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.