Saturday was our first day of rest. Everyone took advantage of the time to do whatever they needed to recover and recuperate from a busy inspiring week of workshops, school visits, meetings, and rehearsals. Some people went swimming at a near by pool or caught up on sleep, others like myself sat in the courtyard of the hotel reading and journaling while the sun baked a perfect bronze tone into our skin.
At 4:30pm we came together to walk over to the stadium for the opening ceremony of FESPAD. FESPAD is the Festival of Pan African Dance. It’s a biennial dance festival that brings together national companies from across the continent of Africa and beyond to promote peace and cultural exchange.
Our seats placed us right in the center of the stadium with a perfect view of the field and the stage where the live musical performances took place. There was an opening procession of companies performing in the festival accompanied by 60 Rwandese drummers. This year’s week-long festival includes performances from Rwanda, Burundi, Burundi Diaspora, China, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Madagascar, and Egypt. Each company, dressed in their cultural garb, gave us a little taste of their traditional dance, as they marched on to the field. We were particularly in awe of the Burundi dancers beating large drums balanced on top of their heads. When President Kagame arrived everyone stood and cheered. He made a short poignant statement about the importance of culture in economic development in Africa in keeping with the theme of this year’s FESPAD, “Strengthening the Pan African Creative Industries Through Entrepreneurship”and then he declared FESPAD 2010 Open. The opening performance by the Rwandese dancers was on a scale that made me think of the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. There were at least 1000 dancers of all ages. I was particularly moved by the little girls dressed in green dresses with umbrellas that flared out in the form of colorful flower tops. They looked liked 300 flowers on the field moving in lines from one end of the field to the next. Those flowers later transformed (changed costumes) and returned as butterflies. There was also the Rwanda traditional dancers in costumes that we recognized from our visit to the royal palace and from the performances we saw early in the week. The performance ended with hundreds of drummers converging on the field with the dancers for a final act. This was the largest display of Rwandese talent that we have seen since arriving in the country. I’m so glad that our visit to Rwanda coincided with FESPAD. It offered us a powerful experience of Rwandese cultural pride.
The evening culminated with musical performances by popular African artists. There was an amazing yet tense moment when a Ugandan reggae artist named Chameleone declared his love for President Kagame and to prove it left the stage to walk across the field to greet Kagame personally while swarmed by hundreds of excited youth. Some how he managed to reach Kagame as police officers struggled to hold back the crowd. Thankfully no one was injured in the process. The love young people feel for their president was powerfully evident last night. At one point a large group of youth turned away from the performers on stage and stood on the field in view of Kagame dancing and chanting. The president simply smiled and graciously waved to the youth.
Before the final acts performed there was a fireworks display as pop music played. We had a lot of fun fist pumping to Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” as the colorful lights exploded over head. FESPAD will most certainly rank high amongst our highlights here in Rwanda and it will be a memory that I hold dear for years to come.