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.