Goodbye to Beautiful Rwanda

Today was our last full day together in Rwanda. We drove for three hours through the countryside to reach Lake Kivu, where we took pictures of sparkling blue water surrounded by rolling hills that disappear into mist. When I get home and show you these pictures, you might think you understand what I mean when I say Rwanda is beautiful. But trust me, you won’t.

The pictures will not capture how the air smelled like eucalyptus and campfire. The pictures will not capture the sounds of the songs we have sung or the joy of the dances we have danced. The pictures will not capture the warmth of greeting 80 students with a hug every morning. The pictures will not capture the spicy sweetness of the African tea I have had each day with breakfast. The pictures will not capture the deep satisfaction of sharing my love of theatre with those who are experiencing it for the very first time. The pictures will not capture the amazement and confusion that comes from finding such beauty and happiness in a place where a genocide occurred only 21 years ago.

When I tell you that Rwanda is beautiful, what I will be trying to express is that this place has changed me in ways that I have wanted to change. I am leaving here more confident in my abilities as an artist and educator. I am leaving here more open hearted. I am leaving here more attuned to the complicated nature of human beings and more dedicated to reshaping my own communities with acts of love. Though I may be leaving beautiful Rwanda, I am bringing so much of it back home.


Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu

Kibuye overlooking Lake Kivu

Kibuye overlooking Lake Kivu

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“The Magic Calabash” Photographs

A play is announced!

A Play is Announced!

The Water Monster Threatens!

The Water Monster Threatens!

The children Are Trapped Below the Waves

The Children Are Trapped Below the Waves

Children Play

Children Play

Water Spirits Dance!

Water Spirits Dance!

Water Spirits Watch Their Father Destroyed!

Water Spirits Watch Their Father Destroyed!

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Two days ago, we all, CUNY and URCE students together, began creating a play using the folk tale The Magic Calabash as inspiration. Yesterday, Friday, after a whirlwind devising and rehearsal process, we ended that process with a final performance for faculty members, fellow students and graduates, and students from a local secondary school. The performance was a huge success. As a group, under the careful eyes of Helen and Chris, we brought a tale of poor families, magic seeds, and a watery world to life. Children played, families celebrated, a water monster terrorized, and turtles laid golden eggs. In a mix of Kinyarwanda and English, we collectively created the world and presented it to our audience, and had an exhilarating time doing so.

After the performance, Chris led a mini-workshop with the audience, asking them to discuss the themes they saw in the play, as well as any connections that they could make to the real world. It was fascinating to hear the themes that the audience connected with, and I was especially moved by one individual who compared the humans’ disregard for the world of the water spirits and the subsequent mutual destruction with the current status of the environment. After that brief discussion, there were speeches, more dancing, and collective celebration of the end of the playbuilding process.

After every play I have ever done, there has been that moment of elation, the joy of seeing all the work you’ve done together come to life in front of an audience. There has been celebration and excitement, but also sadness. The work is done but now you will not be seeing these people every day anymore, sharing fun, creativity, struggle, and triumph.

In some ways, the end of our two-day playbuilding adventure feels exactly like this. There was the same buzz in the room after we’d finished, the excitement caused by the knowledge of a job well done, a happy audience, and potential fulfilled. There were the same hugs, the same “Good jobs!” thrown around, the same high fives and promises to see one another at the post-show celebration, provided by us, the CUNY students. And what a celebration it was! Good food, lots of laughter, and one seriously epic dance party, where traditional Rwandan dance melded almost seamlessly with modern hip hop, rumba and club dance  for around two hours!

The aforementioned sadness was also present. We were ending the show we’d created, saying goodbye to our work and to our working relationships. We were also saying goodbye to friends we’d become so fond of so quickly, knowing full well that we may not see each other again. There were hugs goodbye, photographs taken to commemorate moments and friendships, promises to keep in touch via Facebook, all familiar rituals after the closing of a show.

But this one felt different, sharper somehow. Perhaps because we’d all become friends so quickly, having only met one another less than two weeks ago. Did goodbye seem more abrupt, coming so soon on the heels of hello? Or perhaps because Rwanda and New York are very far away? It’s not an hour and a half on the subway, but rather 18 hours or more on an airplane or two. Maybe goodbye felt more final given that sheer distance means that, no matter how much we may want to, we may not have another opportunity to see one another again. For whatever reason, saying goodbye both to the play and to these wonderful, warm, enthusiastic people felt especially hard. With that in mind, by the end of the night, I’d decided to stop saying “goodbye, and started saying “I hope to see you again,” keeping open the possibility that maybe this wasn’t a final farewell.


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Singing Together

Two days ago, I learned a Rwandan song of celebration, and the students who taught it to my classmates and me invited me to sing the lead part (the call of the call-and-response) when we shared it back to our peers. Today, I stood onstage and sang that song again as part of a rehearsal for the play we are creating together. Tomorrow, I will get back up on that stage and perform that song as part of a Rwandan and American ensemble, for a mostly Rwandan audience. I am more excited, humbled, and honored than I can say to have this opportunity.

When I left New York to come on this adventure, one of my goals for myself was to shed the habitual shyness that I feel around new people. We are in Rwanda for such a short time, and I didn’t want my natural reticence to get in the way of forming meaningful connections and friendships with the people I would meet here. I am happy to say I think I have succeeded, but I can only claim partial credit. The warmth and friendliness of the URCE drama education students (and in fact everyone I have met in this beautiful country) are contagious. To take just a few examples, as I worked to learn the “Ganyobge” song, one student helped me write out the lyrics, one got a friend to play a recording on his computer so I could hear it, and many more corrected my pronunciation and rhythm, cheering me on when I got them right. How could I not come out of my shell (shoutout to my turtle actors!) in response to such encouragement? I hope I have supported my castmates equally well in our sessions together.

The supportive environment we have created, so full of joy in cultural exchange, learning, and sharing, is one of the most beautiful things about this program and my experience in Rwanda. All of the participants, CUNY and URCE alike, are so enthusiastic about the work, ready to dive in and try new things. We all leave our comfort zones behind as we strive to become better collaborators, better educators, and better theater makers. It is incredible to witness how much people can grow in just two weeks, how well we can rise to the challenges before us. I am beyond inspired by the amount of new information all the students have been able to process on a daily basis.

For myself, I have seen my relationship to the work of applied theater evolve each day. Fear and anxiety about facilitating give way to exhilaration when a session goes well, and so my self-confidence grows. Ways to apply pedagogical principles like scaffolding and problematizing become clearer. My notebook is full of words like “SIMPLIFY,” “CLARIFY,” and “STORY” scrawled in capital letters as I remember the importance of key theatrical concepts. Every day, a few more puzzle pieces fall into place — and I learn a few more words of Kinyarwanda!

Tomorrow morning we will put the finishing touches on our play, and I will do my best to incorporate everything I have learned here into the process. Then I will act and sing and rejoice with my fellow students, and I will try to honor the way they have shared their culture with me by bringing as much of myself to the performance as they do. In a few days, I will fly back home, and I will not have to try to remember my new friends or the things I have learned from them. They are indelible.

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At the Market

Buying a Guitar for the Play!

Buying a Guitar for the Play!

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Playbuilding Part I

There were around 80 of us sitting in a circle, listening to Helen and Chris tell the folktale of The Magic Calabash. Their arms gestured wildly as their voices imitated curious children, greedy parents, playful Water Spirits, and a Giant Water Monster.

“Once upon a time, long ago, there was a small village in the low hills.
The land was sandy, and the crops did not grow well.
The people were poor and hungry…”

This story follows a group of children who bought a bag of magic seeds which- much like in Jack and the Beanstalk– grew a huge calabash vine that leads them directly into a magical world beneath the lake. Eventually, the children find new playmates in the Water Spirits, eat and drink merrily, are given tours of this underwater wonder, and bring riches back to their parents in the form of golden turtle eggs.

They also spend a great deal of time hiding and running from the Giant Water Monster that is intent on catching and cooking them. The children steal the turtles, the parents kill the Monster, the Water Spirits kidnap the children, and both sides end up destroying the land of the other. Contemporary themes are not hard to find…

Time to playbuild!

To clarify, playbuilding is a technique used to create a piece of theatre from scratch. This means no predetermined casting, scripts, or staging. We follow the interests of the participants and basically…see what happens. In this case, we have two days to build the entire story with 80 people before we perform it on Friday afternoon.

On this first morning, we moved into small groups and created four still images that illustrated the main plot points and characters of the story. Next, we paired up the groups and used only our bodies to create water monsters that could stomp, roar, bite, and swing their long spiky tails. We then had to embody the multitude of turtles that might live in the lake: the shy ones, the happy ones, the turtle with its tongue hanging from its mouth, and the grandma turtle who whacks her grandson with her cane for moving too slowly.

At one point I turned to Jill and whispered: “This is our life right now.”

After lunch we chose the groups of characters we wanted to portray in the play, and quickly worked to structure different sections of the story. Chris worked with the parents in one room while the children, turtles, lake creatures, and water monster were devising at the same time in another room. Helen kept making her rounds and giving us new pieces of the story to develop, bit by bit. By the end of the afternoon, we were dripping with sweat (was it just me?), exhausted and panting. It was glorious!

I still can’t believe I’m here in Kigali, creating theatre alongside some of the most open hearted, imaginative, joyous, loving, and engaging people I have ever encountered. Every day seems brighter than the last.

Tomorrow here we come… the story will continue …


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Moments of Connection

Red dirt roads. Red brick. Stone. Big blue sky with no clouds. Bamboo sticks, palms. Golden-green banana trees. People waving. The deep blue of the evening coming and the silver of the stars. The yellow gold of writing by candlelight. The different air of being out. Across the world.

Today–Tuesday–was the second day of our second week in Rwanda. I am sitting in the courtyard of our hotel with the smell of the barbecue going. Wood burning. Spicy fish. Creamy African tea steaming from my cup. Peace, air, night.

The student group (of about 75 people) split in half today. One group performed their forum theatre plays for each other, while the other group participated in a cultural exchange session lead by CUNY’s Helen White. In the afternoon, we switched.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just change the behavior of other people to make our own lives and situations easier or better? But we can’t. We only have the power to take action ourselves. And that is the purpose of the kind of theatre that the groups of about six University of Rwanda students plus one CUNY MA student made and performed today. It is forum theatre–a form from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Topics in the twelve short plays we created together ranged from corruption in the workplace, to family pressure to marry, sexual harassment at school and at work, poverty, and medical malpractice. We performed each play, then invited members of the audience to jump up into the action to intervene if they wanted to try out a different choice that might improve the main character’s journey.

I want to share a few of the statements that audience members (the University of Rwanda students) made when they stepped into their colleagues’ plays in the role of the main oppressed character.

“Please! Tell the headmaster that my teacher is a bad man.”

“Excuse me teacher, can I please check that you marked my exam correctly?”

“I showed the boss that I have no fear and that I have self confidence.”

“Mother, even if you need money, I have to leave. I have a boss, he is a womanizer.”

Audience members started debating the consequences that may come with taking action against oppression. Some suggested, “She should tell her family! Or go to the police.” To which, other students replied,

“But if she doesn’t do it (give in to the oppressor), how will she live?”

“There will be continuation of poverty for her family if she doesn’t have the job!”

“Her fiancée is very materialistic.”

“But…you may have to leave your work. Because of how you want to live your life.”

We cannot rely on a magic 8 ball, a lucky penny, or lightening to come strike the oppressor in our lives and make him or her stop what they are doing. Sure, sometimes people change. But before finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we can rehearse creative solutions to our problems, and take the position of power. Boal’s assertion is that if we can do it in a drama, we are more likely be able to do it in our real lives. After watching and participating in six forum theatre plays, one University of Rwanda student said this to me:

“Forum theatre can help us to know that we can change something, and how to change something. We can get many ideas from one idea.”

Lunch at the café across from the college. Chicken, rice, potatoes, soup, coffee. Dashing off to the busy buzzing marketplace. Baskets, bracelets, beads, fabric, masks. Horns beeping from the moto-taxi drivers. Hot sunshine. Cold water.

During the cultural exchange session we shared songs and dances that were important or meaningful in our countries, teaching each other the words, the steps. The room erupted into cacophony! With much enthusiasm, we got a chance to practice our “learner centered” teaching skills. With a language barrier, how could they help us learn their songs and dances best? And how could we teach them best? By writing the words down? Phonetic spelling? Did we learn by watching, or by hearing it again and again? We had to think creatively and carefully to set each other up for success. It was a mixture of all of those techniques, generosity, invention, boundless energy, plus a decent amount of throwing shyness aside, that got us all shaking, stepping, stomping, singing, and clapping our way across the room, the dance in our bodies, the music in our bodies.

A major highlight was when one of my CUNY colleagues, Rose, picked up the melody for one of the celebratory Rwandan songs so quickly and aptly, they encouraged her to become the leader. She led a call-and-response song in Kinyarwanda to the delight and amazement of everyone in the room. We shouted, and we danced even harder! She said this to me tonight:

“It was thrilling to engage with them in that way–we were all so excited about it. Me picking up an aspect of their culture. I was so excited to do it, and they were so excited to help me get it right. It was such a wonderful moment of connection.”

Now it is crisp white sheets. Amber lamplight. Sleeping roommate. Smooth cool tile floor, puffy pillow, breeze through the screen, twinkling white blue lights of Kigali.

Sarah Bowles

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