Frederick Ndabaramiye works on a large painting at Roux and Cyr Gallery on Free Street. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In the classroom in the back of the Roux and Cyr International Fine Art Gallery in Portland, Frederick Ndabaramiye selected three tubes of acrylic paint. He combined the black, white and viridian to create the shade he wanted. He dabbed his brush into the mixture and made short strokes on the large canvas. The green added depth to the waves lapping the rocks in his coastal landscape.

He was doing what any painter in any studio in Maine might do, except that he has no hands.

Ndabaramiye was born in Rwanda. In 1998, when the genocide that devastated his country had ended but violence still lurked around every turn in the road, he took a bus to visit his aunt in another village. Rebels attacked, killed the other passengers, cut off his hands and left him for dead. He was 15 years old.

“I can’t do anything, that’s what many people thought,” he said. “I told myself to inspire people.”

Twenty-five years later, Ndabaramiye, 40, lives in Portland. He learned to live with the disability and started an organization in Rwanda to help others do the same. He first picked up a paintbrush – with his forearms – just to prove that he could, but he ultimately found a career. Since he moved to Maine in January, he has been welcomed into the ranks of its artists. His work is on display in two Old Port galleries, as well as a gallery on the University of Southern Maine campus in Lewiston.

Sue Vittner, founder of the Maine Art Collective, said Ndabaramiye walked into the group’s exhibition on Middle Street this fall and asked if he could show his work there.


“The hope he found in the art is really important,” Vittner said.


Ndabaramiye grew up in a small village where his parents worked as farmers. He spent his childhood helping with chores and playing soccer with his siblings, going to church on Sundays and listening to his father’s entertaining stories in the evenings.

In 1994, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali. A long history of tension between the country’s ethnic groups exploded into a genocide that lasted for roughly 100 days. Hutu extremists killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Ndabaramiye – an artist, speaker and author – lost both hands in a machete attack as a teenager in Rwanda. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ndabaramiye was 11 years old when the violence began. As an adult, he recounted his memories in “Frederick: a Story of Boundless Hope,” a book he wrote with American author Amy Parker. His family walked for days to a refugee camp only to find “no food, no room and no medical care – only a hopeless sea of diseased and dying people,” he wrote. They decided to return to their small village, which had mostly been abandoned. They passed horrors on the road and later learned that loved ones had been killed.

Four years later, rumors abounded about extremists still lurking, but Ndabaramiye had not seen them in his village. When his aunt’s husband died, his mother sent him to help her. It should have been a five-hour trip.


Instead, rebels stopped the bus. They took the 18 passengers hostage and bound their elbows with electrical cord. They were forced to walk for hours through the mountains to a camp, where they were beaten. The next day, a rebel leader told Ndabaramiye to kill his fellow prisoners.

“If I didn’t obey him, I knew that I would die,” Ndabaramiye wrote. “But it didn’t matter. The way I felt at that moment – exhausted, battered, humiliated – I was already dead.”

He refused the order.

Ndabaramiye holds the book he wrote about his life and journey. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The rebels did the killing themselves and then turned a machete on him. But instead of killing him, they cut off his hands and left him to die. He found the strength to walk out of the camp.

Wandering the hills, he came across two sisters who took him in and alerted soldiers who got him to a hospital. Ndabaramiye learned later that the green electrical cord the extremists used to bind his arms had acted as a tourniquet and likely saved his life.

Ndabaramiye spent months in a coma. When he woke, he despaired of his injuries. He tried to kill himself in the hospital. At that low moment, he found hope in his Bible and his faith.


“From that point forward, I resolved to do all I could to make the absolute most of this life that God had given me,” he wrote in his book.


Ndabaramiye eventually returned to his rural village but could no longer help with the farming that sustained his family. He decided to go to the Imbabazi Orphanage in Gisenyi, Rwanda’s second-largest city. There, he remastered tasks such as bathing and feeding himself. He challenged himself to do what others thought he could not, and that is how he came to pick up a pencil. He struggled at first to find the right grip between his arms, but he succeeded in writing his name.

Then he drew a butterfly.

“I drew and drew and drew,” he wrote. “I sketched animals and birds, people and plants. I couldn’t stop drawing. I knew then that I wanted to be an artist, but even more than that, I knew then that I could.”

The kids in the orphanage, he said, loved to watch him draw and paint for hours. He felt accomplished. He also realized that making art was helping him deal with his trauma.


“By painting, it will be healing,” he said. “It will be helping me to recover from what happened.”

Recent works by Ndabaramiye at Maine Art Collective. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Columbus Zoo in Ohio, a supporter of the orphanage, arranged for Ndabaramiye to travel to the United States to be fitted with prosthetic hands. He was excited to use them to tie his shoes and pull zippers. But he found that holding a paintbrush with them felt awkward, and he preferred to remove them when he made his art.

“Granted, I loved my new fingers,” he wrote. “I had traveled across the world to get them and the independence they promised. But I also realized that my God-given ability to create something beautiful had been there all along.”

Ndabaramiye got a job delivering fabric and rented a small house in Gisenyi. But he felt a desire to do more. He partnered with his friend Zacharie Dusingizimana to teach volleyball and English to people living on the street. That effort grew into what is now the Ubumwe Community Center, which provides educational, vocational and basic life skills to children and adults with disabilities. Its supporters include Partners in Conservation, a nonprofit started by the Columbus Zoo to support people and wildlife in East Central Africa, and it now serves hundreds of people each year.


Ndabaramiye moved to the United States last year and applied for asylum. He had to leave his wife and two children behind, but he hopes they will eventually join him here. He first went to North Carolina and then Florida. But he heard good things about Maine, including that it attracts many tourists. He didn’t know anyone here but saw potential for his career, so he flew to Portland in January.


He started exploring the city by foot, bike and bus. He visited galleries and museums to introduce himself. People in Maine’s art community said he immediately made an impression on them with his creativity and his vitality.

Alison Gibbs, the administrator of the Maine Jewish Museum, said he visits regularly and greets the staff with hugs. When Gibbs saw his paintings, she wanted to host an exhibition. She felt a strong connection between the museum’s mission and Ndabaramiye’s story.

“It’s taking the Maine Jewish immigrant experience and reaching out from there to other immigrant experiences and welcoming them in,” she said.

Ndabaramiye points to his paintings hanging at the Maine Art Collective. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The galleries at the Maine Jewish Museum unfortunately were booked for months. So she contacted Gerald Walsh at L/A Arts, an arts agency that serves Lewiston and Auburn, and asked if he could help. Walsh knew he probably also would not have an opening until 2025, but he was determined to find Ndabaramiye a space. He felt that he brought with him a message of hope sorely needed in Lewiston and Auburn, still reeling from the recent mass shooting that killed 18 people.

“People are going to be on a path to healing for a long time in this community,” Walsh said. “Frederick’s story, there’s so much impact to that. We really hope his story can touch people.”

Luckily, Beckie Conrad had been working to reopen the Atrium Gallery on the Lewiston-Auburn campus of the University of Southern Maine. She partnered with Walsh to host Ndabaramiye’s first solo show there, which opened this week. It will stay in the Atrium Gallery until mid-January and then move to another exhibition space in the building for a few more weeks. Conrad said she hopes the students and other visitors see the power of the arts when they look at his paintings.


“What inspired me about him is that his creativity was fueled by the despair he found himself in,” she said.

In Portland, Roux and Cyr owner Leslie Gatcombe-Hynes remembered the fall day when Ndabaramiye walked into the gallery on Free Street for the first time. He introduced himself: “I’m an artist.” He showed her photos of the paintings on his phone and later returned with originals. She helped him frame a couple for display in the gallery and even put one in the window. He has sold paintings for years, but they had never been in a gallery before.

A painting, center, by Frederick Ndabaramiye rests in the front window of Roux and Cyr Gallery on Free Street. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gatcombe-Hynes was struck from the start by the dynamic colors and serene scenes. Many of his paintings are set in his native home – villagers on the way to the market, a boy fishing near a waterfall, women in conversation. Ndabaramiye said he wants his art to tell a story about life in Rwanda.

“You’re taken to another country,” Gatcombe-Hynes said.

She also noted his good cheer and friendliness.

“I was very struck that someone who’d been through what he has been through has been able to be so positive and really express himself through art,” she said. “He’s a pretty remarkable man.”


Ndabaramiye is now a member of the Maine Art Collective, which formed in 2020. It hosts temporary shows in which the artists keep 100% of the profits. Right now, more than 20 are participating in an ongoing show in a vacant space on Middle Street. Vittner said she felt humbled by Ndabaramiye’s strength and was glad to add his work to the exhibition.

“There’s so much pain in the world right now that people are experiencing – and to think, this is someone who has overcome so much and wants to give back,” she said. “I was really impressed with how he is using his story to help others.”

Ndabaramiye works on a large painting at Roux and Cyr Gallery on Free Street. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Recent sales helped Ndabaramiye replenish his painting supplies. He is living in an apartment without much space to work, but Gatcombe-Hynes allowed him to use her gallery’s classroom to touch up a big piece for the Lewiston show. The welcome he has received from the art community has helped Ndabaramiye feel settled in Maine.

“This is home,” he said. “This is a place where I really wish to continue my dream.”

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