Co-founder of small NGO in Rwanda: The aim was to help people with disabilities find new confidence in themselves

It has been almost two years since Czech traveller Petr Kočnar settled in Rwanda after previously visiting other countries in Africa. Kočnar originally hoped to volunteer for an aid organisation in the country, but finding none suitable, co-founded his own small NGO, called “Talking Through Art”. The idea was to help locals with physical disabilities, through art therapy, English lessons, and vocational training, to help them better integrate within society.

Petr Kočnar, photo: archive of Talking through ArtPetr Kočnar, photo: archive of Talking through Art In our interview, I began by asking Petr, recently back in the Czech Republic, about his interest in Africa.

“I think it began when I was a child, I was always looking into books about Africa, I was always interested in life there, so that is where it came from. The first time I was in Africa was 2007 in Ghana and I liked it very much. But the time I went by myself it was Kenya and I wanted to go to Kenya because it was East Africa and I had been in the west. I just wanted to see how it looked like there and I went there for a holiday.”

What were your initial impressions?

“The funny impression was that I was totally wrong about Kenya, I had sort of thought I would be the only white guy. And I was shocked. Because it was a British colony, you have different generations of British who are born there, second, third generation. They live there, they speak Swahili, so I soon learned I was not the only white guy.”

At what point did you realise that you were going to go there long term, to live and to work?

“I went for a one month holiday, I was travelling. And I met somebody and I fell in love and that is why I stayed.”

“On the streets of Rwanda, there were many people begging for money and they were physically disabled.”

Obviously there is a big difference in coming to a place and staying at a resort or a compound – some people never go beyond the perimeters of some of these vacations, whether it is Africa or any other part of the world. You met somebody so that must have been sort of a big help in getting into the culture, so to speak.

“Yes, I was actually getting not only into African culture but into Somali culture, Kenyan-Somali, and the Muslim culture so it was even more interesting. But I am a very adventurous guy and I am not afraid of much. “

And when you were photographing what were your first subjects? Were they people or were they places?

“In the beginning I was shy to photograph people but definitely, it was people that I wanted to photograph. Africa has so many different cultures, in Kenya alone there are 42 tribes. So the people are very interesting.”

What is the common language of communication there, is it English?

Photo: archive of Talking through ArtPhoto: archive of Talking through Art “No it is Swahili. Also English but between them, it is Swahili.”

What were other eye-openers? I guess cuisine would be a big one…

“Yes, I think not only the cuisine but the way they were eating. Mostly you share food with other people, you never eat alone in Africa, and you eat by hand. So yes, it was the local cuisine, favourite meat was goat, we would always eat goat with ugali which is corn flour dumpling and tomato sauce.”

If you never eat alone in Africa, as you say, that must make eating by definition a very social experience. How do people actually behave in that context? Are they friendly, are they outspoken?

“They are very friendly. Whenever you eat you are chatting all along, so food is more like a time to converse with other people.”

When it came to deciding what to do next, did you first travel around Africa again or did you head straight to Rwanda?

“No, I stayed in Nairobi for three years and I started a farm. Before that I was in London for four years so I wanted to get out of England, away from the big city. And I ended up in another big city but in Africa. I was at the suburbs of Nairobi where my friend had a farm with horses so I joined the farming and that is how I started.

“They start with art therapy but then it changes to vocational training.”

“You live in a big city like London but you can still feel lonely, it depends where you are. But in Africa it is a bit easier to make friends somehow because people always have time for you. In London everyone is rushing but in Africa everything is slow. You have more time to meet people and spend time with them. So I was feeling more comfortable in Nairobi.”

When you went to Rwanda, it has been almost two years now or it has been two years since you founded the NGO…?

“It will be two years in February.”

The NGO Talking Through Art: why art and why in Rwanda?

“I studied interior design back in Prague and I worked all my life and volunteered for people with disabilities. And on the streets of Rwanda, there were many people begging for money and they were physically disabled. So I was thinking about a way how to help them. The reason I ended up in Rwanda was for learning French, I thought they all speak French and I wanted to learn French. But they don’t. While it was a Belgian colony and while French was taught at schools, not everyone was going to school so obviously not everyone could.”

So it did not stick?

Photo: archive of Talking through ArtPhoto: archive of Talking through Art “No, they have changed it, now it is an English system in Rwanda so I did not manage to learn French. They all speak Rwandese, the language is called Kinyarwanda. So that was the initial plan, to learn French and to practice French, but I failed. Then I started helping those people, I got them out of the streets and introduced art therapy to them. It was more for them to get some entertainment and not to be on the street.

“It was me and my friend and he speaks the language so whenever we would go talk to these people he would translate all of my questions. It was sort of an interview on the street with those guys with suggestion that they could come one day and we would cook lunch for them and they can paint. We bought paints for them and canvas.

“That is how it started, I did not have an idea to start a NGO, it was just to make someone happy for a short time. I thought I could just do a project in Rwanda but officially it is not possible. You have to register that project. And I found out it has to be registered as a non-governmental organization.”

Right, so according to local laws and regulations…

“Exactly, so it is now a local Rwandan NGO.”

What is the central aim or process of art therapy? Do you teach them techniques for drawing and painting or is it more a matter of here we are in one place, let us choose a topic and express ourselves whichever way we like?

“Most of the attendees think I am from the US. The few who know about the Czech Republic, know it because of our football players.”

“Art therapy is a thing that you have to study for but it was not a part of my school. I just did it without experience. But it was more for those people to get into a community, to not feel alone and to gain confidence. Because most of them lack confidence, they do not have it. There was a problem in Rwanda that people would look at people with disabilities differently and they would not take them as other people.”

So it is a matter of changing the public perception more?

“Also.”

And the people who are in these situations, some of them are born disabled; others suffered injuries perhaps related to the genocide in 1994. Also, people were born into poverty, that they also do not have the same opportunities there, so is it a mix?

“It is a mix, the genocide which happened in 1994; but most of the people are born disabled or suffered because they were not vaccinated for polio.”

Does it take a while to establish a trust?

“It takes some time but it is quite fast at the beginning. But to get to know them to get to understand them, what they want, what they expect, it takes some time.”

Photo: archive of Talking through ArtPhoto: archive of Talking through Art Does the work that they do in the art therapy, does it reflect their experience or does it run contrary to it perhaps? Or does it change over time?

“It definitely changes. They are very shy at first. Art therapy is a start-up of my project, they start with art therapy but then it changes to vocational training, plus English classes and reproductive health. There are many different aspects. But yes, they gain confidence very fast, they learn they are not aside, they are in a community.”

Could you tell me about some of them by name perhaps?

“The youngest ones, they are around twenty, twenty-five years of age, mostly ladies. One, she is twenty-five, her name is Emilian, she is focused on English, she loves learning English. She actually improved a lot since we started and can communicate on a basic level.

“Josée is another one, she is also a good student, she loves coming there. Then the oldest one, his name is John, he does not know how to write, he does not know how to read. But he is very confident and he is learning. No he recognizes the letters. So yes, they are improving fast.”

At the beginning of the interview, when you were in Kenya, you said you were surprised that you were not the only white guy there. What is the situation like in Rwanda, are there many other foreigners there?

“Yes, there is also many but less than Kenya. Rwanda is less populated by expatriates.”

Do you get asked about your heritage a lot or is it just something that is accepted as, you know, some European that is here?

Photo: archive of Talking through ArtPhoto: archive of Talking through Art “Actually they do not ask so much about my culture, most of them assume I am from the US. I think their knowledge is not that broad and when I say Czech Republic, most of them do not know. The ones that know it know it because of football because of people like Petr Čech.”

You are back for the Christmas holidays now: you come back to the Czech Republic on a fairly regular basis, so I guess it is not the case when you would be stunned to be back home. It is not that much of a shift.

“I cannot miss Christmas at home. It is dark early and you prepare Christmas cookies and you are with the family, you always visit relatives. So that is what makes me happy. There is no way I could miss that.”