Meg Foundation and Parents’ Showcase

October 2016

Leontine works as a music teacher at the Meg Foundation, a UK-funded NGO. The Meg Foundation is a primary school and women’s co-operative located in Kinamba, one of the poorest communities of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. It was founded by, and today is still run by, Meg Fletcher.
Each child admitted to the school is given two meals a day, school supplies, and uniforms. Students are offered quality education consisting of music, English, math, and hygiene classes. Even though the Meg Foundation school only goes up to grade six, the number of graduates increases every year; many plan to attend university one day.

In addition to the primary school, the foundation offers adult classes teaching basic literacy, information about HIV/AIDS, handicraft making, and sewing. The craft items produced at the co-operative are sold to benefit the members, mostly young mothers of children attending the primary school.

Below, you can see some of the women in the co-operative weaving traditional Rwandan baskets for sale.

Women’s co-op at the Meg Foundation
I entered the Meg Foundation primary school looking for Leontine after lunch time, during recess. The children were quite rowdy and interested to know who I was. Many of the children greeted me with a “hello” or “good afternoon”, eager to show off their English skills.

Once I found Leontine, I offered to help set up her class outside. I had little to do, since the children were so excited about their music class that they set up everything themselves. Students are taught that the drums are a privilege to play. They must show respect to Leontine and the equipment in order to play.

We sat outside in a circle together, ready for Leontine to begin the class. There were only seven or eight drums available, not enough for every student. Each student received a pair of drumsticks to click together, while waiting for a turn on the precious drums.

I was lucky to experience Leontine’s amazing skills as a teacher. She was able to command the attention of a group of excited students within seconds. Once Leontine moved to the circle’s center, the children knew to pay attention and listen carefully to her instructions.

After a song to welcome me to the class (it was the most adorable thing in the entire world), we played several “call and answer” musical singing games with our drumsticks. I even taught them the “boom, snap, clap” game we all played in elementary school. (OK, it did not go as well as I intended, but The kids got a kick out of my attempt). Then we spent the rest of our music class rehearsing for their big end-of-the-year showcase for parents, that was coming up in a couple of weeks.


I learned that it is critical for Rwandans to educate their children about traditional Rwandan culture and where their ancestors came from. The Rwandan people are incredibly patriotic, something I admire greatly. They are passionate about their culture and strive to keep it active in everyone’s daily life. Because of this, children are taught traditional music and dance in schools. They learn the history and purpose of Rwandan songs and dances.

Fast forward to the showcase performance for parents. I arrived at the school a little late. (I was recovering from severe dehydration after my trek to visit the gorillas in the Virunga National Park, DRC – check out photos in the “pictures” tab!) Every student’s entire family was present for the showcase; I couldn’t even see the stage, there were so many people thronged together. Luckily, I didn’t miss any of the show. One of the mothers grabbed my hand and led me up front to the V.I.P. table to sit with with Meg, herself. I was told to sit down, smack dab in the middle of this giant table with decorations.

I thought to myself, “Oh wow, I didn’t even do anything to deserve being here…”. Along with Meg and the guest of honor, I was introduced to the entire audience. As they gestured for me to stand up and wave, I thought, “This is embarrassing, I’ve just been an observer”. It was wonderful to be welcomed so warmly, a great example of enthusiastic Rwandan hospitality.

The showcase opened with a tribal skit that included traditional drumming and dancing. The skit enacted a performance for the king and queen of the tribe, way back in old-time Rwanda. All the students were dressed in traditional Rwandan clothing, and they performed ritualistic Rwandan dances. The “intore” is one of these dances, a traditional fighting dance actually performed for generations, to entertain the tribe’s rulers. (You can see the videos of intore dance performed at the bottom of this post and in the “videos” tab). After all the dancing and singing, each class of students came up to demonstrate their English language skills. They recited stories like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, performed skits about hygiene, and told what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Meg addressed the audience following the student performances, remarking how amazing the students had been the previous year. She extended her best wishes to the Year Six students, as they moved on to secondary school after the holiday break. Once the showcase concluded, every family fell in line bearing gifts of fruit for Meg and her teachers, expressing their deep gratitude for the school and the foundation. Some of the families even came up to offer hugs and to thank me.

Then an incredible thing happened: Everyone began to dance! Drums were playing, people were singing and dancing, even I was pulled into the crowd to dance! This amazed me, for many Rwandans tend to be quite reserved, especially around foreigners. Being with a hundred people, as they spontaneously celebrated their children’s successes, was a joy I’ve never seen being in a mass of people. It was joy and hope of what the future would bring, and it was beautiful to experience it with these terrific people.

Getting to know these children is something I will treasure forever. They were so willing to learn, with incredible potential to be in the world around them. If you would like to donate or sponsor one of the students at the Meg Foundation school, please check out to learn what you can do to help. There is a link for donating from the USA as well. You may donate one time, or consider sponsoring a child for a year to receive a picture and story about the sponsored student. A donation of $360 ($30/month) can sponsor a student for an entire YEAR. This includes school uniforms, textbooks, meals, and supplies for music and art. Your help literally would change a child’s life.

Now for my fun facts!

-Our guard (many people in Rwanda have gates and guards for security) had a couple of pet rabbits. Many pet rabbits were eaten by stray cats (RIP Bumbina). Susan survived and was my buddy. Even though she pooped on me, I fed her carrots and let her play in the house.

-There is a casino in Kigali. A friend took me there and promised I’d win money at blackjack. We were both out of there within 45 minutes (looking at you, Felix)!

-If you remember my past fun facts about the milk culture in Rwanda, may I add that there are milk bars where you just sit down and drink fresh milk. Fresh warm milk. Imagine.

-When you order any bottled drink (be it a beer or soda, whatever), the server will always ask if you want it served warm or cold. When it’s sweltering hot outside, warm beer is really not fun.





Motos, Music, and the Monkey

October 2016

After the first couple of weeks in Rwanda, I stayed in the capital, Kigali, with Adam, a friend of a friend. By the end of my stay, we became the best of friends. I cooked a lot of Mexican and Italian food for us; Adam supplied quality olive oil, wine, and coffee!
There were a lot of younger expats who lived and worked in Kigali, in development or for non-profit organizations. I quickly found a group of great people to hang out with. The expat population was so small, I could meet just about everyone within a night out, whether Monday trivia night, Wednesday karaoke at Car Wash, or happy hour at Inema.


These friends introduced me to the world of motos, the practical way to navigate my way around Rwanda. Having a car was quite a luxury, beyond the means of most people. All the cars were imported with high costs, not to mention difficulties finding expensive imported parts for repairs. Because of this, even taxis were pricy in Kigali and they were practically nonexistent outside the capital.

The most common (and affordable) alternative was to hire a motorcycle, or “moto”. Just like catching a cab, I stood on the side of a road to hail a passing moto driver by waving or whistling. The driver stopped to hand me a flimsy, and sometimes broken, helmet while I explained where I wanted to go. Most of the drivers were pleasant, yet everyone was expected to bargain.

I learned that the key was to know how much it cost to get to each destination, to name my price before the driver announced a fee. If the driver’s fare seemed excessive, I gave a confused look and said, “Urahenda!” (pronounced Oo-Rah-Hen-Dah), which meant, “Too expensive!”. If a moto driver didn’t like what I was willing to pay, I was coached by my friends to walk away. It usually worked, the moto driver would follow me and agree that my offered price was fine.

After bargaining yet before hopping on a moto, I recommend saying a little prayer that you don’t die on the way. During my entire time in Rwanda, I saw about half a dozen moto accidents. One of my friends even had to take an injured moto driver to the hospital. But hey, it’s all for the real local Rwandan experience, right?


The Kigali Music School focused not only on musical technique, but also on song composition. During each session, Yves and Chris split the music leaders into groups of four people, based on their instrument: voice, drums, piano, and guitar. The groups were given thirty minutes to collaborate cohesively on a task: Compose a song. Melody, harmonies and chord structures, rhythms, lyrics. Everything!

But that wasn’t all they had to do. Yves gave each group a prompt to write about, perhaps about children, the future of Rwanda, or anything uplifting and inspirational. The community music leaders typically taught impoverished children, children battling HIV/AIDS, and young adults coping with having survived childhoods during the 1994 genocide. These students struggled with overwhelming adversity in their daily existence. The music programs were intentionally structured to offer hope and vision beyond misery.

Chris, Yves, and I stepped outside while the groups went to work, to build confidence in their creative energies and to have greater autonomy. After half an hour, we reconvened into the main room of the school, huddled together tightly to watch group members perform their songs. After each group performed, Chris and Yves led everyone in open discussion. This offered additional experiential learning activities, how to provide and accept constructive criticism, how to learn and adapt from ideas generated through the acts of composition, performance, and observation.

Students quickly learned ways to make their songs more interesting, sometimes adding vocal harmony, changing introductory measures, spicing up percussive rhythms, or altering chord patterns. The music school was a safe space where everyone was encouraged to grow comfortable having and sharing one’s opinions. You could risk putting yourself and your ideas out in the open, rewarded when others celebrated your creation.

This was not the case at first when the Kigali Music School was founded. The initial groups of music leaders were reluctant to share their internal feelings and musical creations. They were quiet and reserved. Horrors of the genocide pitted neighbor against neighbor. Rwandans had, and still have, difficulty trusting others, whether locals or those from outside. Yet paradoxically, after having gained their trust, Rwandans were among the most friendly, compassionate people I have ever met.

So understandably, Rwandans have become reserved, cautious as people. It hasn’t been normal for children and young adults to experience encouragement expressing themselves openly, to be in nurturing environments in which creative ideas and opinions are respected, tolerated, celebrated. Through the work of the music school, I observed students and teachers enjoying classes filled with laughter, storytelling, and genuine friendship. They were passionate, energetic, and bursting with creative expression. Yves and Chris were integral to this transformation.

Yves is the lead singer and composer of a quite well known band in Rwanda called Group Trezzor. Check out Group Trezzor and its music videos on here. Yves has been a regular at recording studios, dedicated to pumping out song after song. He motivated the entire group of youth leaders compose a song together and record it. I was there when they were still coming up with ideas for the next song, but here is one of their previous songs they recorded!

(Sorry, it’s all in Kinyarwandan, but you don’t need to know the language to be deeply inspired by this amazing group of young musicians!)

The Monkey

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the monkey. I did most of my work at a cafe near my house. It was a peaceful place full of lush greenery, with a resident monkey. Kigali didn’t have much wildlife in the city, although there were giant hawks that gathered to eat fruit from an enormous avocado tree in the garden, and feral street cats that ate our pet rabbits. So the single monkey was my one reliable, good animal friend. He chilled out in the trees nearby, watching me while I sipped my coffee.


The Kigali Music School and me…teaching!

October 2016

My first day going to the Kigali Music School was a little challenging. I had no idea where it was, so I let Yves take the reign and talk to my driver on the phone. Rwanda is the first place Ive been where I couldn’t understand even a little bit of the language. Yes, not many speak English in other countries I’ve been to, but most people spoke enough English or I understood enough of my Latin bases to understand what was generally happening. Because Rwanda was colonized by Belgium, most people’s second or third language is French. So many Rwandan assumed I spoke French because I was white, but I told them I only knew English. It was kind of disappointing to say because many Rwandans speak three or four languages: Kinyarwandan, Swahili, English, and French. Continue reading The Kigali Music School and me…teaching!

Rwinkwavu and Ingomas

October 2016

As I mentioned in my previous post, Musicians without Borders (MWB) works with local musicians to “teach singing, songwriting, and music therapy, making use of Rwandan traditional culture to address the trauma of the genocide and conflict” (from the MWB website). Overall, the goal is to create sustainable music programs that can be replicated as a model for other communities in Rwanda and neighboring countries. This is how I met Yves, a local Rwandan musician who works alongside MWB as a teacher and liaison between the organization and the Rwandan population.  Continue reading Rwinkwavu and Ingomas

My Rwan-devous with Rwanda …get it?

September 2016

During my time in Rwanda, I was lucky enough to volunteer with Musicians Without Borders, an international nonprofit organization that facilitates community music projects in areas that are suffering or recovering from political or social unrest. The Rwanda chapter of Musicians without Borders (MwB) focuses on introducing music therapy, training, and community music activities to address the effect of HIV in young people. MwB collaborates with local artists and WE-ACTx for Hope, a medical nonprofit organization devoted to providing medical attention to youth with HIV.

“During the 100 day genocide of 1994, an estimated 250,000 Rwandan women, children, and infants experienced multiple episodes of brutal rape and violence. Many victims of this brutality contracted HIV and gave birth to HIV positive babies. It is estimated that about 150,000-170,000 Rwandan adults (age 15-49) and 22,000 Rwandan children under the age of 15 have HIV. In addition to poverty and health issues, Rwandan children and youth who live with HIV have to deal with social and familial exclusion, the stigma of disease, fear of the unknown, and loss of hope.” – from the Musicians without Borders website


This is Chris (bottom left), my boss, the project manager for MwB’s Rwanda Youth Music initiative. In 2012, Chris set up a music therapy program for people affected by HIV and AIDS. He returned in 2013 to continue his work with HIV positive youth, to establish a training program in music and health at the Kigali Music School. Every Monday, I went with Chris to the Kigali Music School to observe, and even to teach on occasion, the youth music leadership training. Chris teamed up with other local musicians to help teach the group of young men and women in their 20s and 30s to be sustainable music facilitators, to teach in their local communities.

The first time I went to the Kigali Music School (KMS), I was kindly welcomed by all the youth music leaders. Many spoke English and were inclusive in their lessons and conversations. This is not a music school like the Shepherd School or your high school music classes. The Kigali Music School exists to teach youth leaders how to use inclusive musical games and instrumental lessons to help local children in need. One girl worked at an HIV clinic to play musical games with children while they were waiting to see the doctor. Another girl worked at a primary school to teach rhythm and traditional “intore” dance music to one of the poorest communities in Kigali. The KMS provides teachers with new and creative techniques for teaching classes in respective communities.

If you are a teacher, you are aware of the huge amount of time you have to put into your class agenda, in order to keep kids interested and engaged. Teachers need engaging material like every five minutes. I’ve only taught in small group and private lessons. When I was in front of fifty little Rwandan children, unable to speak their language, I froze up. Some music games that I thought would be a hit, they were absolute flops. Sometimes things I made up on the spot were super fun, sometimes not. It certainly takes a very special person to be a teacher, especially to children under the age of 12. (Sorry Mom, I gave you so much trouble when I was in your classes, I thought you had an easy job – we were just playing around with you in class. But wow, after an hour with the teaching these kids…. I need a nap!)

This blog post is more of an introduction of what happened in Rwanda. I first want to paint the scene of what I was doing there and who I was working with. I will go into day-by-day tales in my later posts. I’ve realized that many people really don’t know much about Rwandan history or the genocide. Yes, you now know that hundreds of thousands of women and children have been affected by HIV because of the genocide, but you probably have a lot of questions right now.

Below, I have attached a brief history of the tribes in Rwanda, a general summary of the genocide, and the world’s involvement in the genocide. As beautiful and uplifting the movie Hotel Rwanda was, I don’t think it portrays what the average Rwandan faced during the genocide, nor what they are facing now. The main family portrayed in the movie is was not your average family in Rwanda. They were quite wealthy and were able to escape Rwanda during the terror. Most people had to hide in terror; they were malnourished, and many were eventually slaughtered. I really recommend doing some research into what happened, learn about this horrific tragedy and the world’s responses. The impact is almost incomprehensible. Please. Educate yourself to understand what these remarkable people are facing today.

Brief History of Rwanda

Brief History of the Genocide of 1994

Sticking it to the (wo)man:the Blackroots Marimbas Ensemble

September 2016

I met the Blackroots Marimbas through one of my UCT friends, Sky. If you remember, I posted an amazing video of her playing mbira in one of my past blog posts. Sky’s love for African music started when she used to play marimba in church. She then started playing with one of Cape Town’s largest bands for a while, but she thought that there had to be more than just playing for someone else. She wanted to play for herself. Continue reading Sticking it to the (wo)man:the Blackroots Marimbas Ensemble

Conscious Rhythm with Nidhi

September 2016

I didn’t really come to South Africa with any plan about who I was going to study. I had one vague idea of an ensemble, but they never answered my five emails over the past year. Looking back on it, it was a blessing in disguise to basically be dropped off in an unknown place, and learn how to meet people and build relationships out of thin air. I wrote some emails to UCT, asked a couple of bars where the live music scene is and attended some shows, and checked Facebook events near me. That’s how I met Nidhi. Continue reading Conscious Rhythm with Nidhi

“Do you know Dr. Dre?” And other questions from South African primary school kids….oh, and them performing.

September 2016

Michelle took me to the Cavalleria Primary School in Kraiifontain today. Every Thursday, she teaches around 60 kids traditional African drumming and marimba. It takes about 30 minutes to get the school. Theres a drug house right across the street from the main entrance. Michelle said she’s seen one of the older students from the secondary school not far down the road get shot and killed by another student. Some of the students’ shoes are worn and their toes are exposed. Many wear clothes that do not fit them. One girl I met has AIDS. Another little girl was shot in the leg by a drive-by when she was out to buy bread. But nothing compares to how happy these kids get when they see Michelle coming for weekly rehearsal. Continue reading “Do you know Dr. Dre?” And other questions from South African primary school kids….oh, and them performing.

Bloca-Bloca: eMzansti

September 2016

On Tuesdays I would go to Simon’s Town, a smaller fishing town around 30 minutes outside of Cape Town. There, I worked with a woman named Michelle Van Blommestein and an organization named eMzantsi who are preparing for their annual carnival celebration with the Ocean View Bloca. Ocean View is one of the townships in the southern peninsula of the western cape–right outside Simon’s Town. Continue reading Bloca-Bloca: eMzansti