Near the south of Aswan lies one of the few Nubian islands that survived the construction of the High Dam. Distinguished by serene and simple living, Heisa has, however, struggled to keep its distinct culture and heritage alive as its colorful Nubian drawings have been fading out over the years.
With the hope of protecting that colorful heritage, a 50-member project known as Mashrou El Saada (Project of Happiness) has been frequenting the island every year to revive its bright culture. So far, they have been to Nubia four times and painted 39 houses. “When we paint their residential neighborhoods, and make them more beautiful, we spread happiness among the [residents]; and this is reflected in their contributions to their own future,” Dalia al-Shamy, the project’s social media head, tells Egypt Today.
Founded by Hashem Raafat in 2013, Mashrou El Saada tours slums and neglected places in Egypt to provide psychological support for the residents and heal them through color therapy. “I was an architecture student at Misr International University (MIU), and I had a desire to use all I had studied to help slums or touristic areas through a long-lasting psychological method, not financially, but by using colors,” Raafat says, as he recalls their first project at Bab El Khalq, Cairo, where they painted just one wall.
Since then, every time they go to a new destination, the number of volunteers increases. Along with painting, they have also introduced human development activities and cooperated with several initiatives. Both Shamy and Raafat believe that colors can change people and inspire them to improve their lives and restore their positivity and ambition to better the place where they live. Before launching any project, the team usually sits and chats with the residents about their culture, ideas and traditions to be able to reflect them in their designs and colors.
Photography courtesy of Mashrou El Saada
We talked to the team two days after they had returned from their fourth tour in Heisa island, which took place between January 25 and 29.
“Raafat saw how neglected and colorless the island has become after the [construction of the] dam… That contradicts with the colorful Nubian nature. So, Nubia has become the
biggest project of Mashrou El Saada,” says al-Shamy, explaining that the team’s target is to inject a little dose of color with drawings and designs to preserve them, as well as to draw a smile on Nubians’ faces.
During the first two phases of the Nubian project, Mashrou El Saada just focused on painting houses; but to shed more light on their main target of reviving Nubian traditions, they later collaborated with many initiatives to organize human development activities for Nubians during their tours.
Starting the third phase, in 2017, they have been holding brass workshops for the women of the island. “Women in Heisa are known for their talents in [making] unique artistic brass handicrafts, including jewelry and domestic items . . . but all they need is to develop these artistic talents and [get access to] materials. So, under the supervision of Misr Foundation for development, we would hold these workshops and get them all the necessary materials,” says al- Shamy.
In 2018, they took the brass workshops a step further, by cooperating with Taqat, a local jewelry brand manufacturing its goods with all natural materials, including stones. During the workshops, women would create artistic products made of brass mixed with stones.
“To motivate them in the workshops, we promised to select the three best accessories and financially award their creators. So, during our four-day tour, they produced many beautiful handicrafts like necklaces, bracelets and earrings,” al-Shamy says.
Believing that every child deserves a happy childhood to create the brightest future, Zeinab, a trainer, educates the island’s children through a football training course. This breaks the boring traditional learning means in classrooms, and the children get to enjoy some outdoor fun in the kids’ play area built by Ready Made, explains al-Shamy.
This year the project has also teamed up with Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run Institution, founded by Omar Samra, the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest. The institution collects unwanted toys, repairs and wraps them, to distribute them among children. The project has also worked together with Educate Me initiative to offer children educational sessions.
If not for the cheerful atmosphere created by Heisa’s residents and their unparalleled hospitality, the members would never have been able to achieve so much, al-Shamy says. “They host us in their houses, provide us with food and water and the best things they have, as well as helping us in painting.”
To promote Nubian traditions and culture on a larger scale, the team also posts about the project and about Nubia and its traditions before every phase. “This has a great impact as it brings more tourists to the island. The island’s head, Yasser, told us they have begun to see more tourists since the team came to the island,” al-Shamy says.
“As Heisa is a big island, we seek to go there every year to finish painting all of the houses, so it will be our main project in the coming years,” Raafat says, adding that they are also working to “spot more places especially in Upper Egypt, Kafr El-Sheikh and Fayoum, and to include more human development sessions in the program.”
Fayoum is another governorate to which Mashrou El Saada brings happiness, as they have gone three times so far. The first two times, they painted Ezbet Abdel Salam School in Fayoum, in collaboration with Nebny Foundation and Master Crafter. In their third phase, they painted the houses of Abu Hamid village, in cooperation with Let’s Build Egypt Initiative. “Painting the houses in Abu Hamid village in just one day was so challenging, so we called this project ‘24-hour challenge,’” al-Shamy recalls.
Mahrou El Saada also headed to Nuweiba, where they spent four days in 2016, painting and renovating 15 houses at El Malha village; and they put together a library in the village to serve both residents and visitors. They also worked together with Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run to distribute toys to children, both in El Malha and other Nuweiba villages.
If you’d like to volunteer or sponsor the project’s efforts in Nubia and other cities, visit their Facebook page, Mashrou El Saada, for more information.