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This image depicts a drawing of a person with a heart in his chest on the right side of the photo. On the left side, "Nkwihoreze and arts for resilience" is written in black on an orange background

Co-creating arts-based tools with children for mental health and resilience

June 26, 2024

Head shot of Krystina women with blond long hair and blue top standing inf front of a bush of green leaves

In this blog Kristýna Skriczka, Knowledge Exchange Officer at IOE UCL Social Research Institute for
Project: Nkwihoreze: Intergenerational Creative Arts and Healing in Rwanda, talks about how children
and young people are co-creating culturally appropriate tools and resources to facilitate intergenerational dialogue and psychosocial support for families in Rwanda.

“How do you remember what you haven’t lived?”

I have to remember what I haven’t lived through those who did.

I have to play my role so that it won’t happen again.

I don’t need to have lived then to remember now.

Poem by Ivan Nyagatare

This year Rwanda marks 30 years since the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, where over a million people were killed over a period of approximately 100 days. There is a generation of children and young people in Rwanda today who are making sense of events, as Ivan Nyagatare put it, they “haven’t lived, through those who did”.

Imagine a young person living in Kigali, let’s call her Neza. Neza, (a fictional character based on our research) is a 20-year-old student and lives with her parents. Neza’s parents are genocide survivors. Her father’s injury sustained during that time is a daily reminder of Neza’s family and country’s history. But, trying not to upset each other, the family avoid talking about the past. Nkwihoreze’s aim is to support young people like Neza.

Unsurprisingly mental distress is a common issue amongst the general population in Rwanda and there’s growing interest in how trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next. What does the impact of intergenerational trauma look like? Neza might experience poorer physical and psychological well-being than some of her peers. She might have mental illness and may worry that what happened to her parents could happen again.

Experts say there is currently a lack of practical methods for helping children talk about these issues with their elders. Furthermore, interventions based on Western concepts give insufficient consideration to the specific social, political and cultural context of Rwanda.

Nkwihoreze project journey

In March 2024 I joined the team of Dr Kirrily Pells, working on a collaborative research and engagement project called Nkwihoreze (means “Taking care and strengthening one another” in Kinyarwanda, the national languages of Rwanda, which is also known as Ikinyarwanda).). The project addresses these issues by co-creating new resources with young people through close partnership with Rwandan organizations Uyisenga Ni Imanzi (UNM) and AERG (Association des Etudiants Et Éleves Rescapés Du Genocide).

Shortly after joining Kirrily’s team, I came across the Co-Production Collective while listening to  a workshop hosted by UCL. What was said about the principles of co-production really resonated. I thought: we do a lot of this in our project! After tapping into Co-Production Collective’s resources and a few chats, we agreed it would be great to share our experience of co-creating with children and young people at every stage of the project and the benefits to all involved from working in this way.

The Nkwihoreze project runs from January to December 2024 and is built through a series of workshops (see project phases below). Children and young people, together with local psychosocial workers are co-creating tools that will help foster meaningful conversations across generations, address sensitive issues, and promote well-being for children, families and communities.  The interim findings that we have had so far are very promising.

The project phases of the project visually demonstrated in yellow and orange squares
Diagram showing Nkwihoreze project phases

Young project facilitators as research co-creators

The Nkwihoreze project team is made up a core group involved in the co-creation of the project which includes the research staff and a group of 14 young facilitators (ranging in age from 16 to 25) and nine psychosocial workers.

The black and white photo depicts younger children in a school standing in a circle around an older boy who is a trained facilitator. The children  have their fist in the air, and there is a  lot of movement in the picture.
A young facilitator leading a Nkwihoreze project workshop, photos by Fernando Mugisha

Psychosocial workers are professionals working with families to support their psychological and social needs in the community. Two of our young facilitators are also artists and they bring in valuable art skills and expertise. The rest of the team are project participants. All our young facilitators received training for their role from Nkwihoreze and have access to support by Uyisenga Ni Imanzi (UNM) during their time with the project (which is in addition to the support UNM offers to all).

Diagram:  Nkwihoreze project team - split by the make up of the team

A man places his hand on a child There are four children in the photo, they are standing in a line.
Picture of young participants at a workshop, everyone’s input is valued

Art-based co-creation

During the workshops participants use a variety of arts-based methods to explore topics such as feelings and memories. These are continuously refined with the feedback from the participants and young facilitators. One of these methods is called “body mapping”. Children draw a person and then discuss where in the body you can find different feelings. Young facilitators  from the local community and make children feel comfortable to ask a lot of questions.

Body map drawing done in blue ink of a child with heart and wearing skirt.  There are arrows pointing at different parts of the drawing like their hair, lips etc with words attached to these to help describe feelings as described in the text above.
Image from body mapping exercise, workshop with children
A woman is holding her baby on her lap while reading a paper.
Photo: Mother and baby at a parents’ workshop

Other art forms, such as proverbs and songs are also utilised. Some of the young facilitators have brought in their own proverbs which were later incorporated into the following workshops.

After each workshop, and after debriefing, the young facilitators also take part in reflective practice. This is an opportunity to discuss, in a small group with the support of psychosocial workers, what worked well and suggest changes to the next series of workshops and tools used.

The young people commented that their role as facilitators improves their skills, gives them confidence in talking to people from a wider range of backgrounds, and enables them to reflect on their own lives and families. And the psychosocial workers have said that thanks to the project, they feel better equipped to support children.

Our child participants and youth facilitators contribute to the project both in refining the tools and workshop plans but also in challenging common understandings and concepts.  

Black and white photo of a man smiling and two children looking at him. In the background, there are drawings made by the children hung up on the wall.
Photo: Nkwihoreze project Co-Principal Investigator, Chaste Uwihoreye at a project workshop, body mapping exercise artwork on the wall behind

For example, they discussed that they would like to see Rwandan tradition ‘igitaramo cy’umuryango’ (circle of family dialogue) revived. This Rwandan tradition of meeting around the table as a family to talk became less common after the genocide. Now the group started developing arts-based tools that help families to bring back this tradition and start engaging in conversations, often on sensitive topics.

Children’s worldviews have the power to challenges adults’ understandings.

Academics and practitioners often focus on intergenerational transmission of trauma, we see the children tend to talk about inheriting resilience.  It is thanks to the young people and their parents that the idea of resilience as a two-way flow (from children to parents as well vice versa) is being explored and discussed.

This is particularly striking considering much of the research focuses on the narratives of inheritance and children as simply “recipients” of their family’s past. This idea of two-way flow of resilience highlights the role of young people as agents of change.

The value of arts-based tools

Art can be seen as a doorway into children’s worlds, it facilitates access to understanding children’s perspectives on topics many would find impossible to express with words.

  • Art enables people of all ages to express themselves on complex topics
  • Art transcends language barriers
  • Art facilitates the expressions of and connection to, cultural heritage and identity

Of course, the list goes on. It is clear that mental health support must take into account historical and cultural context of Rwanda and that arts-based methods offer a promising approach to engaging with local cultural understandings. It is essential that interventions are informed by young people’s understandings.

The drawing made by a child depicts a crying heart and a crying man next to it.
Image: drawing by a Nkwihoreze project participant

Looking ahead

By the end of the project Nkwihoreze will have trained 100 psychosocial workers in the use of methods which are now being co-created with children and young people. These tools will be available on our website.

Young facilitators will have also curated an exhibition featuring art from the project for a final travelling exhibition. The art exhibition will be an opportunity for the Nkwihoreze team to engage the wider community and conduct follow-up interviews with project participants. We want to learn how the project have helped participants and co-creators with their wellbeing and relations within family and how the tools are being adapted and used. This final evaluation will give us an opportunity to consider what might need to be strengthened for further use.

The exhibition will also engage with policy makers and share the learning from the project in Kigali towards the end of 2024.

You are warmly invited to visit our London exhibition which will be part of the Being Human festival in November 2024.

To learn more about our young people and our impact using arts-based co-creation please follow our YouTube channel or Instagram.

More details about the team behind the Nkwihoreze project and how it’s funded  

Kirrily Pells is the Nkwihoreze project co-principal investigator and Associate Professor in Childhood at the IOE, Social Research Institute, UCL. Kirrily co-leads the project together with Chaste Uwihoreye.

Chaste, as well as being the Co-PI on this project is a clinical psychologist, with a PhD in psychotherapy and the Director of Uyisenga Ni Imanzi where he has established programmes that provide social, emotional, psychological and economic support for children, families and communities.

AERG Association des Etudiants et Eleves Rescapes du Genocide (AERG) is an association of student survivors of genocide established in 1996 at former National University of Rwanda (NUR) by 12 students and it has quickly grown to become a national organisation.

The full details of the Nkwihoreze team can be found on this web page.

Nkwihoreze is a collaborative research and engagement project between UCL, Uyisenga Ni Imanzi and AERG, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK.

If you would like to know more please contact

Further reading

The information in this post is sourced from Kristyna’s experience working on this project and from a forthcoming research paper: Irakoze, G.S. and K. Pells, with N. Kaneza, P. Mbabazi, E.P. Muhire, H. Uwineza and E. Uwishema (forthcoming, 2024) Translating and Transforming Intergenerational Trauma: understandings, experiences, and meaning-making among ‘second generation’ survivors in Rwanda. Aegis Trust working paper. (date of publication to be confirmed)

For academic references and a more formal presentation of the project information please consult our presentation prepared for the 6th World Congress on Resilience available at

This blog was created for Co-Production Collective at UCL by Nkwihoreze project (c) 2024.

Photo credits

The photos are from Nkwihoreze workshops but are for illustrative purposes only and do not imply direct connection between issues discussed text and the featured people.

Workshop photos: Fernando Mugisha

Ivan Nyagatare, poem, For the full poem please see this tweet.

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