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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