When you speak to Mary Fanaro, founder of the OmniPeace Foundation, it is easy to get swept up in her passion for Rwanda. Her dedication has inspired a whole slew of celebrities to support her schools in Africa—nine total that educate close to 3,000 children. We caught up with Mary to find out why she feels a pull to this part of the world.
Where do you most like to travel?
I had traveled to Africa for a safari when I was 21 years old and that’s what inspired me, even though I didn’t start OmniPeace Foundation until much later. Nothing makes me happier than Africa. If I could travel to every country on the continent that would be the quintessential essence of my being. I knew whatever I was going to do with my life, it would have to do something with helping Africa. Fifteen years after that first trip, I woke up one morning and realized it was time.
Which African country is your favorite?
Rwanda; the people are so kind. This is a country that wants to do anything they can to be self-sustainable and they want you to help them do that. They aren’t just spectators; they are collaborative in their progress. The people don’t want to be remembered for the genocide, but instead for their rebirth. Rwanda is a country that wants to lead. It’s just so easy for me to work there.
How did you choose the OmniPeace name?
I had seen a documentary about Rwanda and in it they kept using the word “omni”—universal and of all things. I started selling t-shirts with the name and the money I raised helped to build African schools, in an effort to make villages more self-sufficient.
How many schools has OmniPeace Foundation built?
Now we have nine schools spread across Senegal, Malawi, and Mali. There are also two music schools called Rwanda Rocks! in Rwanda—one in Kigali and another in the Kiziba refugee camp with four teachers in total. We partnered with other foundations in Rwanda to set up the schools. The school in the refugee camp is in a tiny room that we used once a month for a three to four day workshop. In Kigali, the school is housed in a genocide memorial center. There are about 50 kids in Kigali and 50 in Kiziba.
And how did Rwanda Rocks! come about?
While I was on a gorilla trek in Rwanda a cab driver kept asking me to build a music school because he said there weren’t any there. He kept saying, “Please, please do this.” I told him that I wasn’t equipped. I didn’t have any musical background. But then after a trek near Virunga Lodge, I asked myself what I was doing there and the answer was the music school. I told the cab driver that I would do my best and about 90 days later I had a bunch of instruments on the way to Rwanda. Keyboards, drums, and guitars were donated and shipped to Rwanda, and Rwanda Rocks! was on its way.
What is each class like?
The teacher opens the class with a five minute meditation. The kids close their eyes and think of what they want to be and where they want to go. It opens their minds and makes them think big. It’s kind of like when you put something down on paper, you have a better chance of it being executed. Their vision and hopes come out in the music. We want them to understand that their lives can go beyond their current circumstances. The students are learning both traditional music of Rwanda and also American pop. They will sing everything from Bob Marley and John Lennon to African songs.
Who are the Rwanda Rocks! students?
We have a mix of ages from eight years old to 16 with both boys and girls. Some of the kids are in foster care. They are seeing, playing, and touching these instruments for the first time in their lives. At first they are awkward, hesitant, and scared. But yet they are excited, and then when they start to learn to play, it was like they had known how all along. Quincy Jones said there are two things you can’t live without in life, and that’s water and music.
How does music benefit kids?
There is something about the power of music that is wildly healing in a country still recovering from the genocide. These kids are sponges. The music gives them a new breath of life. It’s like therapy. It’s hope.
Tell us about some of them.
We have never seen these kids smile and laugh like this before. There was one girl in the refugee camp who had severe neuropathy and couldn’t open her hands, but wanted to play the guitar. She would strum with her knuckles, almost until they bled. She was so determined. The kids would make fun of her, so she stopped coming. The teacher went and encouraged her to return, but this time to play the drums. This girl became the class leader and mentor, and started singing. She has a voice that wasn’t even from this earth. Her mom was killed and she told the teacher that it was the music that helped her to deal with that loss.
What’s next for OmniPeace?
Who knows! When things are meant to be, something uncanny happens in the universe and the doors keep opening one after the other.
To support the OmniPeace Foundation, you can bid on your own journey to Rwanda before December 13, 2018. This journey includes gorilla trekking and a visit to the Rwanda Rocks! school in Kigali.