My heart is full to bursting. K.I.E., K.I.E., K.I.E., what an amazing day. Today marked the culminating performance of our two weeks working with drama students at K.I.E. I am at once full of admiration for the work and love for the students who created it, and heart broken that this is the last day of our program together this year.
By 9:00 am the level 4 & level 5 students had scurried off to rehearse and plan their post performance workshops, and twenty-nine level 2 drama students stood ready to rehearse the fable entitled “The Great Sleep” we had turned into a play just yesterday. After two hours of diligent rehearsal, we had a strong solid piece which offered everyone involved a chance to showcase their talents. During that time, Helen kept track of the entire piece while Chris and the MAAT cohort worked with smaller groups to polish specific sections of the play. We managed a dress rehearsal before lunch and all agreed to be back after a two-hour lunch break for our half-hour call.
We were working fast, but the small group work coupled with the fact that each group had time off stage to allow for real conversations about the work and for cultural exchange between MAAT students and KIE students. In a discussion on a break today, two of the students I was working with asked me how I had “found Rwanda.” They wanted to know if I had enjoyed my time and if I had felt safe here. The answer was a resounding “yes” and as we talked about what I liked and how I’d never felt any sense of danger, one of the students asked if I noticed a lot of security guards on my trip. For the uninitiated, armed guards are prevalent along our walk to school in front of every bank and many stores, I’ve seen them around the Presidential residence, at the entrance to the stadium, by the Western Union office across the street from the hotel where we change our money, and outside the walls of the catholic school we pass on the way to KIE everyday, as well as patrolling the grounds of KIE itself. They are silent and aware, a quiet force keeping danger at bay in this land-locked country. The students asked me if I thought armed guards made us more secure. This is a heavy question for a young Rwandan man whose country was wracked by genocide only a generation ago to ask a liberal-minded American who has been raised to distrust authority. Especially when groups which follow genocide ideology lie just over the border. The three of us discussed the meaning of security and the role of guards. We agreed that security lies in the trust between people and that the threat of danger lies in hatred and fear. No guard can enforce that kind of security. True safety requires faith in the good intentions of your neighbor and rests in good actions of neighbors towards each other. Not your average dress rehearsal break conversation, but nothing about this trip has been average.
We had a successful and wonderful performance. I was extremely proud of what we had accomplished together and of the continued commitment shown by the KIE students. After we had performed, almost in answer to the conversation I had had on that earlier break, the level 4 and level 5 students performed their original piece. It told the story of an isolated town which, upon hearing that a plague was spreading throughout the land, built a wall to keep out the rest of the world. The children in the town were curious to see what was on the other side of the wall. One day a group of hungry travelers begged to be let into the shelter of the town and fed. The grown ups refused, but the curious children snuck out late that night and fed the travelers. The traveller took the children for ransom as way of bargaining for the food and shelter inside the city walls. Torn between their fear of plague and their fear for the lives of their children, the grown ups could not decide what to do. The play ended in a stand off and the audience broke in to groups to discuss what would happen next.
The work was amazing. In addition to the power of the theme, the theater was vivid and engaging. As we moved into groups, my head grabbed onto the theme of fear of the other that permeated the piece. I could not help but think of the recent George Zimmerman verdict back in the US and the problems inherent in having a stand your ground law when a large percentage of the population is an assumed threat just because of the way they look. How can we experience true safety if we give into this irrational fear? I wondered what connections my Rwandan friends who had discussed the idea with me earlier were making to the piece. What walls do they recognize in their society that they would like to break through? Identification of racial groups is prohibited in Rwanda as a response to the genocide. The country has done more than any I’ve seen to confront the genocide ideology that shaped their recent history. Rwanda is a country with a cohesive language and culture. What protections do they need to let the rent roots of shared language and culture grow strong enough to take hold? How long can you hold an idea at bay without confronting its generation? Or, as the characters in the play asserted do “desperate times call for desperate measures?” In our small group, the audience came to the conclusion that the future required negotiation and that the bravery of the children was what was needed to begin that negotiation. If the students at KIE are an example of the bravery of Rwandan young people, the nation has a very good chance of moving into a brighter future. Already the level 5 group are using drama in schools to stimulate classroom discussion of how people chose to live their lives and shape the world around them. If the post-show discussion today was any indication of their in-class workshops, we will see great things happening here.
We ended the day with a party at a local restaurant in the market. After a week away, many of our level one friends returned for the performance and the party and we were happy to reconnect. We were happy to share this last bit of time with all of our KIE friends on this visit. Happy to have the time and sad that it marked the moment of leaving. In his book “Applied Theater” James Thompson discusses the idea of marking ones body through ritual or routine. Project Rwanda has marked us all. Embedded in our minds and bodies are lessons of theater, shared cadence, dance steps, moments of laughter, difficult societal situations we wish to change, questions about just how to apply the work, and literally hundreds of hugs.
Tackling difficult questions, discussing potential resolutions to conflict, shaking hands with neighbors, and sealing friendship by sharing a drink together — these are the traditions I have witness and experienced in Rwanda. My new friends, I applaud your dedication, your work, your intelligence and your willingness to look at difficult questions. I thank you for your trust and your generosity. You are in our hearts.