Today we visited another genocide memorial. Rather than a large, official structure, right in the middle of the city, this one was much more raw and visceral. It was a Catholic church, where several hundred Rwandans were slaughtered during the genocide as they took shelter.
Growing up Catholic, church has been a reverent place for me. It was a rather stark contrast to see one as a place of such a horrific event. The church had been perfectly preserved from the genocide. It felt as if it could have happened mere weeks ago, rather than 25 years ago. There were bullet and shrapnel pieces still stuck around the doors and ceilings from when the church was forcibly entered. You could still see bloodstains on the ceiling from victims who had been killed with machetes. Clothing from the victims was neatly folded on many of the benches - many of them covered in bloodstains as well. Much of the clothing was small, sized to fit an infant or toddler - another reminder that this genocide did not only affect adults, but on children as well.
I felt seriously unwell during this visit. How could a reverent place of worship - a place of refuge - become the site of such a horrific event? I could not reconcile those two in my mind. I could not bear to stay inside the church for more than a few minutes at a time. I could not bring myself to walk down the stairs to the basement, where the graves were. Instead, I merely sat on the ground outside the church and thought. This was much more material than I had anticipated processing.
I took many deep breaths. I focused on the ground below me, and the clear sky above me. I listened to the cool breeze rustling through the trees, and the sounds of schoolchildren playing in the field just over the fence. I found a still place in the chaotic center of my mind. I am hopeful that this experience will continue to unpack itself as we journey along this trip.
Today was an exciting day!!! We had our first opportunity to put story-based learning into action. We visited an all-boy’s orphanage. On the way there, Drew informed us that we’d be leading some games in a circle, engaging with the children, and facilitating simple stories. We were also informed that there would likely be a LARGE language barrier, and our activities would take much longer than they usually did. The bus got very quiet when Drew mentioned that. This was the moment that our work became reality, rather than just theory. As ridiculous as it seemed, I was more nervous now (four days into our trip!) than I was before I left!!
About three minutes later, we arrived. There were a LOT of children there!! They ranged in ages from probably 4 or 5, up to teenagers. We left the bus to say hello, and we were greeted with huge enthusiasm!! One of our group members idly started bottle flipping (remember that trend?) with one of our numerous bottles of water. That caught the eye of some of the kids, and the game was quickly adopted by dozens of children, all eager to be the first to successfully land a bottle upright (which several of them did, and none of our delegation managed to do).
We were ushered into a large classroom where Drew and the head teachers gave some opening remarks. I couldn’t understand most of what was said, so instead I opted to look around the room. Unfortunately this did little to comfort or reassure me, because it seemed like every eye in the room was on our delegation! Though it was a mildly cool day, I started sweating. All the kids were looking up to us - this was a lot of pressure!!
All too soon we were broken up into groups. Mine had three student teachers - me, Lisa, and Imani. I’d estimate there were about 25 kids in my group. I attempted to begin with our first warmup (holding hands in a circle), but it took about five minutes (rather than the usual five seconds). This was when the group collectively decided we needed an interpreter, rather than have us gesture our way through 4 hours of exercises. Thankfully, one of the older students stepped in to help out with
We proceeded through our exercises as normal. They were met with enthusiasm, especially when we asked students to demonstrate objects with their bodies. One particularly impressive moment was when our entire group came together to represent a bicycle - it was a working, moving, kinesthetic sculpture - I wish I was able to take a video! After we had run through our exercises, the students offered to share a few of their own Rwandan games, which we gladly played (and lost…). It was wonderful - it felt like a true exchange of cultures, which was exactly the reason I came here!!
After the games were over (and I had obtained a nice sunburn on my neck), we walked around the school for a bit. Or rather, we tried to - but the kids wouldn’t let us at first. We were swarmed with children asking us questions begging to be held, or (in my case), trying on our headbands/glasses. It felt like we were celebrities! One of the kids, Samuel, was basically glued to me after the exercises ended. He quickly adopted my headband and glasses, and as we walked around, I carried him on my back for close to an hour (no exaggeration - he fell asleep, and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up).
All too soon, it was time to leave, and I didn’t want to go. Even though we’d maybe spent 5 hours there in total, my heart ached for the kids. We’d formed relationships, and the possibility was real that we’d never see each other again. As we drove away, I snapped a picture of Samuel waving goodbye. It still hurts to look at.
Today on the bus, Drew announced that we were going to an art center, and we’d also receive traditional Rwandan dance lessons.
This was my worst nightmare.
I canNOT dance. I only barely passed my beginner tap class last semester, and it was 100% focused on footwork. Moving my arms or the rest of my body? That was WAY too much to ask. I think the fear was evident on my face as we drove towards the center.
The art center was gorgeous. There was a treasure trove of inspiration to be found there (especially because much of the artwork was recycled), but I could only focus on one thing - how stupid I’d look dancing. My lack of adeptness would be particularly noticeable compared to the other people in my group - Imani, Lisa, and Lila are all amazing dancers. Me, on the other hand...I’m a gangly white boy. I am seriously out of my element. The music was only drums, so I had no excuse for not staying on rhythm - I had to perform.
Christian, our wonderful instructor, led us through several basic steps. I was keenly aware of Drew, Molly, and Gabrielle filming us (and I shudder to think of what those videos look like - it could be incriminating evidence!), but as the dance wore on, I stopped caring so much about what I looked like. I gradually began to lose myself in the drum music, and began to feel the polyrhythms rather than carefully think my way through each step. I started to enjoy myself towards the end of the lesson!
I still refuse to post the photos, though. Or the video, God forbid.
Today we visited a traditional marketplace in Kigali. This was the part of the trip that I was simultaneously the most excited and the most nervous for. I’d heard amazing stories of how beautiful all of the handcrafted items were, how delicious all the street food was, and the general bustle of activity - but also nightmare stories of being ripped off, having items stolen, or worse.
As we drove to the market, Francoise, our guide, informed us that fixed prices weren’t really a thing in the market. Instead, we would be bartering and going back and forth on prices. Since the majority of us would stand out in the market like sore thumbs (particularly me, with my pasty skin, thick hair, and gangly structure), we were told that we’d be charged triple the market value of any all goods (though they would still seem reasonable to us). Being a nervous and shy traveler, I expected to get all my $100 scammed off me within five minutes.
We entered the marketplace - some (or really just me) more tentative than others. Though the market didn’t cover a large area of ground, it was LOUD! We walked single file to the back of the market, and I use the term ‘walk’ lightly - we were edging, tiptoeing, and ducking around piles of tomatoes, fish, people, goats - anything and everything imaginable was there. We walked through the grocery/food section first. While i would never have purchased or eaten anything there (it looked pretty dodgy), the smell was AMAZING. The fruits and vegetables were huge (avocados three times the size of my fist, tomatoes almost as big as my head), oozing with ripeness. There were salted fish and other goodies being cooked right next to the produce. As much as I would have liked to, I didn’t have time to linger. Francoise quickly led us to the handcraft section of the market. I only barely had time to snap a few blurry photographs, but they in no way can capture the amount activity that was EVERYWHERE. One of our group members, Amanda, had a video camera to capture the action. I was incredibly jealous - it seemed much more effective to capture the feeling of the market.
We finally arrived in the craft section, settling in a row of fabric stalls. I barely had time to glance around once before I was pulled aside by two brothers who offered to show me around the market (and their personal stalls, of course). They had a very good grip on English (this was obviously not their first time dealing with native English speakers), and were much friendlier than I had anticipated. I thought they’d be pushy, but we stood around and chatted for a bit. Eric, one of the shopkeepers (and a newfound friend) proclaimed he was a famous designer and an Instagram celebrity - we exchanged accounts and followed each other (which, naturally, led to several purchases at his shop).
There were sellers around every corner, with all sorts of small goods and trinkets. My first purchase (outside Eric’s shop) was a headband that the shopkeeper insisted went beautifully with my skin (500f extra for fashion advice), and I then lost track of the materials I purchased. I was nervous about haggling prices at first, but it went much easier than I expected (I settled for WAY more than I should have, and the shopkeepers laughing at me probably meant I was getting ripped off), but what struck, me was how kind and down-to-earth everyone was about the purchases. I expected rude sellers (or worse, pickpockets), but everyone was more than happy to talk the price down (and then back up, and back up, and up again). A handshake and exchange of business cards/phone numbers/social media/selfie was requisite at every booth. My money ran out after about 15 minutes, but luckily I have a bit more to exchange - I definitely want to return near the end of our trip!!
We spent the first part of today processing our genocide memorial visit from yesterday. In true story-based learning fashion, we began with theatrical warm-ups (standing in a circle, passing energy from person to person, and some simple voice and movement exercises). Though we’d played these games during our meetings before we left, they somehow had more weight now. We were all dedicated and devoted to the task at hand, not distracted by the workload of last semester. We were led through creating a simple theme and structure for a story, and then putting it into our bodies. The final stories were OK, but it was the process that was important, since we’ll be using it to train teachers next week.
Though not everybody was on board with the story-based model of processing at first (including me), it was a good activity that brought us all much closer together. For 9 students who had never truly worked as an ensemble before (with many being basically strangers), this was a much needed activity. In a rare occurrence, we were granted the afternoon off - we earned it!
We visited a genocide memorial this afternoon.
It was deep.
At first, I wasn’t convinced I should write about it. It was a powerful, moving, sobering, and reverent experience that is difficult to put words to. But I came here to share story, and if there’s one takeaway from the memorial it’s that silence is oppression.
In 1994, there was a genocide in Rwanda. Over a period of 100 days, more than a million Rwandan Tutsi (a Rwandan social class) were murdered by Hutu (another social class) extremists. There were a multitude of political and cultural reasons that led up to the genocide that I won’t get into discussing. Instead, suffice it to say that it was a period of absolute brutality, and was quite shocking to read about.
The museum did not try to gloss over things or cover them up. Not only were there videos of Rwandans describing their neighbors turning on each other and murdering them, there were also dozens of skulls and bones of victims. Reminders of the horror that occurred in those 100 days were raw and plentiful. I could see last photographs of victims, sometimes moments before death. Children’s clothing. Propaganda. Images of bodies. So many bodies. I could not make it through what was called the ‘children’s room’ - a sequence of rooms dedicated to the children who lost their lives during the genocide (which listed, in detail, the children’s friends, favorite foods, personalities, cause of death [often brutal, by machete or rifle], and most disturbingly, their ages, which barely rose into double digits). Tragedy is a powerful thing.
The most amazing thing about the memorial was that Rwandans don’t try to cover the genocide up and pretend it didn’t happen. Instead, the center memorialized what happened. The guides throughout the center had a distinct determination to tell this story, to make sure people know how it happened, and that it doesn’t happen again.
I don’t think I can write any more on this subject. We will be processing and discussing this as a group tomorrow. From the dead silence that was present on the bus driving back to the guest house tonight, it is apparent that we all need it.
I can’t end this blog on a depressing note, so I will just share one amusing thing that happened today - as we were walking to the memorial, a group of children waved at our group, and referred to us as “Muzungo” - slang for “dizzy” or “foreigner,” commonly used as slang for “white person.” This proved heartily amusing to many mixed race members of our group, particularly Tierra, who proudly exclaimed, “I’ve never been called a white person before! This is so exciting!!”
It’s about 3 in the morning here. I just woke up to the sound of what I thought was continuous thunder.
Then I slowly realized it wasn’t thunder.
It was just the pounding rain.
When we initially arrived here, I noticed the deep drainage ditches, gutters, and pipe systems throughout the city. It seemed apparent that Rwanda is no stranger to rain, particularly large storms. However, it was completely shocking to me to experience such a heavy downpour. I’m used to hearing storms through the thick, waterproof walls of my house in Buffalo - this was a complete downpour happening basically two feet away from my head, through a wide-open window, with water so thick I couldn’t see more than a foot away!!
It puts you in your place. Similar to when I visited Vancouver and felt dwarfed by mountains, I felt incredibly small next to the pounding rain outside. I felt at the mercy of nature.
And then it went away, as suddenly as it had arrived. I felt alive, smelling the refreshing cool air as the water was absorbed by the earth.
I miss the rain now. I kind of want it back.
After a hearty breakfast today (TONS of fruit and veggies, both of which are incredibly sweet in Rwanda - not to mention the coffee), we headed onto our bus to visit the Nyamirambo Women’s Center just outside of Kigali. The bus was loud, jovial, and filled with singing - the evening had worked its magic, and our spirits were lifted from yesterday!! We all learned to count off the members of our group in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s most spoken language. I was granted the number 7 - Karingwe.
We arrived at the center, an unassuming building on the street with a GORGEOUS mural on the wall outside. The women greeting us were, in what appears to be a trend on this trip, incredibly welcoming and kind. The reception area doubled as a small public library. It was only one room, but bookshelves lined the walls, and the women informed us that children frequented the library to read. It became quite clear that Rwanda is a very women-focused culture. In fact, they rank number one in the world for women in positions of government (just over 60% of seats are held by women. In comparison, the US ranks a dismal 75th in the world for number of female government seats).
Before walking the city, we were handed a small paper of common phrases to use during our tour. We were also informed that people would VERY likely talk to us, and we should be able to communicate despite the language barrier. Some of our group, such Lila (who speaks several languages already) picked up the phrases in no time at all and could tuck the paper in her pocket for the tour. Others (like me, who can barely speak English properly) kept it handy at all times. I wished I could have glued it to my face! Languages are not my strong suit (not good for a world traveler), but luckily everyone got so excited and happy at our clumsy attempts Kinyarwanda that they were super patient and made their best attempts at English. Through gesture, facial expression, and a few universal words, common story was found.
Our guide, Sylvie, led us through the city with an unbelievable amount of professionalism. She expertly walked us through a seemingly endless brick wall of murals, down some back alleys where Cassava leaves were being pounded into pulp, and through a small open market to taste some of the leaves, veggies and spices right off the tables (the one thing I was warned NOT to do on this trip…I’m sure we’ll all be fine). Through everything, Sylvie was polite, efficient, and extremely informative. I was shocked to discover she was only 21, a student like we were.
I was enchanted by the children we saw on our trip. I mentioned people staring in our last blog, but it was even more noticeable with the young children we passed on our walks through Kigali. They were SO cute! Many would bashfully wave hello, stare through windows and then duck down, and speak to us in mixed English/Kinyarwanda. They were open and full of life, and they gave a wonderfully youthful atmosphere to the city!
After the tour, Sylvie brought us to the city center for a local home-cooked meal. It was absolutely delicious - plantains, root vegetables, beans, and Pilipili pickled onions (I gave them a wide berth). Conversation flowed like a serene river. This was a wonderful way to kick off our trip!!
This will be a short blog post. However.
This sauce. THIS FREAKING SAUCE.
I’m Puerto Rican, so it’s no surprise that I enjoy spicy food. We were eating dinner last night, when somebody brought a BIG bowl of orange sauce to the table. They called it Pilipili and said to try it. It was a large bowl, I figured if we were to eat it in large quantities it couldn’t be that hot. Right? I took a dip.
One pea-sized dab. That stuff was HOT. It stays with you for a while - initially it was an intense burn, but it lingered with me LONG after the initial burn, and nothing would help - not rice, not bread, not fruit, not ice cream.
Yeah. Tongue, lips, throat, everywhere. It’s HOT.
The real indicator is that I was so distracted I forgot to get a picture of the infernal sauce. Probably for the best, it might trigger traumatic memories.
If I bring home a mysteriously tiny container of sauce, stay away from it. You have been warned.
I am traveling to Rwanda with the intent of a sponge - I want to absorb as many unique experiences as I possibly can, and bring them back to share with my culture. I am a multifaceted artist, and Rwanda is a treasure trove of valuable experiences to draw inspiration from. As a visual artist, I look forward to seeing unique handmade art, and letting it inspire an artistic vision. As a musician, I look forward to hearing vastly different than what I’m used to, and letting that inspire music from my soul. And as a teacher, I’m looking to see teaching methods different than what I have known. I want to bring these gifts back and share them with my culture.