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July / August 2009
by Kellee Terrell
A visit from Keep a Child Alive’s cofounder Leigh Blake took Noah Mushimiyimana from his small village in Rwanda to the bright lights of American Idol. Together, Mushimiyimana and Blake show that living with HIV doesn’t have to stop you from reaching for the stars.
I meet so many inspiring young people in Africa, who constantly amaze me with their resilience and courage,” says Grammy-winning soul songstress Alicia Keys and cofounder and global ambassador of the organization Keep a Child Alive (KCA). “You’re about to meet one such person. Noah lives in Rwanda and has a dream. To make an album so that he can help children living with HIV/AIDS in his country.” As Noah waits in the wings, Keys introduces him to the American Idol audience. “He learned this song in English in just one week…. Coming out to perform ‘I’m the World’s Greatest’ all the way from Rwanda is Noaahhhhhh!”
As the stage’s glass curtain opens, Noah Mushimiyimana, 15, runs out. He’s decked out in an outfit that seems handpicked by Kanye West himself—a blue leather Members Only–looking jacket and baggy jeans with the bottoms tucked into multicolored high-top sneakers. He grabs his mic with the swagger and ease of a seasoned hip-hop vet and lets its rip.
When Noah finishes, the crowd jumps to their feet, and Keys and Idol host Ryan Seacrest join him onstage. Noah is the ultimate pop star.
Performing for millions of viewers and having a single on iTunes would be a huge accomplishment for anyone, but given Noah’s circumstances, it’s nearly unbelievable.
Born in 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, Noah, the elder of two boys, came into the world HIV positive but didn’t know it until he was 10 years old. His mother, who is also positive, suffers from a mental illness and roams the streets and neighboring towns for long periods of time. No one really knows what happened. Noah believes that doctors poisoned his mother, but British-born Leigh Blake, the cofounder of Keep a Child Alive who discovered Noah and his incredible talent, believes that his mom’s state could be a result of witnessing the horrific violence, murder and rapes of a 100-day civil war that stole the lives of almost a million and left the country in ruins. “Living through that, anyone would be crazy,” Blake says.
Noah was conceived when his mother met a stranger during one of her excursions. “That’s why he doesn’t know his father,” Blake tells me. Yet, a loyal son, Noah has nothing but love for his mother. “I was my happiest when I was going anywhere with [her, even wandering through the streets],” he tells POZ.
In 2004, Noah’s grandmother took him, his brother and four cousins to a nearby AIDS clinic to get them all tested for HIV. Noah’s results were positive. “I was so angry and depressed,” he says. “[After a while] I told myself, ‘Okay, I can deal with this,’ and I started taking my meds.” But the adjustment hasn’t been easy. Stigma is very prevalent, especially in the schoolyard—his classmates tease him cruelly. “I cry a lot—it really hurts my feelings,” Noah says.
Noah also took care of the household while his grandmother worked in Burundi, 85 miles from their home in Kigali because she couldn’t find work locally. (Thanks to a generous donation from supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks, Noah’s grandmother now has her own business in town and they all live in a new home.)
When he and Blake first crossed paths, Noah was getting by on one bowl of porridge a day. But he never lost sight of his dream—to record an album. And thanks to his natural talent, tenacity and pure luck, it’s going to happen. Since meeting Blake and appearing on American Idol, Noah is in serious talks about getting a record deal.
The two met last summer, when Blake took a four-country tour of South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda to conduct site visits of KCA’s numerous clinics. Blake asked if she could visit three people at their own homes—Noah, a client of the Icyuzuzo clinic, was one of the three chosen.
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