if he knew where the Hotel Des Mille Collines was, he simply responded yes.


Niepold and I sat with the couple and discussed Sandrine, their family, and our thoughts on our trip to Rwanda. After sharing our plans for the day, which included visiting Reconciliation Village (where Hutus and Tutsis now live side by side) and the Nyamata Church (where over 2,000 Tutsis hiding in the church were killed), Sandrine’s mother, Virginie Mukamugenza, admitted that she grew up in the Nyamata region.  “My parents died in the Nyamata Church.”


Chilled, we allowed the silence to take the place of insignificant words. Niepold then delicately continued, “I am so sorry. Where were you in 1994?” This was the year of the Rwandan genocide.


After which, Sandrine’s father spoke up, “We were here in 1994.” We lowered our heads, assuming he meant he was in Rwanda during the events of 1994.


“So you were in Rwanda?” Niepold asked.


“Yes, but we were here,” he explained pointing his finger at our general location.


“Kigali?” Niepold asked.


He continued, “Yes, Kigali. But we were here.” He pointed to the very hotel we were sitting at. “We were hiding in Hotel Des Mille Collines for three weeks.”


For those who are familiar with the film “Hotel Rwanda,” the Hotel Des Mille Collines was the “Hotel Rwanda” featured. Although it has kept its original name, the hotel has been remodeled in attempts to make it less frightening. In 1994, more than 1,200 people were sheltered from the killings outside. Everyone hiding in the Hotel Des Mille Collines survived.


To sit at a table at Des Mille Collines, with a couple who hid there during the Rwandan Genocide is an experience that cannot be found in museums or textbooks. It is the human stories of suffering and survival that seem to tear at the heart the most.


Who knew that a school 40 minutes from my home would take me as far as Kenya and Rwanda? Who knew that a school 40 minutes from my home would allow me to have a place at the table with inspiring Wake graduates and the family members of a Wake Forest resident? Who knew that a school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina would take three North Carolinians to Rwanda and one Rwandan to North Carolina?


I am now thoroughly convinced that there is some Wake Forest magic working on that dear campus in Winston-Salem. Maybe the magic can be credited to strong values in Pro Humanitate, maybe the magic can be credited towards the University’s push for learning outside the classroom. It’s stunning. Seeing how Niepold and Craigwell-Graham found their place in Rwanda and Crane found a way to bring medicine back to Rwanda makes me look to the future with excitement and curiosity. It’s clear that I have been with some dynamite Demon Deacon ladies and their families. I simply cannot wait to see how their stories progress and how my own story unfolds. Who knows, maybe sometime in the future we can swap stories around another dinner table…


-Blythe Riggan


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Empowerment: How TNP Grandmothers Are Finding Their Voice

June 11th, 2013 · No Comments


“The Nyanya Project makes me feel part of a big group. Before joining, I was alone… Now, I speak up in front of people.”

-A Nyanya Project grandmother located in the Jabana Hills of Rwanda


It goes beyond logic.

As a Wake Forest student who had been recently introduced to The Nyanya Project (TNP), I did not have any clear expectations about the TNP grandmothers when I boarded the plane for Africa with TNP Founder, Mary Martin Niepold. I had only a basic knowledge of The Nyanya Project (“TNP”), understanding that the project teaches skills to African grandmothers to keep their families together in the face of AIDS devastation. My biggest concern was the issue of relating to these women. Age and language were petty differences compared to the fact that I could in no way relate to raising an AIDS orphaned grandchild. How would they act? Would the grandmothers be angry or frustrated? Discouraged or distraught?

When I finally met these grandmothers, I was startled. Instead of being defeated by the burden of raising orphaned grandchildren, they seemed to be empowered. Their joyful energy was contagious and their voices never faltered during songs, prayers, or the sharing of personal stories. There were no complaints, but instead a deep peace from within as each grandmother appeared to be grateful for the many blessings in her life. One grandmother claimed, “To be a Grandmother is to be lucky.”

The Nyanya Project teaches these women skills for sustainable projects offered in different regions of Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania: sewing in Kibera (Kenya), business skills in Kenya and Tanzania, livestock in both Nyeri (Kenya) and the Jabana Hills (Rwanda), as well as agriculture in the Jabana Hills(Rwanda). Teaching the grandmothers a skill, instead of handing them money, allows the grandmothers to have dignity and practice self-reliance. A grandmother recently told us, “I was sick and I was able to pay my hospital bills without any help.” Another grandmother said, “I don’t depend on anyone to support my needs. I feel independent and encouraged. My faith is stronger than it used to be…”

It really does go beyond logic. Out of the dozens of grandmothers we interviewed and talked with in the Jabana Hills of Rwanda, nine of them had never attended school. The numbers are similar for the grandmothers in the other project regions. These uneducated women single-handedly raise as many as ten or more grandchildren, making them responsible for providing food, clothes, and school fees. One grandmother talked about not being respected in the community because of her lack of an education. Through The Nyanya Project, grandmothers are part of safe, intimate group where all stories and opinions are heard and respected. Through the projects and relationships built within The Nyanya Project, the grandmothers have turned their daily challenges into opportunities.

There is the old quote, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I have witnessed the power of this quote after being introduced to nearlytwo hundred African grandmothers. Mary Martin Niepold told me that a friend questioned her after she founded The Nyanya Project, asking, “Are you trying to start a revolution?” Although she laughs about it, the question holds some truth. After all, if you give a grandmother money you feed her family for one day; teach a grandmother a marketable skill and she’ll start a revolution of a lifetime.


-Blythe Riggan

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