Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the bus to Reuhengeri, Elizabeth, Pacy and I are brainstorming ways to generate stageworthy movement and text. “Self-selecting” didn’t happen at all—all of the boys participated enthusiastically and are thrilled about the show—meaning our cast size is nearly 40, and we’re going to have to get really creative on leading the group to produce material that they can all perform together.

Elizabeth recounts a memory-based exercise that her director Rhodessa used in her work in prisons in San Francisco. The group says in unison, “I remember my mother.” Then they walk around the space until, on a collective impulse, they stop moving. At this point anyone who would like to speak solo begins by saying “I remember…” and then says something about their mother. This text is written down and can be collaged later for performance.

We all decide that the memory game is good model, but that we should choose something a bit less fraught than “mother.” A few of these kids lost their mothers (along with the rest of their families) during massacres or fighting in their Kivu camps, and those whose mothers are still living have obviously been separated from them for a while, often forcibly.

We agree to change the wording to “I remember, in the forest…” figuring that gives a lot of leeway to talk about anything from their recently abandoned daily lives. We begin by creating a group ritual to begin and end each session from here on out (the boys choose the words “Gukina, Kwishyima, Kubabara, Isomo,” meaning, “Play, Joy, Sadness, Lesson” creating movements to accompany the chant), and then we play a image-based freeze game where the boys dance to music and then freeze when it stops, creating the picture of a word or phrase that Pacy calls out just before stopping the music. The boys had chosen the words beforehand, and despite our not having said anything about relating it to war, the words that spilled forth were all on-theme: “regret”; “to be bound at the wrist”; “being shot at”; “to evacuate someone injured”; “to transport gear”; “to force to one’s knees”. The youth are amazing performers, physically engaged in a way that I have never seen in a group their age. The dancing is joyful, filled with their spirit; its juxtaposition with their frozen pictures is powerful.

After a break (which means more dancing), we jump into the text exercise. As Pacy nods, scribbles, and translates, I begin to worry about our choice of the word “Forest.”

I remember how they beat me during the military training. I remember trying to escape from the training camp. Being caught and taken back. I remember sleeping three nights in the forest before they caught me.

I remember well the time I was separated from my parents. That’s when I began living a difficult life. They made me transport gear that was too heavy for me, and en route we inflicted a lot of violence on civilian farmers, and forced them to give us their things.

I remember being forced to consume ganja. I would pass whole days smoking non-stop, and then all night I would participate in ambushes.

I remember being shot at for entire days.

I remember my close friend who died.

All of the worst things, I realize a bit too late, happened in the forest. This is session 2 of 10, and the boys are pushing into dark territory faster than we had expected or intended. At the end of the session ever-inquisitive Janvier asks, “What about the comedy?” Yes, next session we’ll definitely look at comedy.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Thursday I hop on a bus to check out the RDRC Demobilization Centers in the Northwest. It's been a long week of official meetings and NGO jargon, so I'm grateful to have Elizabeth, a young writer on my wavelength, to chit-chat with on the 2-hour journey to Ruhengeri.

Our first stop is at the country’s main center in Mutobo. The facility is simultaneously modest and impressive. Rickety warehouse-like structures—built entirely from logs and sheets of tin—form classrooms, kitchens, and dormitories for the 500 ex-fighters who have spent the last 3 months here taking classes on everything from microeconomics to HIV awareness. Our conversation with the director, Frank, is formal but friendly. He describes the curriculum and the process of repatriation. We agree that my ice-breaking theatre skills will be most effective at the beginning of the next “class cycle” after the current group graduates, and the new group begin their program. I’ll send him an email with a draft proposal of a 4-hour “trust and groupwork” theatre module. While I’m grateful to be included in what is clearly a tightly regimented program, I find myself wondering if I’m going to spend the next two months delivering a piecemeal string of scratch-the-surface one-off workshops.

By the time we arrive at the CRC—the demobilization home for child ex-combatants—it is already 4pm and we’re going to have to rush to catch our 6pm return bus. Rafael, the unassuming center director, meets us as we scoot up to the corner store decorated with a painting of a massive Skol beer bottle (the clearest identifying landmark he could direct us to). He walks us down the dirt path to the center, and as we approach we are welcomed by the sound of traditional Burundian drums—not unlike the familiar sound of the Japanese Taiko. We walk past the buildings where the drumming is coming from, and sit in Rafael’s office where I do the requisite “I-am-blah-de-blah” thing, and he nods, smiles, and wrings his hands. Rafael doesn’t say much, mostly “yes.” He’s very open to the idea of doing some sort of project; many of the kids here don’t go to school, most cannot read or write and almost any activity is welcome. “The only problem is one of language…” he says, looking worried. I assure him that I’d be bringing a translator, and he has no further concerns.

We ask to tour the center and as we pass the building with the drums I peek in to see young boys—some of them only 12 or 13 years old—banging away happily on traditional Rwandan cow-skins with improvised drumsticks (chair legs, branches, dowels). The young leader, beads of sweat dripping down his smiling chin, beats out a complicated rhythm on a small high-pitched drum and the 6 or 7 others bang out a much simpler rhythm in response. I clap and dance along to the beat and the boy nearest me thrusts some sticks into my hands. Thanks to Mom and two decades of Taiko, playing along is easy and fun. Fun fun fun. The most fun I’ve had all day. I want to stay here in Ruhengeri with these boys. I want to move in. I want to make a play.

Finally, I get excited, ambitious. Can we bus into Kigali? Can we perform at Ishyo Art Center? Can there be drums in the piece? How much would it cost to transport the drums? How can we publicize and get the community to come? Is two months enough? Should I change my flight and extend my stay?

Finally, and for the first time since my arrival, being here is more important than being anywhere else.
I remember having a conversation with my friend Walshie, an urban planner in London, about the negative social impact of bad urban design. Architecture, she explained, creates opportunities. And badly planned architecture creates the opportunity for bad things to happen. As an obvious example she cited how the installation of a women’s public underground toilet in one poorly policed low-income area lead to a shocking number of muggings and rapes on site. Other examples of poor planning included closed stairwells, fragmentation of public spaces, and long passageways without overlooking windows.

This was my first real exposure to the idea that “peace” was as much a question of well-planned infrastructure—built with an awareness and integration of the lowest common denominator—as it was about idealistic education and goodwill. Feel-good cross-border initiatives and humanistic moral education programs have value, sure, but equally if not more important is the construction of a sturdy social infrastructure that takes people where they are at, and is creatively designed to maximize the potential of a survival-driven human population in the context of an unequal and unjust world.

At a macro level, “peacebuilding” is incredibly technical. Take the RDRC (Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission) as an example. With an annual turnover of $52 million and a head office in Kigali with a couple dozen staff, it’s easy to wonder what exactly they do. In order to spare you a long and incomprehensible list, let’s create a fictional character, we’ll call him “Bosco,” and map his journey from the Congo to his native Rwanda. Bosco’s Hutu family fled Rwanda with Bosco when he was a child in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

He spent the next two years in a refugee community in Kivu, until one day when RPF fighters attacked his camp. Bosco fled to a nearby community where he was picked up by FDLR fighters offering him protection and the opportunity to avenge his presumed-dead family. For many years, Bosco fought. Around 1999, he heard rumors that Rwanda was peaceably repatriating ex-FDLR and even ex-FAR (the army in charge at the time of the Genocide), but he had nothing to return to, as his commanders insisted to him that his own family was dead. Between 2001 and 2006, several of Bosco’s friends deserted the army, some taking their dependent families with them. Soon, through word-of-mouth and sensitization programs, it became common knowledge that MONUC (the UN Mission in DRC) advertised safe transfer to Rwanda via their demobilization centers in Kivu. Civilians wanting safety and better opportunities were even posing as ex-combatants and flocking to the centers. By then, however, defecting was a near-impossible feat, and those caught trying were immediately executed; for ironically as the more moderate commanders fled the Congo, the army was left in the hands of increasingly extremist leadership.

Bosco spent an entire year planning his escape, and when fighting broke out, his unit was mobilized, providing him with the opportunity to flee. From the MUNOC transit center he was transported to a screening center on the Rwandan border, where he was asked his several questions about his military history to verify where he served. He was also asked his age, and this determined that he would be sent to the adult Demobilization Center in Mutobo. Among the other people screened, civilians were send back, dependents of combatants were sent into their Rwandan communities of origin, and child soldiers were sent to the Child Rehabilitation Center in Ruhengeri. Bosco was terrified throughout the screening process, as the entire demobilization program was run by the Rwandan government, meaning the staff were all “enemy” RDF. There was a very real possibility the rumor that the demobilization program was a ploy to capture and imprison or execute FDLR soldiers was actually true. After his transfer to Mutobo, Bosco was given some pocket money and told to visit his home community in Rwanda and then to report back to the center in 2 weeks. Staff at the center helped to trace the location of any family members, and it was in this way that Bosco learned that his Mother and 2 of his Sisters were still alive, and had repatriated in 2001. Bosco was promised $100 USD if he reported back to the center and completed the 3-month training program which covers everything from tourism and entrepreneurship to health and HIV awareness. He graduated the training program along with 500 other classmates (2 women and 498 men), after which he returned to his hometown to live with his mother, where his was enrolled in a year-long vocational training program for welding, paid for by the RDRC. Upon completing the program, the RDRC bought him $300 worth of welding materials so that he could start his own business. Thereafter, he was checked up on quarterly in a home visit by an RDRC staff member.

In a nutshell, providing safe transit to Rwanda is actually a microscopic portion of the work of demobilization. The RDRC has learned from the recent tragic examples of “demobilized” populations in West Africa who were unskilled and unable to properly reintegrate, leaving them highly likely to join a militia—any militia—any time fighting broke out in the region. The RDRC has to design and budget for demobilizing a human being from A to Z: from outreach and propaganda in the Congo to combat false rumors about the program, to coursework, to strategic bribery to keep participants engaged in the reintegration process until completion. The success rates here are among the highest in the region. And the annual budget, interestingly, is one of the lowest.

It’s exciting that institutions like the RDRC are working this way at a grassroots level; taking a single human being exactly where he or she is at, and investing in giving that person the capacity and resources to contribute to society in a healthy way. I wonder when we will stop holding useless protests and start treating corporations, governments, and other human institutions with exactly this same level of intelligence, generosity, and compassion. Telling the military-industrial complex to stop building weapons is analogous to telling a soldier to stop fighting. It’s probably useless unless you invest your own resources in investigating and presenting a healthier—and more profitable—alternative activity to pursue.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Africa does something to your body. Stepping off of the plane I immediately feel it: a top-to-toe release that is unlike anything you’d experience in London, barring perhaps the climactic final minutes of a top-notch Alexander Technique class.

Public transportation in Rwanda is not for pansies. After a quick nap to recover from my red-eye, I hail a moto-taxi into town to attend a screening of a friend’s movie. I fiddle with the strap on the purely aesthetic helmet while my host Emmanuel negotiates a non-Muzungu price with the driver. This helmet will spend the next fifteen minutes bobbing atop my head as haplessly as I bob atop the back of the speeding motorbike. But the headgear does have a soothing effect in that it places distance between me and the 60-mph Kigali air and the stark, open mountainside dotted with clusters of shacks in the dusty red distance. My feet are massaged into submission by the rumbling bike engine and the rest of my muscles follow suit, embracing this moment of pure mortality. I find it funny to consider how little stress and danger have to do with one another. Tech week on a recent puppet show had me tied up in knots. This death-defying motorcycle ride is what’s helping me unwind.

The movie, “Grey Matter” ends us being about (big surprise) trauma, and the central protagonist—a young Rwandan man who lost his family in the genocide—spends the majority of the movie wearing (bigger surprise) a bright red motorcycle helmet. He does everything in this helmet—showers, paints, hides in the attic. It’s an incredible image; I’m sure I would have appreciated it on its own merit, even without the serendipitous timing. But my ride into town has given me a special appreciation for the director’s choice to show a response to trauma that is so physical. Trauma, vulnerability, repression…these are physical words as much as they are emotional. Trauma is stored in the body. In fact, if this year has taught me anything, it’s that the fictitious boundaries between mind and body become impossible to maintain at the extreme edges of human experience. When our defenses are penetrated, we are wounded entirely: mind, body, soul.

Healing, then, has to similarly encompass the whole and integrated self. Somehow, this seems to happen more naturally in Rwanda than in any other place that I have been. It might be an audacious and unfounded thing to say, but something tells me that healing, as a process, happens faster here.

But maybe that’s just my sun-baked body talking.