“I’ll always remember this day. For the rest of my life.” These words were spoken by one of my classmates while we sat discussing the day’s events over dinner. I wholeheartedly agree.
As a young child, I fell in love with theatre because it was the first place I felt that I could truly be me. I am a friendly person with a deep desire to connect with other human beings, but I can also be anxious, shy, and introverted. Theatre has helped me to overcome my limitations and provided me with the means to make the connections I desire. But while I was preparing to come to Rwanda, I secretly worried that – with the barriers of a different language and culture – theatre would no longer be able to serve me in this way. Would I be able to make meaningful connections with the Rwandan students, or would my shy nature get the best of me?
It did not take long to realize today that my fears were completely unfounded.
As the Rwandan students arrived this morning for our first session together, I was met with warm smiles and open hearts. Never in my life have I been welcomed so genuinely by so many people in so short a period of time. As I exchanged names, sought guidance with my pronunciation of Kinyarwanda phrases, and talked about theatre with each of the students, I felt an unparalleled sense of freedom. I was not anxious or nervous; there was no fear of being judged. I felt accepted.
One of my classmates (who co-facilitated a session with me about how to use theatre activities to teach poetry) remarked that she had never seen me so relaxed as a facilitator. My performance was far from perfect; I rushed through some important points and complicated some directions, but I always felt that the Rwandan students were willing to forgive my flaws. When one student told me that my instructions were unclear, I was thankful and happy to have the opportunity to make a second attempt.
As I processed the exhilarating experience of implementing our planned lessons with such an enthusiastic group of participants, it occurred to me that the Rwandan students have given me a great gift. Because they approached me with such love, I was free to return it. As an MA student in applied theatre, I have read educational theorist Paulo Freire’s writings about love as a necessary ingredient for dialogue, education, and social transformation. After today, I have a much better understanding of what that means and how to put it into practice. If 10 years from now I look back and try to pinpoint the start of my applied theatre career, I suspect that I will look back on today and see the faces of the new friends and colleagues I had the privilege of meeting.
To the University of Rwanda students, murakoze. Thank you for teaching me how to be better at this work. Thank you for showing me how transformative it can be to be welcomed with open hearts. I am so looking forward to our remaining time together.