The Friendly Folk Dancers Tour Rwanda: Land of a Thousand Hills

Between February 13 and March 4, 2008, a troupe of Friendly FolkDancers toured the central African country of Rwanda, well known in recent history mostly because of the 1994 genocide that killed about 800,000 people. Today one sees a fertile land, with agricultural plots dotting the hillsides all the way to the top, and numerous shimmering lakes. There are also forests and volcanoes. The roads in most parts of the country are in poor condition; we were hardly surprised to end up paying for repairs to one of the minibuses that we used for transport. The people, who have to do a lot of walking to get anywhere, are generally slim, attractive, and welcoming. Small children are everywhere, as parents may feel obliged to help repopulate the country. Since even primary education requires the payment of fees, a lot of the youngsters are not in school. Numerous little girls have an infant sibling in their arms or on their backs. At the same time, many others are orphans, missing one or both parents—whether as a result of the genocide or of parental deaths from HIV/AIDS and various tropical diseases.

Memorials of the genocide, featuring skulls, bones, and horrific stories, dot the countryside as well as the capital city area. One site that we visited, at Ntarama, is in a rural setting. We entered a Catholic church and compound in which 4,000 Rwandans had sought refuge and where they had been slaughtered by bullets and hand grenades. Within the small chapel were blood-soaked garments and vestments worn by the victims, and at the rear of the church was a floor-to-ceiling rack filled with their bones and skulls. At the front of the chapel a wooden coffin sat draped on the altar, and a cross leaned against a broken-out window in the corner, with a single rosary hanging from the transept. Outside there was more evidence of walls exploded open by hand grenades. Some of the details the guides shared with us were haunting.

The second site we visited, at Nyamata, was a larger, more modern Catholic church, which had initially served as a sanctuary during an early attack on Tutsis in the region. At that time it proved successful in protecting them, but in 1994 the church was assaulted while an estimated 10,000 refugees were inside the compound. Only two children survived. Bullet and grenade shrapnel holes in the corrugated steel ceiling bear witness to this day. In the rear of the churchyard, two large white tile mausoleums have been constructed below ground level; they may be entered by steep concrete steps to reveal shelves upon shelves of bones and skulls.

Given this context, Friends may well wonder how our tour came about. The initial invitation was issued on an impulse by David Bucura, a Rwandan Friends pastor and assistant clerk of the Africa Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). After I told him about a tour we had made in Kenya in 1996 when I met him in the course of his 2006 visits among U.S. Friends, he asked, "Why don’t you come to Rwanda?" I thought the project unlikely, but I referred him to the clerk of the Africa Section, a Kenyan woman named Gladys Kang’ahi, who just happened to be the person who had set up our tour of Kenya. "Talk to Gladys," I said, "and see if you really want todo this!"

The next leap forward in planning happened at the FWCC Triennial in Dublin in August 2007. David encouraged me to connect with other Rwandan leaders who expected to be there. Since I was participating in a French-language worship and sharing group, it was easy to find them. My conversations with Antoine Samvura, clerk of Rwanda Yearly Meeting and headmaster of the George Fox School of Kagarama, and Marcellin Sizeli, director of Friends Peace House in Kigali, led to their setting up an executive committee to organize the tour. The visit was becoming a reality after all.

The ten members of this troupe of dancing Quakers, comprising six women and four men, came from across the United States (California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York) and three additional nations (England, Kenya, and Rwanda itself). Sarah Anusu, the young Kenyan dancer, had seen us perform in her town in 1996, when she was a high school student, and had been hoping to tour with us ever since. The Rwandan, Gaston Shyanka, had become our designated interpreter, and he happily learned the dances and did them with us throughout the tour. We had thought that the French language skills of three of our number would serve for interpretation, but often they were unnecessary, as the refugees who had spent time in Uganda and Tanzania had learned English instead. More importantly, many of the children really understood only Kinyarwanda. Our full troupe ranged in age from 22 to 79, thus modeling our message of how dancing together can overcome obvious differences.

Our host was the Evangelical Friends Church in Rwanda, founded in 1986 and now numbering about 5,000 members. My friend and correspondent Antoine traveled with us around the capital, Kigali, and to the southwest (Cyangugu), near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as to the north (Ruhengeri), near the border with Uganda. Communication of our whereabouts and times of arrival was by cell phone, a marked improvement over the Kenya tour 12 years ago, when communication had to be in person or not at all. The only part of the country we missed was the east, because there are as yet no Friends churches in that area. We ended up presenting 16 shows in 19 days, reaching students at all the Friends secondary schools and members of nearly all the local churches and regional meetings.

To give Friends an idea of the current economic situation in Rwanda, let me share some statistics. Aaron Mupenda, head of the Friends school in Kamembe (west), told us that, of the total enrollment of 650, approximately 400 were orphans of the genocide, another 50 were HIV orphans, and about 40 more had parents in prison. This means that somebody other than their families had to pay their school fees. According to Dieudonné Cyungura, head of the Friends school in Butaro (north), about 490 students were enrolled there, of whom 82 girls and 41 boys were orphans. Many of the schoolrooms were only partly built or in need of repairs, as were the kitchen and the canteen. They were searching for far more than the 20 computers they already had in order to start their planned accounting division. The library was poorly stocked; moreover, the school had constant problems with electricity connections. The school’s solar panels also had to be repaired. There was a problem bringing water from the river whenever the collected rain water was insufficient. The school was originally financed by U.S. citizens, but it was not clear where the funds for supporting basic needs would come from in the future. The teachers were also constantly fighting against the "genocide ideology," where people are clearly identified as Tutsi or Hutu and are treated differently.

In contrast to our experience in Kenya, where the idea of a ministry of peace expressed through dance was a novelty to local Friends, Rwandan Friends regularly incorporate dancing into their services. So it was not difficult to include us as well, whether as part of a wedding celebration in the Friends Church of Kagarama or as an element in the Sunday morning service in churches in various parts of the country. We offered three basic sets of dances: a Hindu-Muslim pair that we called "In Gandhi’s Footsteps"; a Middle Eastern compilation of dances from Palestine, Israel, and the United States, titled "Shalom, Salaam, Peace"; and a "wedding suite" of dances from Central Europe (Romania, Hungary, Croatia, and Switzerland) that we called "Whom God Has Joined." It was this last set that we performed at the wedding in Kagarama two days after we arrived. It ends with what we in the United States know as "The Chicken Dance," in whose hand motions we invited the audience to join. Except for that initial wedding performance, we always followed our formal presentation with audience participation, generally featuring dances with lots of gestures so as to permit the hundreds of school children in attendance to take part from their seats.

We stayed at the Rwanda Yearly Meeting guest dormitory or in pastors’ homes outside the capital, in all of which places we were well fed according to the local diet: lots of starches, a bit of meat, salad, fruit, and soda or tea. Some of us longed for hot water and flush toilets until we found ourselves in places where there was no running water at all and only squats for toilets; after that, we were happy with what the YM had to offer. Context, as usual, is everything!

We spent one of our most interesting evenings as the guests of the resident Evangelical Friends International missionaries, David Thomas (who grew up in Bolivia as the son of longtime Friends missionaries Hal and Nancy Thomas), his wife, Debby (whom he met at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon), and their young associate, Brad Carpenter, from Wichita, Kansas. The Thomases have been in Rwanda since 1997, and the two youngest of their four children were born there. David has been busy helping the local church to achieve independence, which he defined as having three main parts: financial, functional, and psychological. Debby, meanwhile, has been planting moringa trees, imported from India, and is starting a business with a local Friend to sell the extremely nutritious powder made by drying their leaves. (The moringa tree has a tuber rather than roots, so it can be planted among other crops without damaging them.) Debby has developed an experimental farm to grow various crops on a small amount of land, including the use of mounded areas and large pots. She also showed us her three-story animal shelter: chickens on the top level (with a tray below to collect their droppings), rabbits in the middle (similar tray), and goats on the bottom (ditto). The droppings of all three groups are used as fertilizers in the farm area. (For further information about the Thomases and their mission, much of it in their own words, go toand enter "Rwanda" in the search box.) Their colleague Brad, meanwhile, is learning Kinyarwanda, a difficult and agglutinative language (in which words just keep getting longer).

In general, our ministry of praying for peace by presenting sets of dances of peoples who are or have been at war, uniting them through their music and culture, was very well received. Here, for example, is the evaluation written by Pastor Nicodemus Bassebya of Kamembe:

This team of dancers performed well. Their style of presenting different cultures through their dances amazed many people here. The way they called local people to dance, beginning by teaching the words to the music, was very helpful. Inviting the audience to dance after the performance made the local people feel they were participating in spreading the message of peace. Dressing in different costumes showed that many different cultures and customs can work together for peace. The joy the dancers show while performing shows that there is peace in their hearts. I saw from people’s faces that peace was falling down also into the spectators’ hearts. Thanks for the performance.

Any reservations we might have had with regard to spending three weeks with Evangelical Friends, coming as most of us did from unprogrammed meetings, evaporated quickly. It became clear to all of us that, regardless of differences in words and practices, we were all trying to do the same work in the world. We felt honored to be just a small part of Friends’ work in Rwanda for peace, trauma healing, reconciliation, and education.

While we felt happy at the success of our tour and the transmission of our message, we were also moved by the great need of Rwandans for assistance in meeting their basic requirements for food, shelter, and education. Evangelical Friends are doing what they can, as are numerous other churches and NGOs, along with the UN and some national governments. The Friends schools are encouraging outsiders to sponsor individual orphans by agreeing to pay their school fees for a year (approximately $325); arrangements can be made through the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) If Friends care to explore this possibility, as their circumstances permit, they should be sure to write "Rwandan Scholarship" in the memo line of their checks.

While the bodies of the Friendly FolkDancers have now all left Rwanda, it is clear that parts of our hearts remain behind.