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!)
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.