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.
Brooklyn, July 2017.