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.