Day 6 ~ July 28, 2011    


They’re killing goats outside my window.

Despite having been a vegetarian for almost 20 years (but not anymore), I do understand that those cute scrawny goats I saw running around yesterday were destined for the same fate as the one I later ate (and loved) in small cubes on a stick.  Goat brochettes are a popular dish in Rwanda and for us yesterday, the protein was welcomed.  They were delicious!!  But still, at 6:45am, the desperate cries of goats being carried out of a truck parked outside our window and thrown down next to a large packet of kebab sticks is disconcerting, to say the least.

After class yesterday, Media and Longin walked with us to the nearby village of Rubona.  It’s a 20 minute walk away. As usual, we drew a lot of attention.  “Mzungo” is a word that crosses cultures and languages in Africa, though the adults are usually tactful enough to mutter it quietly.  It’s the kids who shout it and point – usually smiling and waving at the same time.   It’s cute, sure, but I wish they wouldn’t.  We just wanted to go for a walk.  We weren’t trying to create a scene, but creating a scene is inevitable.

I don’t think I will ever be able to reconcile the feelings I get in developing countries – this complicated mix of curiosity and guilt. Isn’t that what tourism is about – going to other places and seeing how other folks live?  But in Japan or France, I don’t feel this way.  Crossing cultures is fine.  Crossing culture andclass is a whole other matter.  Everywhere we go here, the spectre of colonialism hangs over us.  Rwanda is filled with NGO’s – while the world ignored the genocide, but afterwards the international community sprung to action.  Some good has come out of that.  The country is growing economically.  The dirt road we walked into town on isn’t pitted with rocks and muffler killing pot holes like the road we traveled each day last year in Tanzania.  Even with the work we’re here doing it isn’t as simple as “we’re here to teach some theatre games and help kids improve their English”.  Along with that is always the question; is this really what is most helpful to them?  Are we somehow saying our way is the better way?  I see the poverty and my automatic feeling is guilt, and relief that it isn’t me (which causes more guilt – oy vey).  But, as Sean pointed out, that guilt is also a form of judgment, saying that my life is better; our way of doing things is the better way.   All the food we eat here is local.  Never mind the Hundred Mile Diet – this is like the Two Mile Diet.  On the walk to and from the village yesterday, not one car or truck passed us.  There were a few motorcycles (taxis) but otherwise it was all bicycles and people on foot.  The air is clean.  People are different sizes but I haven’t seen a single obese person.  Kids are outside playing or working, not in front of video games.  And not a single dessert has been served in the Village.   All those things would be a big deal at home but here it’s the norm.

When we got back to Agahozo, Didi asked, “did you see the man in pink?”  Rwanda is a place where people might literally live down the road from the person who killed their family.  Because so many people are guilty of horrific crimes during the genocide, there’s no way they can all be in jail or at the Criminal Tribunal – that’s saved for the big wigs.   Locally, communities have combined a very old form of justice with the modern court process to create Gacaca’s – community trials.  These are carried out publicly and taken very seriously.  Many of the Hutus on trial have already served some time in prison and because the sentences are a combination of prison time and probationary time in the community, many of them are now in the community.  While they serve the remainder of their time, they must wear pink from head to toe.  At the Genocide Memorial there was a video of a man testifying during one of the Gacaca’s.  He didn’t break down or look guilty or angry when he spoke about what he’d done.  He spoke calmly and the people in the audience listened.   It seems the most important thing that comes out of these is the naming of the crimes, the naming of victims, one by one, person by person – acknowledgement of what happened. 

Yesterday our students wrote their play.  Sean is a big fan of using the Hero’s Journey (if you don’t know it, you’ve seen it in a hundred movies:  call the action, denial of the call, acceptance, introduction of the mentor, entering the belly of the beast, encountering obstacles…).  Having walked the students through the steps the day before, we spent several hours in the morning brainstorming.  See picture. 

The Centre X Centre Theatre Festival that we’re taking this play to is connected to the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Centre and all the other work there will be around that topic.  But we didn’t want to force our students to make their play about that.  I figured that no matter what, given who they are, the fact of the genocide would be there (a silent undercurrent) in whatever story they chose to tell – at least it would be for the audience members looking for it.  No need to worry though. As they brainstormed and then voted, the most popular ideas were the ones to do with a child looking for a parent after the genocide.  So that’s what our play is about.

From there we brainstormed obstacles and mentors, then, as a group, outlined the play. Then we sent them off in groups with a specific scene to stage and let them get to work. 

They performed their scenes for each other and gave each other feedback starting with what they liked and then asking questions (thank you Iowa Playwrights Workshop). 

Our afternoon session started with an impromptu dance session.  Unbeknownst to the students, it was also an audition.  We want to include a lot of singing and dance and Media, our savvy helper, set up the dance party and used it to get each student to dance.   I’ve got it on video but my attempts to upload it last night failed (we’ve got internet but it’s not the fastest connection) so that’ll have to wait.

The students were given the task of writing their scenes down, taking into consideration the questions their peers asked.  I’ve got those papers sitting in front of me.  It’s rough, but it’s a story we can work with.  Today we’ll keep doing writing exercises to push the character development and get some better language – – their poetry is great but their drama is pure realism.  There’s a hot debate going on right now as to whether the monkeys should be able to talk (we, of course, are advocating “yes”).

Three and a half days left before we present the play to the village.  Five days till the Festival.  No worries… I think.


Day 4 ~ July 26, 2011 (I know, I know… I missed day 3 – I blame jet lag)

Today, while the entire Agahozo village went on a picnic to celebrate the end of the school term, we took advantage of the time and went to Kigali.  The lure of the grocery store (with peanut butter, coffee and chocolate to boost our rapidly dwindling supply… okay and beer – I confess – Rwandan beer is as cheap as soda and I can now attest, quite tasty) was strong, though that wasn’t our only reason for going in.

Media came with us as our unofficial tour guide and, as I’ve found in other foreign places, it was so helpful to have a local person with us.  She knows Kigali well (it’s a small town – we literally ran into about 10 people she knew on the street) and was able to make a day when we had to be in many different places in a strange city go very smoothly.  On the ride in she told us about one of the students at Agahozo, D.  When D. arrived, he never showed his face.  He would pull his hood over his face or hide behind his hands.  He barely communicated with anyone.  Along with being a counselor, Media also does art with the students and she gave D. a notebook and told him to draw whenever he had free time, whatever he wanted, and it didn’t have to be good. He began to do it and through that drawing, found a way to express what was going on inside himself.  Now, he is drawing his past and his present.  She described him as not just happier and out of his shell, but finally able to have relationships.  Someday he wants to have a family – a family that he’d fight for.  When she said, “he’d fight for his family” I took it as one of those things you say – it has meaning but, you know, it’s not necessarily literal.   But then Ilan, the camp director who was driving us, pointed out, it was a very significant thing for him to say because when the genocide happened, the majority of the Tutsis didn’t fight.  Preparations for the genocide were happening publicly, for months and years before April 1994.  Militias were being trained, hate propaganda was all over the radio, and there had already been earlier killing sprees that left thousands of Tutsis dead.  So D, saying that he would fight for his family, was showing a huge change.

Kigali is small but busy.  There are construction sites everywhere.  Besides the grocery store, the other reasons for our trip were to see the performance space where we’ll be at the Centre x Centre Festival, to meet one of the festival organizers, and to go to the Genocide Memorial Centre.

We’ve got 8 days left to make this play.  We’ve had 2 full days with the students and now feel like we’re getting a handle on their strengths.  They’ve done some writing assignments so we’re starting to generate material.  Tomorrow we start in earnest with the creation of the play.  On August 4 we tech and on August 5 we present it at the festival.  Tick tick tick…

The second last stop was the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.  (

Didi knew a friend of a friend who worked there, Emery, and he gave us a personal tour.  The museum is what you’d imagine it to be – beautiful and horrific and so, so sad.  We were there for about three hours, listening to Emery speak to us in his soft, quiet voice.  Emery was 20 when the genocide happened.  Afterwards we stood on the balcony and he showed us the house, far off in the distance on an opposite hill, where had hid out while it was happening.  “Afterwards,” he said, tracing his route with his finger, “when the RPF liberated Kigali, they tried to gather us all together – there were about 1000 of us – but I split off and ran through the swamp, where the bridge is now, and up this hill where the museum is.  At that time it was just bushes.  I knew it was RPF territory.”  He pointed to part of the garden outside the museum, “that’s a mass grave”.  Two large bouquets of flowers were sitting on it, wrapped in plastic.

I didn’t know what my reaction would be to this place.  Sadness, obviously, but sadness mixed with horror and disbelief and feeling powerless and far away and guilty.  There was one room that we came to after we’d gone through the pictures (horrific) and videos (personal testimony).  It was a small room filled with glass cases containing clothes that had been on victims found in mass graves.  They weren’t soaked in blood, like you might think they would be.  They were old and faded and torn – some with holes.  They were lifeless; ghosts.  In one case was a child’s t-shirt that said “I (heart) Ottawa, Canada”.

It was blue with white lettering.

That was my home.

Emery is the first person we’ve met here who has spoken to us about his experience.  The students talk about genocide but it is removed, more like it’s an abstract concept.  I doubt that it really is, but that’s how they talk about it.  Emery too said that the way he speaks about it when he’s “here” has to be from a certain distance.  In the US or Canada (where his fiancé lives) he would be more emotional.  He would be able to be.

After the Memorial, we made our trip to the grocery story, stocked up on supplies, and got on a bus.  Nothing feels like a more authentic experience than riding a public bus.  Rwandan buses are tame compared to the Tanzanian dala dala’s.  For one thing, when every seat is taken, they actually stop letting people on.  Granted, there may be one or two more people squished onto the seats than is comfortable, but at least no one is hanging out the door.  And, another bonus, the suicidal desire to play chicken with ALL oncoming traffic that the Tanzanian dala dala drivers have has not crossed the border here.  The bus traveled fast – everyone here seems to drive fast – but it stayed in its own lane.  The city was beautiful driving out.  We’re just south of the equator so the sun rises and sets at 6am/pm, every day of the year.  The sky turned a darker blue and the lights came on in the city as we drove away from it.  Kigali is all hills with roads winding down then up then down again.  Like in India and TZ, stores are lit by bare florescent bulbs.  People walk and ride bikes along the side of the highway in complete darkness and at every little stop there’s a shop selling phone cards and soda stacked in red plastic cases.   The air smells like unfiltered exhaust and dust and it’s both hard to imagine and impossible to forget that we’re on the other side of the world.

We’re home now and had a dinner of beer, peanut butter on chocolate wafers (because we forgot to buy crackers), Pringles (made in Jordan) and tuna, straight from the can (seasoned with some left over airline salt and pepper).  I realize that sounds both decadent and disgusting, BUT we have been living on a vegan diet of rice, potatoes, plantains, and beans, so it was delicious and welcomed.

Back to the play tomorrow.

Rwanda 2011

Day two – July 24

On the walk to our first class this morning, we ran into Ilan, the director of Agohozo.  Ilan is an Israeli and, like other Israeli’s I’ve met, very to the point.  He stressed how important it was that we get to the Genocide Museum in Kigali as soon as possible.  He’s not the first to talk about how important it is that we know – or at least try to have some understanding – of what these kids are dealing with.  Rwandan culture is not one that goes for therapy and expressing emotions.  People are expected to keep their feelings to themselves.  We’ve been told that although this country is a darling of the developing world, it is as if the entire country has PTSD.

On the surface, the twenty-five teenagers we spent six hours doing theatre games with today were like the teens we worked with in Tanzania last year – polite, very open to the games, competitive with each other, very very funny and filled with energy.  But, underneath all that, lies the 1994 genocide.  They were babies so they have no actual memory of it, but it has shaped every aspect of their lives.  Most obviously because it took their parents (and for many, I’m sure, other members of their families), but also because it is now woven into the psychology and identity of this country.  As Ilan said, “What happened here is worse than the Holocoust.  With us, at least it was an outside force.  Here, they did it to each other.”

How do you heal that?

The land is beautiful.  Rwanda is called the Country of a Thousand Hills.   Even though this is the dry season, everything seems lush and green, cut only by red roads.   The village is on the side of one of these hills with high school on the highest point. “If you see far, you will go far,” the motto says.  The land opens up around the school in soft green hills, lined with rows of crops (banana trees, corn, legumes, potatoes, eggplant, mango trees) and fading into the distance under the haze of the day. Far off there is a lake.   On a clear day, we were told, you can see the hills of Burundi. In the other direction, the town of Rubona is on a neighboring hill – a short walk away – and at night you can see the glow of the lights from Kigali.

I am trying to put this idyllic landscape together with what I know happened here.  Walking down the hill and through the village to our guest house, I found myself wondering, what was here before all of this?  From what everything I’ve read about the genocide, the question isn’t did some body die here, but how many?

We walk a fine line in the work we’re doing with these students.   Today, after an hour of so of warmup games (we’re teaching the international language of “zip zap zop” to students everywhere) we lead the students through an “I Am From” poem.  This is a list poem.  I start by asking them to list where they come from, their favorite foods, the colour of the sky at their favorite time of day, etc.  Then, they put “I am from” in front of each thing on the list.  It’s very simple but amazingly powerful.  Normally in this poem you talk about the past – influential family members, something an elder said to you, etc.  I didn’t want to ignore that completely but didn’t know how to carefully enter that territory.   We are careful not to mention “mother and father”.   I find myself on guard – something that I take for granted could so easily slip out of my mouth.  But for all our caution, the students themselves are very factual about the genocide.  They had to write stories or plays to get into this program and many of them talk about the genocide and how people in the country must now learn to love each other and find peaceful ways to negotiate problems so it doesn’t happen again.  I don’t know how typical this is of all Rwandans.  That may be more of a sign of the culture here at Agahozo.

Agohozo Shalom Youth Village is based on the Israeli Yemin Orde Youth Village that was set up after the Second World War for children who had lost their parents.  The students come here for 5 years.  The first year is the Enrichment Year.  In school it is used to catch them up on whatever subjects they may be behind on.  The focus of the year is healing yourself – tikkun halev.  The second phase of the healing is tikkun olam, healing the world.  The students are actively involved in the life of the village – working in the kitchen (that serves food to 500+), on the farm, doing art projects and working in the nearby village once a week to help people rebuid houses and teach the younger children English, the new national language of instruction.

The students live in houses of 16 with a counselor and a house mother.  The house mothers are widows and victims of the genocide.  Each house is named after a hero – Joan of Arc, Patrice Lumumba, Benjamin Franklin, Anne Frank (etc).

 I don’t want this blog to be all about the genocide.  Telling people you’re going to Rwanda to teach theatre to kids who are orphans from the genocide immediately puts a halo on your head.  The truth of it is I feel very lost. It’s beautiful here and living in this village, it’s like we’re at some kind of summer camp.  Agahozo covers many acres and is surrounded by a fence.  The houses the kids (and guests) stay in are much nicer than what they probably live in at home.  Here they are simple concrete buildings with glass windows and red tiled roofs.  The houses are painted greens and reddish orange like the rusty colour of the roads.  The village is organized around a mango tree with four roads in concentric half circles going down the hill.  There is a science lab, an arts and music building, a well equipped high school, a soccer field and basketball court and a large community center where meals are served and village-wide events take place.  Everything is clean and in working order.  The kids wear the clothing discards that I’ve got used to seeing here – – one of our girls was wearing a shirt from a guitar shop in Rochester, NY, another was wearing a shirt that said “Virginia is for Lovers”.  But all of the clothes are neat and in good shape.

Is this the “real” Rwanda?  That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves.  I think we’re each sort of craving the “authentic” Rwandan experience, but at the same time we’re grateful for the comforts of this place and that it is safe and clean.  There’s a steady stream of volunteers (long term and short term like us) and the students’ English is very strong.  It’s as real as any other place, I guess.  I can only imagine what’s under the surface here and I don’t know if the impulse to want to help is like the guilty fascination I have driving past an accident and wanting to see the details, or if its from some true desire to heal… something I’m very unqualified for.

Rwanda 2011

Day One ~ July 23, 2011

18 hours of flying, four airports on three continents and a taxi ride through the darkness of our first Rwandan night with a remixed version of “Cecelia” blaring and Didi in the front seat trying not to throw up into a paper bag.  We’re here – we are in Rwanda at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village.  In the next eighteen days we are going to be living here, about 45 minutes outside Kigali, working with 25 students to create a play.   I’m not a very regular blogger, as my previous post (and then the LOOONG gap) will attest to, but I’m going to give it a go.  Once the jet lag wears off…

They say things (good or bad) happen in threes.  It started in New York when we arrived at the Lufthansa counter to check in and the woman looked worried and then walked away with our passports to talk to her supervisor. Seems there is conflicting information out there about Canadians needing visas.  Since when can Americans get into a country that Canadians can’t?!?  The woman came back with bad news – – I need a visa. A visa that I have to apply for from my home country several days in advance.  They couldn’t let me on the airplane without one.  Fortunately the woman’s supervisor was nice (how anyone can work at an airline check in counter and still be kind, I don’t know) and looked deep into the annals of Google and found a website that said Canadians were okay. She printed it off, and armed with that, let me on the plane. Next, Sean broke out in a rash – – an allergic reaction that happens to 1% of people taking the particular brand of anti-malarial pills we’re taking. So covered in growing hives, we flew, hoping at each airport we could find some kind of antihistamine to combat his growing ichiness and not finding anything.  It was at this point that I started to wonder if there would be third thing. We got to Kigali, getting off our very small propeller plane (that I swear – because I was looking out the window – was flying without lights – it can’t have been, right? It was very VERY dark out there…). That was when Didi started her intimate relationship with Rwandan porcelain. She’s feeling better now. This was also when I got to test the power of the Lufthansa printout. Turns out the rules changed in November but not all websites did, so I did need a visa. Rwandan immigration officials (if you get them at 3am) are the NICEST people I’ve ever had to deal with. They said I could buy the visa and let me in.

Since then, we’ve slept til almost noon (it was past 4am when we got to bed), had our first two Agahozo meals – – rice, potatoes and some kind of vegetable (mainly eggplant) with a few beans.   It’s a vegetarian diet here.  Rwandans don’t believe in eating the animal that has provided you with eggs or milk.  There are 1200 chickens here but they don’t seem to serve eggs.  I’m not sure what the milk is used for either – it seems to be a mainly vegan diet, high in starch.   We were given a tour by Media (pronounced MED-ya) and Longin (pronounced Lo-GENE), two counselors who will be assisting us throughout the process.  They’ve both been here since 2008 when Agahozo opened and know all 375 kids here.  They are very proud of the village — everyone we’ve met is.  Each year, the village takes in another 125 kids so next year they will be at capacity with 500 (plus 120 staff).  With this many people living and working in the same place, it seems, from what I’ve seen so far, to be an amazingly well oiled machine.

More soon.