“How Many Languages Do You Speak?”

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Today was technically our second full day in Rwanda. To me, it felt like the first since I slept until well past noon yesterday after an exhausting 21 hour journey from New York the day before.

As much as I love New York City,  it can certainly take a toll on one’s physical and mental well being. I don’t think I knew how true that had been for me recently until I arrived in Kigali. After only 48 hours of being here, I feel utterly renewed. Healthy food is affordable, strangers are friendly, the air is warm but dry, and my classmates have collectively brought with them every vitamin and natural cure on the planet.

Today we left the hotel bright and early (7:20am!) to head to the University of Rwanda College of Education, about a 25 minute walk away. Since it was our first day, we got there earlier than usual to say a quick hi to the University President and to briefly tour the beautiful campus before class started at 8:30am. We learned that while there are 13 or 14 private universities in Rwanda, the University of Rwanda is the only public university in the country.

At about 8:20, we gathered in a large open classroom in one of the academic buildings, and the Rwandan students began to trickle in. Helen and Chris kicked off the morning with icebreaker games that got us laughing and talking with one another. At one point, Helen and Chris instructed us to form groups with one another according to how many languages we knew. The Americans sheepishly made our way to the “1” and “2” groups, with the exception of Ahn and Laurence who spoke 3 (I went back and forth between 1 and 2 before finally accepting that my Chinese skills had all but vanished since college and joined the other 1s.) The Rwandan students, on the other hand, began forming groups around 4 languages, 5 languages, 6 languages, even 7! The Rwandans laughed, unable to believe that so many of us were monolingual. Though somewhat embarrassing, it was a fabulous moment of power reversal that, knowing Helen and Chris, was no accident.

After the first session, the group split up into 4 subgroups of approximately 14 Rwandan students, and each made its way to a different classroom to participate in the workshops that the CUNY students had planned back in New York.  My team led a Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) session in which we performed a piece around sexual harassment and workers rights, and then gave participants the opportunity to “spectact,” or step into the drama to try out different strategies for resisting oppression.

During the 90 minute session, I served as the “Joker”, Augusto Boal’s term for facilitator, while my teammates acted in the drama that we had written and rehearsed. This was my first time jokering a full TO piece, and I felt quite nervous about it. I had chosen the role to challenge myself; as a naturally introverted person, I often feel uncomfortable leading large groups of people, and struggle to feel confident making decisions in the moment. However, with the support of my team, I was able to steer the group from start to finish with only a few bumps in the road!

The Rwandan students that we worked with were absolutely amazing. Despite being tasked with the incredibly difficult job of watching a play in a language that they are still learning, then being asked to think critically about what they saw, and then being asked to step into that play as an actor, nearly everyone participated in one way or another. Many were even willing to dynamize their ideas onstage by stepping in as the protagonist in scenes throughout the play. One young woman who felt uncomfortable acting onstage agreed to whisper lines into the CUNY actor’s ear in real time so that her idea could be actualized without needing to perform herself. Eventually, the young woman got so into the scene that the actor serving as her mouthpiece onstage almost seemed extraneous.

For lunch, the CUNY group went to a local buffet across the street from school which I think it’s safe to say exceeded all of our expectations of what a buffet could be. After lunch we returned to the classroom to reflect on the morning’s activities with the Rwandan students, and to begin the process of preparing them to lead some later in the week. After the Rwandan students left at 4pm, we spent an hour or so debriefing our sessions, making adjustments for the following day, and moving desks from the neighboring classroom – it was quite a feat!

Our night consisted of more planning sessions among teams, dinner in the courtyard, calls with family back home, and gazing at the full moon. It’s 9:30pm now and I’m just about ready to call it a night. Feeling exceedingly grateful and ready for what’s next!

Mwiriwe neza!

-Julia

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