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People of ORU: Bertrand Ishimwe, Rwandan, student, artist and entrepreneur

As the sun beats down on his neck, a 15-year-old boy kneels in the dirt road, tossing flakes of macaroni shells and dried potato chunks to a flock of squealing chickens. Darkness floods over his back and he turns, squinting into the sunlight at a tall shadow of a man. “Bertrand, why do you buy food for the chickens, but not food for yourself?” 

Bertrand Ishimwe, a 24-year-old freshman at ORU, is the founder and CEO of a global 501c3 nonprofit organization that helps Rwandan mothers and children work toward a better life.  

He was born in Kigali, Rwanda on Aug. 18, 1994, during the Rwandan Genocide. His family sought refuge in the Congo to escape the massacres, and when they returned, their relatives had been killed, and everything was destroyed. They had to start from zero.

Bertrand’s three older brothers slept on the dusty streets of their busy city while the other 10 members of his family lived in a small, one-bedroom hut made of flat thatches and baked-mud bricks. 

“My parents slept with my little sister in the room with dishes and everything,” said Bertrand. “Then the seven of us slept on the ground. We would make beds in the living room.” 

One day, as 12-year-old Bertrand was heading home from his shift at the art gallery, it began storming, so he ran home quickly to change into dry clothes. When he got home, the water was waist deep in the house and the roof was being torn off by the ripping wind.

“My mom was crying. Everyone was trying to fix things,” said Bertrand. “The storm came and took it all—everything we had. That was one of my saddest times.”

Again, they had to start from zero.

Bertrand was a bright student in primary school and was invited into an upper-level high school, but his family was unable to pay the school fees. Instead, Bertrand’s father put him to work feeding the chickens to be sold. Every evening around 7 p.m., Bertrand would walk around the neighborhood to local restaurants asking for their leftover food to give to the chickens, but he did not have enough for himself. He sometimes went days without food.

“I would see children who I performed better than going to school. I was like ‘what about me?’” Said Bertrand. “I had hope, because I really wanted to go to school. I thought it was important for someone to be educated if that person is to make a change in the world.”

As Bertrand was feeding the flock one day, a British man approached him and opened conversation. He began asking Bertrand about his life, family, passions and dreams.

“When I was young, I had two dreams,” said Bertrand. “One was to one day wear a suit. And another one was to go to one of the best schools in Rwanda.” 

The British man told him he was going to help him go back to school as long as he worked hard and stayed in the top rankings of his class. He then gave him two bananas and 2,000 Rwandan francs for his family.

“He was clearly a hugely intelligent, hard working, polite young man who, like everyone, deserved an education,” said the British man, who wishes to remain unnamed.

A hopeful opportunity, Bertrand worked hard at Apaper Secondary School, earning the “1st performer” ranking and Class Monitor title for all three years he attended. 

“I was the best class president, too,” said Bertrand. “The British man was very happy with me.”

The British man became a mentor to him, as Bertrand would visit his house on the weekends. He taught him English, took him to fancy restaurants and bought everything he needed for his studies. When Bertrand was in his third year of high school, the British man bought him a suit so he could attend the man’s wedding. It was his first dream come true. 

They lost most contact after the British man moved away to Uganda, but Bertrand continued striving for his education. 

At 17 years old, his second dream to attend “one of the best schools in Rwanda,” Lycee De Kigali, seemed ridiculous to his classmates and teachers. His headmaster tried to convince him to stay by offering him scholarships and paying for his fees and even said they would not welcome him back into their school if he was not accepted into Lycee de Kigali. His mother told him he would have to live on the streets if he took the risk and wasn’t accepted. 

“Okay,” said Bertrand. “I’m going.”

When he stepped into the building, the headmaster looked him up and down from across the hall and told him to leave. Bertrand persisted and gave the man his national examination results. The headmaster looked the results up and down, and welcomed Bertrand into the school of his dreams.

“Vision” painting by Bertrand Ishimwe

Bertrand studied at Lycee De Kigali for about three years, selling his artwork to pay for his education. He became the art director of the gallery where he sold paintings, and even opened a gallery with his brother Pacifique called Niyo Arts Center.

“Every time I went to school, I would pass by children who were living the same kind of lifestyle,” said Bertrand. “On the streets. Naked. Hungry. It was horrible to see them.”  

Now financially stable, living on his own and supporting his family, he decided to start paying for other children’s education, just like the British man had done for him.

Bertrand Ishimwe surrounded by children in the Irembo Foundation | Photo courtesy of the Irembo Foundation

He started out funding three children, but with the help of his colleagues, they began to sponsor the primary education of 49 Rwandan children. 

“We drink 3 cups of coffee—if we could drink only one and put that money together to help those children, we could change their lives,” said Bertrand.

Bertrand had connections in Mexico and the U.S. from selling his artwork, so the news spread quickly about sponsoring children. As the number continued to grow, Bertrand realized that he wanted to foster an independent lifestyle, by starting to help the single mothers have a way to provide for their children.

Bertrand Ishimwe helping women in the Mama Rwanda Sewing Program | Photo courtesy of the Irembo Foundation

He started the Irembo Foundation, or “Gateway” foundation, which helped Rwandan mothers and children through several different programs, including the Education Sponsorship Program (ESP) and Mama Rwanda Sewing Program (MWSP), the latter of which was a 10-month program teaching mothers sewing skills so they could have a livelihood to provide for their families. In the beginning, the Irembo Foundation was about 65% funded by his artwork. Later on, he founded the 3-room Mama Rwanda Hostel to raise funds for the foundation, and sponsorships began spreading around the globe from Poland to Spain, Norway to the U.S.

“I want God’s name to be glorified. I want the organization to be for the people and live for generations and make change even when I’m not still here,” said Bertrand.

A persistent learner, Bertrand decided to further his education in the U.S. once his organization was up and running.

“It was my dream to come study here in the U.S., where I could meet different people from different backgrounds, so that I can learn something from them that I can go back and apply in my country,” said Bertrand.

While browsing online, he came across Oral Roberts University and immediately knew it was where he belonged. He applied in 2018 and started school in the fall, studying International Relations.

“When you come in this environment, you feel God’s love,” said Bertrand. “You get repurposed to God’s way.”

Bertrand Ishimwe celebrating a finished product from the Mama Rwanda Sewing Program | Photo courtesy of the Irembo Foundation

 

Through video conference calls in between class, Bertrand continues to manage his nonprofit organization, hoping to continue expanding through the uttermost bounds of the earth.

“I will keep studying. I’d like to acquire as much knowledge as I can,” said Bertrand. “I see myself using the knowledge to serve God’s purpose in my life.”

Now, he reflects on his early years striving for an education.

“Every time I told someone I wanted to go to school, they’d be like ‘Bertrand, you can’t.  Look at your family, look at where you were born, look at your circumstances.’ But my dad said, ‘Be patient. God will make you a way so you can go to school again,’” said Bertrand. “So I kept taking care of the chickens.”

 

Photo by Sterling Zoe Rubottom

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