A Beautiful Country… and Pondering Our Place In It.

We had a more leisurely day today than usual. We piled in the van at 9am to head south to Nyanza, where the old kings’ palaces are located. The drive provided views of the big hills and populated countryside that characterize the country’s landscape. In Nyanza, we had a guided tour of the living quarters of the old kings of Rwanda. We walked through large and luxurious huts where kings received guests, drank sorghum beer, and enjoyed milk from highly valued cows for centuries until the 1930’s. We walked through the palace where the king ruled after European colonists took over control and expelled the royalty who refused to recognize Christianity. Finally, we were given a tour of a beautiful would-be palace that never housed royalty, which had since been converted into an art museum.

The view from the museum provided layers of magnificent beauty starting with the manicured gardens of the front lawn, which overlooked miles of rural villages on rolling hills spotted with rooftops, grazing cows, working people, and winding dirt roads, beyond which were further hills of deep, dark, lush green, which stood in front of ghastly fog-covered mountains, miles and miles away, hidden to various degrees by the mist.

The trip felt like a break from the work of the coming week, which seems to carry a lot of unknowns. I am excited about beginning our relationship with the Kimisigara Youth Center here in Kigali, but am anxious to know what the relationship between our group and theirs will bring. The Center, which is focused mainly on sports, has already mounted participatory theater in schools around the city, and seems to be eager to continue that work. Our plan is to work with young volunteer leaders of the youth center to further develop their participatory theater skills.

As part of this, a few students from KIE will be joining us to participate and help to lead the sessions. I hope that this will be another step toward making the applied theater community in Kigali, and in Rwanda, more robust. Perhaps it will create opportunities for KIE students to implement the work they have been practicing as part of their studies.

The work we have done in the past week has gotten me thinking about the field of Theater for Development. It is in many ways a problematic notion just from the start. For example, why would we assume that a country that we know relatively little about requires developing, and why would we assume that our art has the capacity to do it? Well, in the case of our project, local leaders initiated the request for drama as a means of development, and much of the continuation of the work has been taken on locally. But looking at other western-led theater projects in Africa, there has been a tendency to prescribe problems in a community (like conflict, illiteracy, or poor public health), then to attempt to address them through theater.

While this kind of work might sometimes be effective, it seems to me that the most appropriate roles that we can (and hopefully do) play have to do with sharing the tools we know, building skills among the students, and structuring space for critical reflection about the work and the world. Arriving with our own assumptions about the problems that folks are facing seems impractical. While our group has learned a lot about the history and culture of Rwanda, I feel that decisions about the particular social problems that the work will eventually address should be left in the hands of the folks who A, have the cultural expertise to make those decisions, and B, plan to stay here long enough to see them through.

Applied theater work is very good at addressing specific social issues (like HIV / AIDS prevention, conflict resolution, and language skills), but the three weeks per year that our program dedicates to the country could not possibly address those problems aptly. Rather, the effect we seem to have had on the KIE students, based on what they have said to us repeatedly, seems to be their own personal development as leaders who will take on the work that addresses those particular issues in the future.

This is all to say that I am feeling confident with the work we have done thus far, and am hopeful for the continuation of the work. We are on to stage two of the trip tomorrow morning. :0)

-Michael Gargan Curtin

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