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I DARE YOU TO CONSIDER THE LYRICS!
A little while ago I went to a performance / graduation ceremony at a primary school (which is like elementary but see below for exceptions) run by the so called Meg Foundation. First, I have to mention that EVERY single time I didn’t ask about the trip to some thing or place, it always involved multiple buses, lots of waiting, lots of walking, and ALWAYS what turns out to be a HIKE up some hoary hill threatening to roll me down every moment because I never wear the right shoes. This time, it was all in the extreme heat of a clear equatorial midday. You know, because I dressed for a graduation performance at a school and not a day of hiking! I didn’t even bring my bag with my water. Thus, the water that was brought by the Germans and that they allowed me to drink out of sharing with them utterly saved my life.
I feel particularly sentimental about this moment with the Germans today, because today I said goodbye to them for what I hope will NOT be forever.
Anyway, Meg is an English woman who came here years ago to start to help people. She was formerly like a headmaster at a school or something. There are also many other people working there from all over including an Austrian/German friend you will remember.
When we arrived we were shown to the patio under the porch of the main building. This was strange and uncomfortable. The porch isn’t big enough to hold tons of people. So, it only held teachers and officials and ministers and….muzungu. They showed me to sit there JUST BECAUSE I am muzungu. (I just typed “they showed me to sit…” this is Muzungu-RwEnglish or something. See my post script for an explanation of this weird pseudo language). It was really strange to be treated with this kind of respect and honor for no reason. In the center there was a wide space where all the performances and other ceremony took place. On the other side, and important for later, under the trees, sat all of the students and family on small benches and chairs designed primarily for those who are 5 years old or younger. They were really crowded in there. As the whole thing began it was impossible NOT to feel like I was the one on the “stage” as the audience sat watching us. I mostly hated this seating arrangement because the bulk of the performances, though not the speeches, were facing US and not the actual AUDIENCE. How dumb. We are not that important. Parents are more important for showing students off.
The Meg Foundation is basically a network connecting donors and those too poor to afford primary school fees. There is some exception to the recently adopted 9 year and previously I think 5 year, school plan that is meant to make school free for a certain number of years. Just another reason why so many love Kagame. But just like my scholarship, free isn’t really free. There are books and fees etc. and who knows about the quality of the education. Additionally, most schools public schools are boarding schools and some families cannot afford to send their children away for school as their work in the fields or wherever is part of the family income. So they must supplement. Meg and others connect those in need with aptitude to those with money and a passion for childhood education. They learn most of the things that we normally learn in school plus English and the basics of muzungu culture. Sharing and personal possession are a big part of this.
For instance, as a side note, when I came here I started getting texts of photos from a good friend of mine of the main characters of all the African movies that Americans know about. The funniest one was from the film The Gods Must be Crazy (and The Gods Must be Crazy II – if you haven’t seen either of these get them…RIGHT NOW!!!!). I thought they were sort of funny and also inappropriate, you know, thinking that all Africans are like pygmies living in tribes in the Serengeti or something. But, I have come to learn something on this topic myself: a muzungu teacher recently told me that Rwandese children are really like that tribe in the Gods Must be Crazy (if you haven’t seen this, stop, right now, see it and its sequel RIGHT AWAY!!!!!! I’m not kidding!): they just take things from each other. Like, as the student is writing on their assignment, the student next to them will just take the pencil out of their hand to use it. This doesn’t really seem to bother each student, but it really bothers the teachers. Hehe. Ok, so more about the school and the performance:
The graduation part was for three sections of the school:
1. Students who have completed their education and are on their way to secondary school.
2. Women who have come back to begin to learn how to read and all the basics having missed primary education for whatever reason based on earlier policies and poverty and access (most of those now living in the “suburbs” though more appropriately called “villages” surrounding the core of Kigali only came here within one generation).
3. Very young students who used to be a part of the school who are now no longer allowed. This is a complicated thing. There is a man who is in charge of when children of a certain age can be in school. By this I mean the actual hours per day they are allowed to be in school. Part of watching the performance that day was also watching an extended and performative argument between Meg and the teachers and students and parents and a representative from the Ministry of Education. This minister attends all such “graduation” ceremonies. It kind of reminds me of the mafia, like you have to invite your “godfather” to the wedding of your daughter. Or, whenever I would go with my aunt when I was younger to a rally of the Gypsy Motorcycle Club and, in Texas, local chapters of the Gypsies always have to invite the Banditos motorcycle club/gang to their rallies as a sign of respect because Banditos “own” Texas (compared with the Hell’s Angels who “own” like California and…I don’t know, Sweden (but really, Sweden, it’s true – didn’t you see the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?)). So, the thing is that this guy said that this kids of a certain age can no longer attend school in the afternoon, which for some other reason, is the only time they can attend. So they can't attend AT ALL. His reason? I am not kidding when I repeat what I was told: he says, everyone KNOWS, children can't learn in the afternoon. Really? Really?! I wish someone had told my parents that growing up. (Just kidding, ADORED school. Learning is the foreplay to experience, to life.)
Anyway, the performance. First there was traditional Rwandan dancing by the younger and older students. Everyone was so proud. First, it is traditional, and second, they can make money doing this later. It is considered a real skill, which was obvious to me watching it, I cannot imagine how much they practice, and also because they are universally adored. Troops like this are hired all over the country for events ranging from a US Embassy party to other school graduations.
After the performances the students put on different skits. They are designed as little moral fables plus a way for them to practices common English words, phrases, and pronunciation. One had a girl with a basket on her head carrying paper fruits to take for sale at the market. She keeps sitting under a “tree” and saying she is hot and tired. Other children keep coming out with masks of different animals on their faces and stealing the fruits from her basket. This happens over and over. The girl with the basket is easily the most popular person in all the skits because she has a cute face and LOUD voice and she keeps saying “no problem”, a phrase ubiquitous in Kinyarwandan as, I before mentioned “na cyabazo”! where it was not meant to be placed in the script. It cracks everyone up.
Another skit has students going to school and then a group of “bad” kids with cigarettes (pencils) and beers (Fantas) and stealing food from someone with a basket of amanzis (I think, they are like fried bread lumps that are less sweat than doughnuts but the same basic concept). They steal that breads from the person and then forget that they still have to do their lines with all the food and Fantas and cigarettes. They easily stole the whole show! The moral was that you should not shirk your studies to go and “make money” before you are old enough with the bad kids.
There were more skits that I remember well, but, frankly they won’t translate well in this written format.
After this came some speeches. Mostly this was teachers and stuff saying really wonderful things about all the students.
Then came the “graduations”. Adult women, then children who are no longer able to go (see above), and then the older children who have completed their grade and are going on to a higher school. Meg gives them all gifts. She gives them a dictionary each and lots of the school supplies and even books they will need in the next grade to save for them the fees.
After this there were more speeches. The most important one was from a guy from the Ministry of Education. He talked FOREVER. Right as the sun was shining on all of us in the audience. It was uncomfortable. Meg leaned over to me and told me that this was usual. She said, “you give the man a microphone!” This is really customary in Rwandese culture as I have found in my time here. If you give an official the chance to make a speech, they will talk FOREVER and they will repeat themselves many, many times. I could talk about this for a long time but will save that for something in the future I think.
About halfway through the speech, some officials there begin to pass out Fantas and candies to the muzungus, which was extremely polite because it kept us from becoming faint all sitting in the sun listening to this guy forever.
After this the audience got up to give a fair number of speeches about education in general and about Meg in particular. Many, many families and women gave gifts to her. Many people were crying. One women who had no legs below the knees got up and gave a long speech that was extremely religious. She was arguing that god was working through Meg and a number of other things. I can tell this because my “education” in Kinyarwandan is largely useless in that it came from a missionary. So I know many religious words. For instance, Imana iruvuga (god is speaking).
Last, they turned up the music and brought back out the men playing drums and the women with the high pitched traditional singing and all the little dancers came back out and it was much less a formal choreographed thing and considerably more audience friendly. Individuals “battled” in their dances or danced with partners or shone in their own spotlight. The audience was COMPLETELY ramped by the end of this, partly from the sheer nervous energy of waiting through all those speeches and partly from the extreme joviality and skillfulness and charisma of those little dancers!
Then, oh joy of joys, just as your feet are bounding the ground and your hands are beating out the rhythm on your thighs because the music pumped you up so much, the little dancers dispersed and ran and grabbed all the muzungus and ministers in the “place of honor” in which we sat and dragged us all out to dance with them!!! Yes, there are photos, even a video, of me dancing with these kids. May these never come to light.
After a while they let us go and then the music switched from traditional to a stereo, in fact there was a popular local deejay sitting in the honored place with us wearing REALLY cool clothes, who then turned the music up and the ENTIRE PLACE rushed the “stage” area and began dancing. My favorite was a very old Rwandese woman who I think maybe should have been a dancer as a profession instead of whatever it was she normally did. Anyway, the whole scene devolved into a crazy family dance party.
The party went on for a while and was really, really pleasant. We shook hands with a million children and women and grandmothers and fathers and some teachers and ministers who thought we were also important because we were sitting in the “place of honor” with them and are white.
A child comes and asks Martin if I am his mother. REALLY?! I think I am 2 years older than him. But, as I have found in my time here, Rwandese can tell about muzungu age just about as well as I can tell about their – almost not at all. You know, I know if they are 2 or 10 years old. And sure, I can tell if you are 30 or 50, with a general error of about 15 YEARS!
Then we were given, even while the party continued, a short tour of the facilities which include many classrooms, a courtyard, a nursery, and a fully functional kitchen and bathroom. During this tour, a rather pudgy young girl grabbed my arm and looked at me sincerely in the face and said, “You are really big.” I had no idea what to say to this because everything about the context and her presentation of this exclamation confused me. So I said, kindly, in response, “Yes, and you are very small.”
Then we began the SLOW TRUDGE down the everlastingly high hill this place was at to go back to the bus stop. Like most reality, there really is a natural climax and a denouement to most experiences. And like most reality, there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. Meaning: reality is decidedly and always GRAY. There is nowhere else I have experienced this so vividly than in Rwanda, as I have often pointed out in my posts. There is always something morbid.
On the way down the hill, even as I considered what that girl had said to me and its meaning, a man who seemed to be celebrating the children was EXTREMELY drunk. He didn’t come near the Germans, I suppose because it seemed that Heike is obviously with Martin. But he came right at me. He began to push me with the hand that was holding his beer, with a straw sticking out of it. He pushed on my shoulder and looked blearily into my eyes and said many things that I didn’t understand. Most of what I understood were two words: muzungu and umugore (woman). He wouldn’t get off me as I walked haphazardly across rocks and gouges in the road from the rain which clearly had sewage in them. I kept saying “oya…OYA” (no…No!!). Finally, I gently pushed him back because anything more than a gentle push would have knocked him down the hill. People on the sidelines were laughing. He kept calling after me as we continued down the hill.
Just as we came to a particularly hairy part of the journey downward where I had to be really careful, because when I am not warned of a veritable up country hike somewhere in Rwanda I tend to wear inappropriate shoes, some kids called out to me. They said, “Hey, BIIIIIGGG mama!”. I was very irritated by this point and so I turned and pointed at them with my finger, rude in this culture, and said, “I HEAR YOU” with the most intense eyes I can conjure.
And this is important, because I do not know what it means when children call me big, though I do know of adults (and for adults it is a good thing) but more importantly Rwandese do NOT know what it means when muzungus get angry. Rwanda has a very emotionally repressed culture. In general, I do not observe them smiling or laughing, except in close company, and they do not express feelings, though they give compliments easily. They also do not get angry. I have, a few times, in the course of my work seen a muzungu from England, in particular, get VERY angry at having to wait for Rwandese bureaucracy. When they yell, Rwandese cower. I have yelled exactly once here in front of a Rwandese and it was not AT anyone but TO another muzungu about something frustrating me. My Rwandese friend, who I have NOT told you about, was very, very concerned for me and what I might do.
When I get home I am in a foul mood and do not know how to comprehend all these comments on my weight or the drunk guy. Eventually, over a week later, I asked my friend here. She told me that usually being fat is good and it means that either you have a successful husband who loves you and feeds you a lot or that you yourself are successful and feed yourself a lot, or both. It is a compliment. Every time the Peacecorp worker I know goes back out to the villages, her lady friends there tell her “You are getting fatter!” with great ebullience! But, from children to a muzungu, maybe is teasing. But based on how I explained all of their facial expressions and the way they said it, my friend tells me that she thinks the children were just exclaiming, narrating what they see, instead of making a judgment on me.
So, now, after all this gray, I will leave you with two things. First, PHOTOS! All of the photos are big but that doesn't mean you can see them well like this. I think if you click on them you can see them in higher definition.
Oh my god I want that woman's collar! I know its so small and she is in the background, way background, the women with the yellow collar and head thing, and you cant really see it here, EVEN if you click on it. But when I come back in April, I am going to buy that style of shirt. The fashions here are OUT OF THIS WORLD! The drummer is the big guy in the light blue. The girls are dancing here.
This might be my favorite photo, though certainly not my best memory because it is so very rarely that you can capture what you love on film at the right moment and even less often, in Rwanda, that you can show that videos of your favorite moments to your friends back home. Some of the kids trying to "rehearse" like their slightly older dancing compatriots. I cannot describe to you enough what watching, in particular, the boys was like. Just like the Wodaabe of another African country whose males are the ones with makeup and who strut and dance for days to get the women. To see a little of what I mean and the charisma and BEAUTY of males in other cultures (muzungu culture beware because I think they are gorgeous! (Though, husband, have no fear because you will always be the most beautiful to me...) also I use this video in my courses to discuss gender and culture and beauty (why can't men be beautiful and women strong!!! Freaking Greeks and their artistic and cultures heritage (and by that I mean our interpretation of them, you know those statues were painted! The Greeks were NOT WHITE!!))): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnO1QDqpaQ
And adorable little lady!!!!
More girls dancing.
A gorgeous little couple dancing.
The most popular boys dancing! Oh how I wish I could have captured this well.
Smart kids "posing" for the picture.
The young dancers with their trainer from the all important cultural dances in Kigali. But, where the trainer comes from, though important, is another story.
A semi decent shot of the loud and super charismatic "na cyabazo" girl from above.
Second, a quote. During one of the speeches by Meg, she asked the crowd with included younger and older students and their families a question: why are our families’ heroes?! The studied response by the ENTIRE crowd was completely amazing: “Because they didn’t abuse our right to study!!!” one of the major issues here is that younger children and women and all those in need of an education work. I don’t so much mean that they work outside the home making money in a business. That, like the USA, is mostly illegal. But they also help their families with the housework, with the gardening and farming, with childrearing, and with selling things that the household grows or makes on the street. It literally costs the family to have a child in school even though the school may or may not be free. The result is this increasing understanding running through different veins but coming also directly from the Ministry of Education: that education is the RIGHT of the young. And that by keeping them from school you are not letting them achieve full citizenship. I loved the romanticism of this. That the parents and families of successful students are also to be congratulated because they didn’t “abuse the right to study”. As a person who loves studying and learning more than anything than my husband, this makes me swoon.
P.S. If you thing my turns of phrase are getting a little strange, you should hear it when I actually speak. Living among even so many English or French speaking Rwandese REALLY affects how you speak if you wish to be understood.