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!

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