Henrico student defies the odds, inspires others with his art

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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- At Henrico High School’s Center for the Arts, teacher Megan Mattox gave an assignment that she hoped would tell her more about her students. She especially wanted to know more about one of her more quiet and shy students, Bukuru Nyawandi.

"I wanted him to do a self-portrait," Maddox said. "I realized he hadn't done a self-portrait in school and I feel like those can really tell a person's story."

Bukuru has quite the story tell.

War in Africa

When he was very young, Bukuru lived over 7,000 miles away from Virginia in the African country of Burundi. War forced his family to flee to a refugee camp in Tanzania. They would be there for the next 11 years, with no pens, pencils or paints, Bukuru would draw pictures in the dirt with a stick to pass the time.

In 2008, a relief organization helped his family immigrate to the United States. With help from Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Bukuru’s family settled near Richmond.

Today you can find Bukuru listening intently to his art teachers at Henrico High School. Surrounded by all the crayons and canvasses he could ask for, Bukuru is learning how to really draw -- and a lot more.

"I like to learn English,” the native Swahili speaker whispered with a huge grin. "I need to learn English more."

The ever-present smile is easy to understand, he is in a place that makes him very happy. Bukuru may not talk much, but his art teachers can’t stop talking about him.

They’re eager to show off his use of bold colors in still life paintings; the flowing and delicate lines used in a cityscape; his experimentation with brush strokes. He’d prefer to stay in the background, but more people are learning why Bukuru’s art is so special.

Born without arms or legs

Bukuru was born with a condition known in medical terms as congenital amputation. He has only the stumps of both arms and no legs. He holds the end of a brush or pencil in his mouth, or squeezes it between his cheek and shoulder. It’s the same way he held the stick to draw in the dirt when he was a little boy.

Henrico student 04
Bukuru works hard to show his teachers he can do the work, wanting them to treat him like any other student.

"My teachers, they're nice to me. They help me for something I don't understand. And when I have a question I ask them. They help me. They show me how to do," he said.

An inspiration

Artist/educator Tanya Rogish will tell you that Bukuru is an inspiration for her other art students.

"They'd say 'Oh, man this is hard.' And then they would kind of look at him and they'd work harder," she said.

It’s not just students who are inspired. Vohn Lewis, Bukuru’s instructional assistant, is responsible for helping Bukuru get to and from classes and the cafeteria as well as making sure his wheelchair is working properly.

Lewis graduated from this same high school 10 years ago, but he’s the one learning a valuable lesson from Bukuru.

"He is teaching me that no matter what, whatever you want to do with your life, it can happen," Lewis said. "We are all built to defy the odds."

What comes next

This is Bukuru's last year of high school. He doesn't know where life will lead him next.

"I want to go to college or continue to do art work. Yeah, or find a job," he said.

It’s a scary proposition. He won’t have Lewis there every day. He won’t have his teachers to help him improve his art techniques. Perhaps opportunity will come his way, the way it did when he found himself at the Center for the Arts.

Until then he’ll keep painting.

He’ll keep learning.

He’ll keep telling his story the best way he knows how; through his art.

Henrico High School has some famous graduates including author David Baldacci, former NBA player and coach Anthony Bertozzi and former Virginia Tech President Charles Steger.

Maybe one day Bukuru will become a famous artist. His teachers say he deserved a chance because of his talent; and yes, because of his disability too. He may not have the hands of a painter, but with that big smile on his face, he’ll tell you real art comes from somewhere else.

"My heart. Yes, it comes from my heart," he said.

See Bukuru's artwork up close

Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities is hosting “Narratives: Telling Your Story,” a community visual and poetic exhibition at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road. The exhibit will open on Friday, May 15 with a public reception and a sampling of spoken word poets performing in the theater from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit will be on display until June 19, 2015.

This mixed media show will feature artists from various backgrounds who choose to express their views with visual art or through spoken word. The spoken word component of “Narratives: Telling Your Story” will continue on Thursday, June 11 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Pine Camp. In addition to the exhibit in the Spotlight Gallery, artist Bukuru Nyandwi will have his art featured on the Community Art Wall.

Spotlight Gallery hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. This exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information or to schedule tours please contact Shaunn Casselle at (804) 646-6722.

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