Saturday, May 9, 2015

A music project as community development

Happy spring from Rwanda!  The best, most enriching experiences I’ve had these past few months have been simple, often mundane, and usually in community: washing my clothes by hand, cracking open peanut shells to make sauce for dinner, learning to cook Rwandan-style from our housegirl, Patricia, digging up sweet potatoes in the field.  (My favorite new activity has been pruning our banana trees with Martin.  It’s an art of pulling thin, sticky, onion-like layers of growth away from the plant’s thick celery-like stem and cutting them away, to prevent insects from inhabiting the space between layers and infecting the plant.)  

I also continue to teach English four mornings a week at the pre-school, where the students have now become experts on greetings, domestic animals, and parts of the body.  After teaching two forty-five minute classes, I usually join the 80-100 kids for a portion of recess.  Eight months in, and the adorable little twerps still haven’t tired of swarming around me, clinging to my arms, legs, and hands (one child on each finger), petting my beard and leg hair, and pressing the buttons on my watch.  Talk about unconditional love!  The unguarded affection in their sparkling eyes overwhelms and humbles me.  

In April I was fortunate to participate in Genocide Remembrance activities in my village, to remember and mourn the horrific organized killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda which began in April 1994.  For several days in early April, every village and neighborhood in Rwanda cancels work for the afternoon and and spends a few hours in a public space reading and reflecting on their painful past.  Two days were devoted to exploring the colonial history and thirty years of government-sponsored hate rhetoric that (at least in part) caused the genocide.  Another two days were were spent discussing the events during the genocide itself, and another two days about how the genocide was stopped, and how Rwanda has been able to move forward for twenty-one years.  Although I could only understand a fraction of what was said, it is clear to me that the nation’s wounds are far from healed.  But that has made it all the more humbling to see how bravely the nation recognizes its injuries and moves on in spite of them.

The main activity I want to write about (something I’m proud of) is a massive music project for the Lutheran Church of Rwanda I’ve been working on for a few months.  So far, I’ve created music notation on my computer for 207 Kinyarwanda-language hymns and made a booklet of the liturgy music and texts used every week during Sunday services.  I decided to do it when I noticed that, of all the people in my congregation and others I’ve visited throughout the year, almost nobody had a copy of the Rwandan Lutheran hymnal, which is no longer in print.  This means that every Sunday when the leaders sing the liturgy, the psalms, and hymns, almost no one is able to participate.  Most people simply sit and listen for the entire three- or four-hour service.  Perhaps they think that that is all they are supposed to do in church— sit and listen, never to lead or even participate.  As someone who believes that healthy organizations and institutions ought to have opportunities for participation on all levels of membership, not just for the official leaders, I decided to do something!  

To my surprise, working on the hymnal and liturgy has helped me think about international community development in new ways.  In a nutshell, I see now more clearly than ever why projects fail unless they’re rooted in passionate commitment by the broader community.    Sometime during my hundreds of hours recording and collecting hymn melodies, typing lyrics, formatting music notation on Finale, editing, and printing for the music project, I realized that it will all mean nothing if the leaders and members of the Lutheran Church or Rwanda don’t care enough about music and liturgy to print it, learn it, and teach it.  The same can be said for public health campaigns in the States, or government efforts to increase agricultural productivity in rural Africa: before the leaders can make any sustainable, meaningful change, the regular folks have to care enough.  Realizing that everything inevitably begins in the grassroots makes progress all the more challenging, but also much more rewarding and authentic.  


Perhaps it seems rather obvious, but I can now understand it at a deeper-than-intellectual level through my music work, having myself been the one to generously pour my time, passion, and musical knowledge into it.  Now, I’m excited to start trying to get church members excited about music, and see if sparks ignite.  I won’t be devastated if I don’t see any tangible progress from my work; the journey in community is more valuable than the intended destination.  But I also have hope that in years to come (especially with the accompaniment of future YAGM), the LCR may discover new richness in its worship and music traditions.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I'm still alive!

Hello, dear friends!  I’ve reached the middle of my year in Rukira.  The pace of life these last few months have been slow and simple as were the months before, and I love it that way.  Unlike my life in college where my activities quickly changed with the passing of deadlines and the arrivals of new semesters, my activities in the village remain pretty much the same.  With the passage of time, I have been delighted to catch glimpses of the impact of my “work” here: a few belt loops lost around Martin’s waist from our exercises (we started doing living room work-outs twice a day in January), my pre-school students mastering a few more English vocabulary words, my Kinyarwanda conversational skills blossoming.  But what I’m delightedly discovering these days is that, when I don’t catch glimpses of “progress,” I’m no less satisfied.   I’m slowly letting go of my dependency on the Tangibles to measure my “success” or “value” in this place, and ever-more content to consider my worth in this community in terms of my relationships.

Let me explain: Two months ago, I came up with a plan to re-vamp my Youth English Club and more effectively teach village youth how to speak English.  My first months of the English class had felt like a failure: attendance was frustratingly poor, with most people showing up two hours late or only coming once every two weeks.  It had been impossible for me to use a lesson plan, since I never knew who/how many people to expect.  I spent many afternoons sitting around with one determined little kid, practicing verb conjugations and drawing pictures to define English words to which I hadn’t learned the Kinyarwanda translation.  So at the beginning of January, I came up with a plan to improve attendance, to be prepared for any number or skill level of students who might show up, and to make lessons more effective.  I took a few weeks off from teaching the class (no one had been showing up in late December, and I chose not to revive it) so I could prepare attendance sheets, lists of vocabulary words and verb conjugations, and potential lesson plans for my big Round 2 plan of attack.  I was sure that, if I prepared well, I could make the most of any situation and make a real, tangible impact.

Then one day, I ran into Dusabe Philipe, our church’s smily and charismatic evangelist.  He studied English for a few years in school, but lacks confidence and speaks poorly.  I spontaneously asked when we could practice English together; and a few days later, we were sitting in the church office with a notebook and a Beginner’s Bible that my Mom sent to me.  I hadn’t made a “lesson plan” for this casual meeting, but it took only a few minutes to realize that anything I might have prepared wouldn’t have been nearly as good as plain-old conversation.  Soon we closed the Bible as the conversation moved to ports— yes, as in seaside stops for cargo ships.  I remembered that Philipe’s focus in Secondary School was geography.  As he started enthusiastically telling me about the imports that come to Rwanda from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, it suddenly hit me that there was no better way for him to practice English than to tell me about something he’s passionate about. (Duh.)

But the game-changing discovery I made as Philipe and I chatted about ports was that, all of a sudden, I was no longer so concerned about exactly how much progress Philipe would make in English through our lessons.  I realized that, whether or not he is a super-confident speaker by July when I fly home, we will be friends, and that will be enough for me.  My priorities had shifted from a notion of progress and development that I had brought with me, to a perspective which (I believe) is more in line with that of my companions in Rwanda: that building relationships is life’s first priority, and all other priorities are also channels for relationships.  This change inside of me has made all the difference.  It has liberated me from the disappointment I felt when the expectations with which I came to Rwanda weren’t realized.  And it has led me to find more and more fulfillment by centering my teaching and other activities around the relationships I’m building with playful pre-schoolers, vivacious youth, and generously kind adults.

I have lots of growing to do, of course (don’t we all?)  I still have moments of extreme frustration, impatience, urgency, and other ickies.  But I feel a peculiar combination of peace and excitement about the freedom I’m finding by finding my worth in Community instead of the Tangibles— especially as I think about what that freedom might mean when I return home to a culture so bound to “progress” and “results.”  Most of all, I feel grateful that, odd as it seems, the best people to teach me how I might live a fulfilling life in America (or elsewhere) has happened to be a village of Rwandans.