Sifa has been playing the guitar for seven years and singing for ten. He has released three albums, including: Just a Moment, My Love, and the most recent, The Other Side of Me.

Surviving Rwanda

[deck]A Portland man survives the Rwandan genocide and finds a new beginning in music. [/deck]

Sifa has been playing the guitar for seven years and singing for ten. He has released three albums, including: Just a Moment, My Love, and the most recent, The Other Side of Me.

Sifa has been playing the guitar for seven years and singing for ten. He has released three albums, including: Just a Moment, My Love, and the most recent, The Other Side of Me. Photo by Diana Dettwyler.

[cap]F[/cap]or one hundred days, they hid in treetops and bushes. Although these were some of the best places to remain unseen, it wasn’t a regular game of hide-and-seek. For Enric Sifa and his younger brother, Egide, this was a matter of life or death.

Sifa lived in a beautiful brick house that was surrounded by a river to the west, coffee plantations to the east, banana plantations to the south, and a jungle full of exotic animals to the north. He grew up in a family of fifteen, which included the servants that helped work on their farm. His mother was a singer and dancer, while his father was a businessman who sold plastic industry products.

“As a young boy I thought I lived in paradise,” Sifa says.

“My friends and I loved butterflies and would trap them. After catching a lot of different colors we would scream in celebration,” he laughs.

Although each day seemed like utopia, soon his picturesque lifestyle would be changed forever. In April 1994, Rwanda experienced some of the crudest and most radical acts of violence the world has ever seen.

Sifa remembers looking toward the hillside that was once filled with families cooking meals and tending to their farms, and seeing only flames. The air smelled of smoke as he watched the homes burn to pieces, the hill becoming bare, except for the blanket of ashes. The river to the west that once flowed with clear water was soon filled with human corpses. This eruption of hatred and violence took the lives of almost one million Rwandans—among them was Sifa’s father. Amid all of the chaos, he lost sight of his mother. Luckily, Sifa and his brother were able to escape to the jungle without being caught.

“For months we survived in the wilderness, eating wild fruit and anything else we could find,” he says.

While he lay in the trees with his younger brother at his side, Sifa knew everything was changing. They would never again be able to host Friday night parties with family and friends and sit around the fire drinking banana beer and eating fresh roasted meat his father made. They were alone—orphans. The only thing he knew he had to do was try to survive.

After more than three months of living on almost nothing but seeds and fruits, the genocide came to an end and the pair decided to make moves. After a couple of agonizing days, Sifa and his brother came across a camp of survivors. By some miracle, they found their mother and sister there.

“I was very happy because we were so young and we missed our mom. We all cried and jumped on her and gave her a hug and kisses. It was very good to see them again,” he smiles.

After their reunion, the country remained corrupt. The government was being reestablished and many people were abusing their positions. People’s homes were overrun with corrupt local leaders. Even through these problems, Sifa’s mother wanted to give her children the childhood they deserved. Tired of living in a tent after being chased out of their own home, she went to reclaim their house. The leaders weren’t willing to negotiate anything and when she asked for her own house back, they beat her to death as Sifa and his siblings watched in shock.

Photo by Diana Dettwyler

“After this I was forced to live my life in the bushes and on the streets. I was nine years old, and I found life almost impossible to live on the streets on my own,” Sifa says.

For six years, he lived on his own and grew up faster than most children. He spent his days in a commercial market, helping owners carry their goods. He gambled marbles with other street kids for money, and would sing his mother’s songs. At night, when the streets’ daytime commotion settled down, he would gather the boxes he found on the corner to make shelter.

His days fell into a routine, until one day he met a woman named Serena Morones. It was a day just like the rest, sunny and busy. Sifa was carrying goods and gambling with street kids when she approached him. It was Morones’s first time in Africa and she was coming to work with Africa New Life Ministries, a Christian organization that helps with orphans throughout Rwanda. At the time, Sifa spoke little English, so Morones found a translator and told him that a higher power was telling her to help him.

“It felt like heaven had opened up for me. I remember telling Serena that I wanted to be a musician, not only in Africa but in the whole world,” he laughs. “It must have sounded like a crazy dream at the time because I remember her laughing after I told her.”

A year later, Morones and her husband brought a guitar for fifteen-year-old Sifa. He taught himself how to play and practiced singing for five hours a day while still living on the streets. At sixteen, he heard a commercial on the radio about a singing competition, and decided to enter. The first song he wrote was called “Love and AIDS”. AIDS was extremely prevalent during this time, and the song focused on loving one another, but also informing people about the effects of AIDS. He performed it in front of an audience and panel of judges. After his performance, he waited on the residents of Rwanda, as well as the judges, to decide the winner. When each vote was counted, after a short break and much anticipation, Enric Sifa was announced the new winner of the Rwandan National Singing Contest.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was excited, but it felt weird to know that people were watching me wherever I went. I couldn’t go to the mall. It was a big change,” he says.

From that point on, Sifa was seen as a celebrity in Rwanda. He started collaborating with the organization that helped him out, Africa New Life Ministries. His work with them, as well as his beautiful voice and talented writing skills, landed him the opportunity to travel to America. When he arrived, he sang and spoke in order to raise money to help other street kids in his home country. He performed at Westside Christian High School in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and afterward, the high school offered him a scholarship to attend school there.

Once Sifa accepted the scholarship, with the help of Morones, he moved in with his first host family, the Rettmans. They welcomed him with open arms and helped him in his first year, which consisted of various vacations and family meals around the dinner table. The year in America was valuable for him because he not only loved being in school, but also made many new friends while starting an American music career. With the help of his peers, teachers, and host family, Sifa learned to speak English and how to be successful during his first year of high school.

Sifa has been in Portland for the last five years and he’s currently living with another family, the Lonos. “We became a family. I call them my parents and they call me their son,” Sifa says. He is now twenty-three and is finishing up his last year at Westside Christian High School. He performs his music at bars, the Oregon Zoo, high schools, colleges, and special events such as birthday parties, graduation, and corporate gatherings.

Since he’s been in Portland, Sifa has released three albums including Just a Moment, My Love, and the most recent, The Other Side of Me. In each album, Sifa has tried to stress love, peace, and the celebration of life. His goal is to attend college and major in political science. Eventually, he wants to make his way to law school, using peacemaking and conflict resolution in the hopes that he will be able to help people show love and compassion to one another.

Sifa has survived some of the most horrific events in history. He aspires to help other people stand up against similar injustices, and to learn as much as possible in order to be successful in all aspects of life. With a smile he says, “My past experiences have given me hope for a good future.”

3 thoughts on “Surviving Rwanda

  1. Bryan Atkinson

    What a great story and a great article! I wrote an article about Enric after I saw him perform three years ago, and got to know him a little bit. We hung out a couple weeks ago, but I never knew about his mom. I think he wasn’t ready to talk about it and he was still worried about safety in Rwanda or something.

    Awesome article. His music in not expensive on iTunes. Try it out!

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