Home » Forging a friendship through artNews »

Forging a friendship through art

Refugee artists sit be side laughing one painting the other making a lampshade

Mike Katihabuga, a refugee from Burundi, with friend and fellow artist Djamal Ntagara. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

After fleeing his home for Rwanda, Burundian artist Mike has made a friend for life.

Mike Katihabuga sits perfectly still on a wooden stool. His only movement is from his right arm, deftly swinging a paintbrush over a piece of canvas. His brow furrows slightly as he steps back to admire the artwork he has just created.


Nearby, his friend and fellow artist, Djamal Ntagara, effortlessly weaves a lampshade using a stiff fiber called sisal. The synergy between the two artists is clear as they admire and critique each other’s work.

The two have come a long way since 2017 when they first met.

Mike, 25, escaped Burundi at the height of the conflict in 2015. He found refuge in Rwanda and lived in a refugee camp, before moving to the capital a year later to pursue art.

“It was tough at first and I really struggled because I didn’t have materials and a space to work,” says Mike.

“It was tough at first and I really struggled.”

Through a mutual friend, he met Djamal, a Rwandan artist based in Kigali. They bonded over their love of art and soon became friends.

“When we met, I saw his art and I loved it,” says Djamal. “I was very interested in his artistry, so I offered to work with him and he accepted.”

Djamal’s art centre, Kanyaaburanga (‘a little beautiful place’), is where Mike found a space and a home for his creativity. Based at his home, the centre is also open to other artists from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who work and display their art here.

“I realized Djamal and I had a lot in common,” recalls Mike. “He told me, let us work together and we can do great things.”

5d4021db4

Mike and Djamal at the art centre where they work in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

5d4021dd2

Mike, who fled Burundi in 2015, works on a painting at the art centre. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

5d4021df4

Djamal displays some of his creations amid a display of artwork at the centre. © UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

More than two years later, the pair’s friendship has grown stronger.

“We are brothers, we work well together, we understand one another and we advise each other,” adds Mike.

Djamal sees helping Mike and others as natural. “Helping people doesn’t mean you need to have something big,” he explains. “Whatever little you have and a good heart is enough to help someone.”

He adds that art not only empowers, but also heals.

“Art is a useful tool because it can empower people financially,” he says. “I want my art to help others by healing them physically, spiritually and mentally,” Djamal says.

By opening up his home to Mike and other artists, Djamal has found a friend and a brother, something that Mike is thankful for.

“I’m so grateful for the welcome I received from Djamal and for the doors he has opened for me,” he says.

Originally published by UNHCR on 30 July 2019