Postscript 2017

Phase 6 of Project Rwanda is over. It is hard to believe that we have been visiting the country regularly since 2010, only the second year of the MA in Applied Theatre Program’s existence! There have been many changes in Rwanda during those years but also much has remained constant …

Looking back on this year’s work, it is fair to say that by any objective criteria we have written another successful chapter in the University of Rwanda College of Education (URCE, formerly KIE, the Kigali Institute of Education) and the CUNY School of Professional Studies (SPS) collaboration. In citing this success, I do not presume to speak for everyone or to gloss over differences. Each individual will have had their own unique experience according to their own expectations, needs and identity, and their relationship to the work, group, country, culture and Continent. There are so many variables!

The overall sense of success arises from the evidence of the sessions and projects we completed, for example, the original forum pieces created by the Rwandan students, their responses to The Last Town process drama, and the joy of actors and audience alike during the performance of The Flying Twins. This evaluation is reinforced by the e-mails of appreciation sent by the Rwandan students to their faculty, thanking them for making the experience possible; by the evidence of growth amongst the students (as cited by the URCE faculty in our closeout meeting); and by their gratitude and appreciation for our skills, group management, and student-centered pedagogy. All this is echoed in the many words of thanks and endorsement offered by our own students.

The URCE faculty members spoke of their excitement at the evident commitment of their students, and their delight at seeing and hearing how students from across the range of Humanities subjects – not just the drama students – so quickly grasped how our methodology could be employed to support active teaching and learning in so many curriculum subjects. It is a theme that they very much want to pursue with us in future phases of the Project.

So, to the extent that one can generalize, it has been a job well done!
But this Project is, and always has been, a many-layered, complex venture. Learning takes place on many levels and can sometimes be painful. We can evaluate skill levels and cohort growth; we can mark the developmental arc of the groups as a whole, both the Rwandan and American; and we can calibrate success relative to the wider Project goals and objectives. But the learning may vary considerably from person to person. What new skills have been learned or developed? What new perspectives acquired? What has been learned about collaboration – and group membership (for us, as part of a team, living and working together 24/7 for 17 days!)? More fundamentally, what have we learned about ourselves, as we step outside of our cultural comfort zones, work through language barriers, and across our many differences, confronting our western privilege and navigating the hazards of “cultural invasion” (Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed)?
Do we recognize our missteps and see our shortcomings as well as successes? Do we have the courage to articulate them, and the humility to recognize the gifts that our mistakes can bestow? For each of us the answers will be different. For my own part, I am aware that the more I learn about Rwanda, the more there is to understand. As I become more convinced of the intrinsic value of our work, and repeatedly see its appeal to the Rwandan students, the more questions I have about its applicability and sustainability in their world. Bottom line, I know the work is not wasted but is that enough?
All of these questions are circumscribed by the goals and objectives of the Project itself but there is a much wider context. The ripples in the water continue to radiate outwards, in ever widening circles …

Rwanda is only days away from a general election. What does that presage, and what meaning might our small Project have in the bigger picture?

The result of the election is in no doubt. Everyone we spoke to was cheerleading for Paul Kagame. At the last election he polled 93% of the votes. There is no reason to believe this time will be much different. Opponents – and cynics – will say it is too dangerous to speak or vote otherwise: dissent is suppressed. There is certainly evidence cited to support this view: beyond Rwanda, conspiracy theories abound. That said, the widespread enthusiasm for Kagame is not feigned. For many, he remains Rwanda’s Mandela, the country’s liberator, architect of its post-genocide reconstruction and, above all, the source of its security.

Many western commentators will no doubt greet his impending victory as another example of an African dictator claiming legitimacy from a sham democratic process – but perhaps we would do well to remove the motes from our own eyes before protesting too self-righteously. Some prospective candidates may have failed to find the required support to make the ballot paper – perhaps mischievously discredited internally – but there are other candidates, two to be exact (one representing the Green Party). Are they tolerated for appearances sake? Again, rumors and complaints circulate, even in Rwanda. Are they allowed equal exposure? Is it possible to have their messages heard above the clamor for another seven Kagame years? It is not surprising that opposition candidates claim they are disadvantaged: it was ever thus. But there is a qualifying process, with state supported, but restricted, funding attached for all candidates – who must first achieve the strictly monitored, requisite voter support. There is also a limited campaign period of approximately one month! Is any of this less democratic than the ever expanding US campaign season with the obscene amounts of cash required to sustain it and, ultimately, vie for (or buy?) victory! Are the Rwandan constraints more pernicious than the apparently ‘legal’ voter suppression now so widely practiced in so many US states? Or is it less democratic than having a UK prime minister appointed without an election and then subsequently legitimized by a minority of voters in a snap election of her choosing?
As to the European nations so quick to defame Kagame for the apparent suppression of human rights, where is their admission of the colonial crimes that shaped modern day Africa, or acknowledgement of the continuing self-interested financial and political interventions that continue to distort it? Little is heard of the mess they helped create which the likes of Kagame struggle to clean up.

Looked at through this prism, the rebirth of Rwanda is remarkable. Everywhere there is visible evidence of a developing infrastructure, a growing, more affluent, middle class, and expanded public services. (The determination to achieve universal access to healthcare stands in stark contrast to the current US administration’s mission to remove it from 22 million citizens; and the streets of Kigali are indisputably safer than those of Chicago!)

If statistics are to be believed, between 2011 and 2014, poverty fell by six percentage points to 39%, while Rwanda’s consistent economic growth rate of 8% per year makes it “one of the fastest-growing economies in the world (though still one of the poorest)” (The Economist July 15, 2017).

With all this said, questions abound. At what cost is progress being made? Who is footing the bill, and who is benefiting most? Who will end up ‘owning’ Rwanda? Clearly foreign aid and investment are both crucial. Chinese and Korean interests, amongst many others, are readily apparent. So what is the balance and trade-off between the profit-oriented, increasingly globalized, growth of the private sector and funding in the public sphere? In spite of the apparent progress there are glaring inconsistencies. While the Kigali skyline begins to resemble a mini New York, teachers remain low-paid, jobs are scarce, and at the URCE, faculty members have not been paid for two months! As one of our Rwandan friends so stoically observed, everyone must try to diversify their sources of income. Most teachers that we know have, or aspire to, alternative private enterprises to help sustain them. The teaching profession is clearly not currently a route to financial security.

Consistent with the financial constraints on public education, the University of Rwanda is ‘rationalizing’ its course provision and location of degree programs. By the end of the summer, the College of Education is scheduled to move out of Kigali to a new rural location. While there are sound educational reasons for the physical relocation and the consolidation of academic subject areas, there is undoubtedly a cost-cutting dimension to the decision. What all this will mean for the faculty, staff, students and student recruitment – as well as the future of drama, including our own collaboration – remains to be seen. As for so much else in Rwanda, the potential is exciting, the challenges considerable, and the future uncertain. The next phase of Rwanda’s development – during Kagame’s next seven years – will be fascinating to watch. For ourselves, the questions remain: Where might we fit in? What can we contribute? And what might we, wittingly or unwittingly, be supporting?

As a Program, we have taken the Land of a Thousand Hills to our hearts and I hope we have a positive role to play in its future development – but the hard questions need continually asking and answering.

Chris Vine
Brooklyn, July 2017.

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We Rest and Remember

Sunday, July 23, 2017

For our last day together in Rwanda, we went on a long, windy drive west to Lake Kivu and Kibuye. This area is a place that holds some of the most beautiful views of nature’s creation, and some of the most horrible memories of humanity’s actions.

As we wound our way through the mountainside (which is what has happened each time we left Kigali, be it heading South, East, or West; the nickname “Land of a Thousand Hills” may be an understatement), I was perpetually struck by the evidence of labor. So much of the land, regardless of elevation and angle, has been cultivated at some point, and the countryside is terraced and notched into squares and rectangles everywhere we drove.


Lake Kivu is an incredible place…an African Great Lake (Who coined that term, I wonder…) that encompasses your view, interrupted only by hills and islands that create the jagged outline of this immense body of water that spans the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Houses, resorts, and churches dot the edge of the lake, and the mix of the green of the trees, the blue of the water, and the red of the earth created an unending collection of idyllic views. After two wonderful but weary weeks in the city, it was lovely to walk, to sit and take in the view.


Above the lake, we walked through a Catholic church that is also a Genocide Memorial Site in Kibuye, an area that witnessed some of the most concentrated killings during the genocide. At each site, which are carefully maintained and willingly made available to visitors, there hangs a banner that reads:

After such a joyful and generous experience with the URCE students, educators committed to the future of their students and this country, those words resonate all the more earnestly.

As our incredibly skilled bus driver negotiated the curves of the road back to Kigali, the hazy day slid into dark night. We watched goats urged home, cars and motorbikes snake through lanes, children finish outdoor games, and folks make their way to their next destination.

Now it is our turn to pack up, sleep our last night in Rwanda, and move on to our next destinations, full of so much to remember.


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One Day More

The play finished and the celebrations concluded (with hugs, blessings and more hugs as we said goodbye to the wonderful students of URCE), we woke up on Saturday a little mopey with end-of-production letdown. But never ones to wallow, we packed up and off we went for more exploration of Rwandan landmarks.

Our first stop was the Presidential Palace Museum, the home inhabited by Juvenal Habyarimana and his family from 1973 to 1994, when the plane carrying him and, among eleven others, President of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down and crashed in his own backyard.

Sadly, no pictures are allowed inside the palace, so it is very hard to get across its effect. Designed by a German architect, it has something of a Swiss chalet feel from the outside, which conceals the many nooks and crannies inside.

Some of its many features include:

-a coffee table with actual elephant legs

-security in the form of sensors on every step to the second floor so that a different tone was heard based on which step you were on (which we all thought could be a really fun way for the kids to drive their parents crazy at night)

-an unsecured “hidden” closet for all the guns, in the room shared by his five sons

-a hidden escape staircase, also in the boys’ room

-separate staircases for his pastor and his witch doctor, so they would never know about each other’s existence

-a workout room that doubled as his ritual room with the witch doctor

Outside, the grounds include:
-the viewing area for the wreckage of the plane (also no picture taking allowed)
-the snake pit which housed an enormous python that, according to our tour guide, never strayed from his pool and rock home, despite having no fence, glass, or anything else that you might want to put around a python
-this enormous tree, which took up most of our tour time. Our lovely, and unusually-playful-with-a-camera tour guide kept offering us more and more goofy poses to take, and hams that we are, we took her up on it. It should be noted that I couldn’t find a picture that had everyone looking perfect, but that in every one of them, Brigid Brady does.

Our afternoon was more disquieting. We visited memorial sites at Ntarama and Nyamata. I hesitate to describe too much what they are like as I think it takes some of the power away from the experience of visiting them. The memorials include mass graves, but also piles of victims’ clothing and documents (including the identity cards that betrayed so many people), as well as weapons that were used against the victims. Both of the sites were churches in which people took refuge, hoping for safe haven.

It was a very different experience than visiting the Genocide Museum in Kigali, to be in villages which are still populated and busy, and to be surrounded by the remains of those who died during those hundred days.

We have all of us been touched by Rwanda, through theatre, through history and through connections to those contemporary Rwandans who make up this vibrant culture and country. With only one more day, we are left with so much to think about and to share – perhaps we can be the world that really means it when it says “Never Again.”


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Performance, Celebration and Fond Farewells!

Friday, July 21, 2017

How did this day come so quickly!? After ten days of working, playing, sweating, and discovering, show day arrived faster than a Rwandan moto. From the morning dress rehearsal, to the performance, to the dinner and dancing, there were too many moments of victory today to put all together in one blog post. Instead, here’s a selective list of the moments that blew me away. *

Top Ten Show Day Moments of Awesomeness

10. The moment we realized we had 3 hours to FINISH CREATING THE PLAY.

Us CUNY folks huffed and puffed to the University of Rwanda College of Education (URCE) with our suitcases filled to the brim with set dressings, costumes, makeup, props, books, supplies, and more. From 8:30am onward we rehearsed in our small groups; drilling lines, bits, and cues, shifting entrances and exits, and nailing down little details, like, you know, how exactly the end of the play would look. We were even able to fit in a dress rehearsal before lunch, and ran the play from the beginning to end without stopping.

9. The moment when a grown man wore stage makeup for the first time and owned it.

Rwanda has a deep and rich history of ritual, music, and dance. Adorning special dress to transform in these spaces isn’t anything new. And yet, picture this: you’re a 20-something college student, you’ve never done theatre before, and suddenly you find yourself cast in a wild show about flying children and magical monsters, tasked with bringing the story to life. A little…weird, right? Never fear! Don a little Ogre makeup to bring out the confident inner ham in no time.

JeanPierreRwandaOgre (2)

8. The moment when I peeked out at the audience and discovered that between two schools, parents, families, faculty members, administrators, and other University staff members, we had a packed house!

7. The moment when the Queen, played by a woman who reaches 5 feet on a tall day, commanded a room of 300 people with a look and a snap.

6. The moment when rows upon rows of school children squealed in delight as a multi-headed monster stomped into their midst…

…and then when the actors offstage, waiting to make their first entrance, heard those squeals and burst into satisfied smiles.

5. The moment in the play when the “twins” all sang Nyegriye Nygasani, a traditional Rwandan song the students shared with us on Tuesday, and it soared over the audience in a moving, deep, and resonating prayer.


4. The moment when the audience realized they were participants in the imagining of the end of the story.

Rather than present a single ending to our audience, our play asks that the audience debate and exchange ideas about themes prevalent in the play, such as justice, retribution, revenge, and forgiveness. This practice aligns with both CUNY and UR’s focus on active learning and critical thinking. A few of the ideas from our bright, young audience were:
Punish the parents, kill the Ogre, reward the Ogre’s wife and children.
Give the parents a second chance (but if they still don’t take care of their children, punish them).
Feed the parents to the Ogre!
Invite all of them to move into the palace with the Queen and learn to forgive each other and live in peace.

3. The moment when an audience member guessed we started creating our play two weeks ago.

We started playbuilding two days ago. The URCE students are that good.

2. The moment when we packed up the theatre, dropped off the bags, and joined the students for a well-deserved after party!

Before we arrived in Rwanda, the CUNY MA program and its community raised funds to host the Rwandan students to a dinner to celebrate the completion of two weeks of hard work and fun. Held at a newly-opened restaurant and music venue, we ate together, told stories, exchanged ideas, mused about the future, and, of course, hit the dance floor…but then, sadly, it was time to take our leave of the wonderful Rwandan students, the new friends with whom we have shared so much, so intensely, in such a short space of time.


1. “Knowledge comes from the brain, but it also comes from the battle,” said Léon Mugabe, Faculty of Education and one of the coordinators of the project, in a special moment after the play.

One of the objectives of this phase of Project Rwanda was to build skills and provide concrete tools to teachers-in-training, setting them up for success in teaching the new competence-based curriculum. This curriculum was implemented to shift the national educational focus from knowledge acquisition to competence in transferable professional and social skills, and includes a pedagogical emphasis on student-centered, active learning. These teaching skills must be learned in battle, by doing and assessing. Over the course of two weeks, we built these skills together exponentially, and in just two days, 80 of us took words on a page, examined themes, embodied characters, weaved together music, dance, and drama, established methods of creating together, supported each other, and connected with an audience of 250+ to discuss the complexities of our world. I learned how to be part of a team of kind and conscious collaborators, and have indescribable gratitude for the skills our Rwandan students helped me develop in turn.

-Natalie Stringer


*For context, here’s a quick synopsis of the play we created in two days: The folk tale of the Flying Twins, on which our play is based, is set in a village where the children are all born in two’s! Because there are twice as many mouths to feed, the village becomes poorer and poorer, until the parents all decide to take their children into the forest and leave them there (rather than watch them starve). Luckily, the twins find a house in the middle of the forest and hope to find refuge. In a true fairytale twist, however, the house belongs to a terrifying, flesh-eating Ogre! Despite the best attempts from the Ogre’s wife and children to protect and hide them, the Ogre locks up the children to fatten up for his dinner. Thankfully, the Ogre’s children free the twins and they escape back into the forest. When the Ogre discovers they’ve gone, he whips out his magic cloak and flies off into the trees, scouring the land for the delicious twins. He soon becomes tired, however, and takes a quick Ogre nap beside the cave where, coincidentally, all of the twins are hiding! They muster up the courage to steal the Ogre’s magic cloak, and fly far, far away. They decide to use their new flying powers for good, and offer their services to the almighty Queen. After helping her to win a major war, the flying twins are rewarded handsomely and their fame spreads across the land, reaching their parents in the poor village, the Ogre’s wife and children, and yes, the furious and terrifying Ogre. In the final scene, all the characters assemble in the Queen’s court and argue over the twins, the cloak, money, etc. The Queen asks what the children would like her to do, and the youngest pair of twins, after surveying the parents, Ogre, and Ogre’s family, confidently reply, “We have an idea…”. This is the final moment of the play … and springboard to discussion with the audience. What might this idea be? What should the twins ask for? What would you do …?

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The Flying Twins – Rehearsal Scrapbook!

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We’ve [almost] made a play!

Today was another full day of applying the skills we’ve been working on the past two weeks in preparation for the culminating event tomorrow!

We woke up with a sense of anticipation after yesterday’s successful day of playbuilding; equal parts excitement and nerves. Would we remember what we had done yesterday? Would we remember the lines we had learned? Would we remember where we were standing? What would happen when we put the scenes together in a sequence? How would we all get on and off stage??? There are 70+ of us when it’s all said and done, after all!

With only one way to find out the answers to these questions, we took our daily trek to the university. [Which gets more and more paved every day!] We started with warm ups, as per usual. Today happened to be me, Kat, and Brielle’s day to lead warm ups.

The three of us had planned our warm ups last night over an early dinner of pizza and spring rolls, but just before we were due to begin, we started to second guess our decisions. So – quite literally at the eleventh hour – we made a game time decision to scrap one of our games and play Ghost Tag instead. We had to remind ourselves how to play the game even as the group was circling up waiting for us. Talk about by the skin of our teeth! I’m delighted by the joy that ensued and happy we made the change. Ghost tag is an active, energizing game and made for a stimulating start to the morning.

After the warm ups, we went straight to work reminding ourselves of the scenes we created yesterday, running our lines, and cleaning things up. I am working with the group of students who are playing the “twins of the village” with my colleagues Brigid and Kat, and though I don’t want to speak for them, I daresay we are having the best time with our groups! Everyone is doing phenomenal work and creating exciting scenes and lovely stage pictures.

We then spent time putting the scenes in sequence, and adding & staging supernumeraries. We brought the ogre, the ogre’s wife, and the baby ogres into the sequence we had been working on, as well. It was invigorating to see the play begin to take shape. (twins, ogres, baby ogres??? Don’t you want to come see this play?!?!)

I’m proud of the hard work and dedication of my group, and that of all the Rwandans today. I’m also proud of my fellow cohort who are working tirelessly to ensure we’re successful tomorrow, and that when we go onstage we are confident and relaxed.

As we wrap up this evening, there’s a flurry of activity at the hotel amongst the MAers – getting water for tomorrow, making sure we have our props. costumes, and makeup, running lines, going over our scenes, memorizing our own lines (oh, that’s right, we’re in it too!) and ensuring we’ve gathered everything we need for THE DAY OF THE SHOW.

We will surely sleep soundly tonight! I for one will fall asleep with a contented feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction – at the work we did today, at how dynamic everyone is, and how joyful the process has been.

I’m excited to share this play with anyone who can make it tomorrow. I count myself lucky indeed to be part of the incredible team making it happen.


The Flying Twins

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Let the Playbuilding Begin!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Just as we have witnessed the incredibly fast installation of the brick sidewalks we follow to the University of Rwanda College of Education each day, we are watching the URCE students continue to inspire us with their generous creativity. Today, we came to the large hall where we do most of our work, fresh off the victory of creating and performing original Forum plays and also sharing favorite cultural songs and dances with each other. Brigid, Maren and I were tasked with the morning warm-up today, and I know that the fun and pride from yesterday spilled into our morning activities.

Maren facilitated a ‘Handshake Web’ that quickly resulted in a laughing tangle of outstretched arms and clasped hands. Brigid introduced ‘Hey Neighbor’, which had students with something in common bounding across the circles with gusto. ‘What Comes Next’, a story creation activity, was my offer to the warm up, and I had barely confirmed their story partners before pairs everywhere were swimming, climbing, hopping, eating, dying, and then jumping back into a whole new story.IMG_7838

After that, Helen and Chris kicked off what has become a tradition in this cross-cultural partnership: creating a play for the public that features all the URCE and CUNY students from the past two weeks (visualize eighty people)…in just two days. This year, the play is The Flying Twins, based on a folk tale, and we started the process with Helen and Chris reading the story aloud. The story tells of a group of children (mostly twins) who, abandoned by their village, go on an adventure that involves forests, caves, ogres, flying capes, and a Queen. Students were attentive, and especially tickled by Chris’ vocal choices when he read the ogre, eyeing his audience hungrily…like an ogre!!!

From there we collected themes the students found in the story, and the list was impressive: “poverty”, “self reliance”, and “unity in community” were just a few of the offers. The term “Queendom” emerged in the discussion, and the students’ (both Rwandan and CUNY) embrace of that term was just glorious.

After that, there was no more sitting for us; time to start making this play! Groups made images of key events in the story so we could start to see how our play might look. They constructed ogres, they explored twin behavior, they generated original dialogue…they began the process of owning this old yet new story.


At the end of the day I trudged home the dirtiest, the sweatiest, and most tired than I’ve been here, but I am absolutely ready and excited for our next (and last full) day of rehearsal…and then the play!


(photo credits: Top banner: Julia S.L.; group photo: Maren B.)

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