In the late 90s I was a student at Garfield High School. Like many creative teens I felt trapped at school. I would get so bored that I’d skip class and write up 12 point plans on school reform. I didn’t do my homework, but I carried A People’s History of the United States around with me everywhere.
In ’97 I started attending Seattle Central Community College through Running Start where I met a fellow student Rajnii Eddins. Rajnii hosted the Poetry Experience in the basement of the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center.
“First time you can sit, but second time you gotta spit,” Rajnii’s mother and co-host Randee Eddins would say. I was so scared of sharing what I thought and felt, and so intimidated by the immense talent of the singers, emcees and spoken word artists that gathered there. What would they care about this scrawny little white kid and what he was feeling?
Somehow, I stepped into my fear and shared some of what I had been scribbling in my notebooks when I was supposed to be writing my history essays. To my surprise I wasn’t only tolerated, I was welcomed and nurtured.
Fifteen years later I’m working in community based theatre and education, hoping to bring that same opportunity for self-expression to others.
In 2011 I got to travel to Rwanda for the first time with my Master’s in Applied Theatre Program at the City University of New York.
A group of us, ten American students and two professors, were brought in to the Kigali Institute of Education to help incorporate drama at all levels of schooling in Rwanda. The idea was that theatre could help in the process of reconciliation following Rwanda’s genocide. The problem was there were very few people already in Rwanda equipped to teach drama.
I was terrified. How could we possibly be of use? How could we carry ourselves in a way that respected what had happened in Rwanda, and how complicit the West was in creating the conditions for genocide?
How could we wade through the discrepancies in power and privilege, to share with, to learn from, and to be in community with our Rwandan sisters and brothers?
These questions are still alive for me today, but that crippling fear I felt at first was melted quickly by the searing presence of our new KIE family.
In Kinyarwanda, Rwandans say “mwaramutse,” as we would say good morning. My friends have told me the literal translation means, “I see you.” I have also heard it translated as “you woke up alive this morning…”
The greeting is emblematic of Rwandan culture. Upon first meeting our KIE partners I was struck with their very presence. They greeted us, looked in our eyes, held our hands. They spoke and listened with great intention.
Being American, with our obsession with productivity and multi-tasking, this ethic of simply being where you are released a great deal of tension and fear from my body. The knots in my head loosened, and all I started caring about was the moment we were sharing and what we could make of it if we brought our true selves and talents to bear. We bonded quickly and deeply, and learned a great deal from each other.
When we were leaving they asked us when we were coming back. I didn’t want to over-promise, so I told them the truth: I didn’t know.
But I found work through the International Theatre and Literacy Project, which had just started working in Rwanda, and I’ve now been able to return twice. It is becoming like a second home, rich with what have become long friendships.
My second visit was in 2012, working to create a play with 20 teenagers at an orphanage and boarding school called Agahozo Shalom Youth Village.
While we had experience doing theatre work in Rwanda, this was a new group. All the old fears and confusions surfaced. What if they hate us? What if they put us on a pedestal because we are Americans? How could we possibly create a compelling play with them?
Our first day got off to a slow start. The students seemed so shy! They barely knew each other, didn’t know us at all, and many of them were just starting to learn English. We had to strain to hear them when we were introducing ourselves.
One young woman, Jocelyn, was the quietest of the group. She spoke barely over a whisper. How could we possibly get them to perform in front of their peers and teachers? In just two weeks??
But we got there, and eventually we needed to cast our play, Making Peace in Old Village. Our story was a parable, set in ancient Rwanda, with two feuding families similar to Romeo and Juliet. We needed someone with a commanding presence to play our Queen Mother, a powerful and important role in the play. We were stumped.
Then I remembered I had seen Jocelyn socializing with her friends. With them, she became a different person, lively and joking. She slapped one of them on the shoulder, yelled something in Kinyrwanda, and walked off with a sadistic smirk.
She hadn’t shown great energy in rehearsal, and she didn’t like the idea of playing the Queen Mother, but we got her to agree to try it for a day.
She took to the role like nobody’s business. Her authoritarian vocal tones, her “don’t mess with me” hips, and her wagging finger dripped with attitude. She stole the show.
Given the opportunity to use her talents, Jocelyn shined. The following days I saw her walk through the cafeteria with real confidence and pride. Who knows what this experience of mastery will do for her and what she imagines possible in her future?
Arts education changes lives. It changed mine, and Jocelyn is but one of many examples of what it has done for the students we work with.
Support ITLP’s work in Rwanda
With your help, we can continue to reach students in Rwanda, and to play a small part in the incredible human development initiatives taking place there.
This year at ITLP we aim to expand our program. For the first time we are bringing two graduates of the KIE Drama Education program on as assistants. They will be cultural experts, assistant directors for the two new shows we create, and will co-plan all of our rehearsals and workshops. Some of the graduates have found teaching gigs, some are unemployed, but most of them have expressed a strong desire to continue to create theatre. This summer they will get to do just that, and be paid to do so.
We’re almost halfway to our fundraising goal, with two weeks left. Please help us reach our goal!