Reflections from week 3 in Rwanda
The numbers feel like the only easily accessible reflection at the moment. The rest of the experience is so big, so broad, so all-encompassing that the idea of distilling it into one final blog post feels daunting, if not impossible. But as we encouraged the students to remember throughout the sessions; finding a way to express yourself, even if it’s not perfect, is still an important start to understanding yourself better. So this is our attempt to sum up the un-summarizable, and share some final reflections on our incredible time at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village.
The final week in the village sped by in a blur of rehearsals, meals in the dining hall and working outside at our “office” at the Guest House, pulling together the pieces that each group was creating in order to string it together into an exploration of one idea. Throughout our time together we were breaking down the ideas inherent in the name “Agahozo Shalom / a peaceful place where tears are dried.” All of the students have walked their own difficult pasts that led them to this remarkable present together, here at the village. We did not dwell on those stories, or the challenges that lay behind them - rather we focused on the lives they had built for themselves now, and the future that they were building ahead of them. That became the central idea for our performance - the possibilities of the future. The theme for our Village Time performance became AHAZAZA (the Kinyarwandan word for future): Building a Better Future.
Each grade used similar tools to brainstorm ideas for their performances, and also shared the same series of prompts, but based on the ideas and interests of the group, each took shape in very different ways. All of the grades answered the following questions collectively with a graffiti wall, and then broke into groups based on artistry to develop creative reflections on the questions and answers on the wall. The questions they asked were
What does it take to be a leader?
What does equality look like?
What do you need to build a community?
Describe your grade in 1 word or phrase.
Grades at Agahozo Shalom are a major part of social identity, as in their first year the 128 students work together to both give their grade a name, as well as a motto to guide their time together in the Village. School in Rwanda is broken down into two parts, Primary 1-6, and then Senior 1-6. At ASYV, the grades represented are Senior 4, 5 & 6, with the first year students in an “Enrichment Year (EY) which allows them to take intensive English classes, so that they can better succeed in their remaining years of school. The language of instruction in Rwanda is English (changed from French in 2009), and almost none of the students come in with any English proficiency.
This is particularly impressive to think about when you consider that just 9 months into their school careers 36 EY students thrived in our sessions both taught and performed entirely in English. One of the soft skill goals of our program was English language practice, and many of the students shared with us that our program was the first time that they felt like they could express themselves in English, both in written and performed language.
And then there was the performance - the beautiful summation of the hard work and incredible talent of these students. It’s hard to sum up how powerful their final performance was, especially as a company that values the process as the product. But there is no denying the power of public sharing and the ways that it can electrify both performer and audience. We sat in the front row gently supporting each other as we watched each group proudly stand on the stage and perform their poetry, tableaux, creative movements, skits and sheet work. We sat in awe of their mastery of the tools they had learned barely weeks ago, and of their poise and power as artists sharing their own voices and ideas. We cheered along with the audience of 600+ people at the end of every piece, and shared laughter, happy tears and so much overwhelming pride in the incredible young people in front of us.
The evening was electric. Students, staff and visiting guests were all so celebratory of the final product, and of the incredible students who made it happen. We shared in their joy and celebration - hugging our students and having an amazing opportunity to call each of them by name in front of the whole village to honor their achievement and present them with a certificate of success. You can see pieces of the performance at this youtube link (complete with connection and sound issues, common with international livestreams), as well as the final certificate ceremony starting at the 36 minute mark. Needless to say, the video only captures a fraction of the energy in the amphitheater, but it’s an absolute blessing to have it captured at all.
We knew before we even began that the final day of the process needed to include an opportunity for reflection. While ending on the supreme high of the final Village Time performance would have been exciting, the insights and experiences of our students would be the most important indicator of whether or not we had been successful, and we needed the chance to both celebrate and say goodbye in a more intimate way.
We brought back the graffiti wall tool, offering students the opportunity to share what they had learned, what had surprised them, give us feedback and write notes to us with whatever had been left unsaid. We then gathered for one last check in, and to center ourselves with the collective breathing tool we taught them on day 1, which they have since become experts in. As our last activity we turned the floor over to them - offering anyone the opportunity to say something to us, to their ensemble and to the staff in the room who had made these three weeks possible.
In the end, there was a tremendous amount of gratitude, self-confidence and newly discovered or rediscovered talents for expressing themselves through art. There were also hugs and tears (us and them) and wishes to meet again in the future. And then there were the goodbyes, which we decided to call “ta ta for nows”, and above all there was love. Deep love for the work, for the relationships, for the village and for the community that is built here. Love for the power of art to create space for change, and theater for its ability to heal the soul. And love for people, from all walks of life, who can come together to make art, and thereby - make the world a little more connected.
Thank you all for supporting our journey - we are so grateful to be a part of this In[HEIR]itance community, and to welcome 100 new I[H]P artists into our family as well!
Ari & Brittney