Rwanda: Dancing off the streets

Updated on
The World

Photo Caption: Drummers in for the LEAF Intore Cultural Troupe practice for a performance in Kigali, Rwanda. (Jon Rosen/GlobalPost)

KIGALI, Rwanda — It’s a Friday afternoon in Rwanda's capital, and while most of the city’s students trudge home for a long weekend, the boys the world forgot have gathered in an empty classroom for dance practice.

At first glance, the former street children are a predictably ragged bunch. Dressed in secondhand jeans and tattered sneakers, most are shirtless. Others sport relics of 1990s Americana: “Michigan Football,” “St. Louis YMCA” and “Korn Greatest Hits Volume 1.”

While the outfits of the dancing troupe may be the modern world’s hand-me-downs, the group’s drumming and dancing unearth centuries of Rwandan tradition. As teacher Leonard Mutwarasibo strikes a beat, the young men launch into a carefully choreographed routine known as Intore: a dance and drumming ritual with roots in the courts of Rwanda’s pre-colonial kings.

In four single-file lines, they prance about the room, knees and elbows bent, stomping feet in unison. Crouching down, they lock eyes with the crowd before swooping up like prehistoric birds against a gust of wind. Heads twirl. Sweat pours. And timid gazes turn to beaming smiles.

“Their level is good enough to perform anywhere,” said Mutwarasibo, a 24-year veteran of Rwanda's National Ballet, the country’s most prestigious Intore dance troupe. “This is something they can show the world.”

Though the troupe’s world tour may be years in the making, the fact its members are even here is a feat in itself.

Four years ago, all were part of Kigali’s invisible underworld: 18 orphaned youths, living in an abandoned parking lot, lacking official identity. Without formal educations, many worked small jobs, carrying bags or working in restaurant kitchens for a meal. Others lazed around begging, doing drugs and fighting hunger by sniffing glue.

In a city prized for its order and cleanliness, the group learned to dread Kigali’s “cleaning of the streets” — periodic sweeps by law enforcement to round-up and detain the homeless, particularly before visits of international dignitaries.

“All of them have spent time in jail,” said Sarah Hipp, Rwanda Operations Manager of LEAF International, a North Carolina-based performing arts group that oversees cultural troupe projects in Rwanda and other African countries. “They thought they had the dream life because a guard would let them into their parking lot at night, where restaurants would dump food and where they were safe from other kids and the police.”

According to Hipp, most came to the streets sometime after the 1994 genocide and many to this day have no idea what happened to their parents. Shunned as “mayibabo,” or “less than human,” they eked out lives as outcasts; many rejected because it was assumed their parents had killed during the genocide.

“These were the kind of kids no one wanted to help,” Hipp said.

Yet all began to change in 2006, when Jean Paul Samputu, a renowned Rwandan singer and songwriter, invited LEAF to Rwanda to start a music and dance program with the group. When their delegation arrived, Hipp says, they had not realized the boys were homeless.

“At first, we thought the building next to the parking lot was their orphanage,” she said. “We were shocked. We had to re-think the whole idea of starting a music program when the kids had no food or clothes. But the kids were so excited about the opportunity. They saw it as such a hopeful thing.”

In collaboration with Playing for Change, a foundation dedicated to connecting the world through music, LEAF began by renting a practice space in the city center, hiring teacher Mutwarasibo, and buying professional-quality drums. Though the boys continued to live on the streets, they began practicing three times a week, and within two years were earning a small income through performances across the city — replacing their hand-me-down T-shirts with rented Intore skirts and headdresses. Last year, with assistance from LEAF, they moved into a house adjacent to their current practice space.

Since then, Hipp says, their physical and mental health has seen rapid improvement, and the young men have taken on a considerable degree of responsibility — including a pledge to stay drug free. As mandated by the group’s long time chief, David Kwizera, any member returning to drugs or alcohol must leave the group and return to the streets. Most have resisted.

“We knew nothing of this life before,” Kwizera, 21, said. “Intore is such a rich tradition, but we knew nothing of it growing up on the streets. It’s helped us become changed human beings.”

Like many of his colleagues, Kwizera says he hopes one day to serve as a mentor to other street children interested in drumming and dance. It’s an aim he may accomplish through the next phase of the LEAF project: the creation of a music and cultural center that will serve as a performance venue and offer classes in drumming, dance, painting, carving and other Rwandan visual and performing arts.

“The dream is a center that will preserve the artistic traditions of Rwanda,” said Hipp, who is coordinating with the government of Rwanda to plan the project. “We envision an artists village — a place where both Rwandans and tourists come to learn.”

Though still a work in progress, the future center will likely employ the expertise of Daniel Ngarukire. At 23, he’s one of the LEAF Intore Cultural Troupe’s eldest members, and resident expert in the Inanga: a 12-stringed harp-like instrument long played alongside Rwandan drum ensembles. At the end of dance practice, and before the group turns to drumming, Ngarukire performs a one-man Inanga interlude, chanting in a soothing high-pitch tone as he plucks the harp's strings.

On the streets since age 11, Ngarukire took up the instrument two years ago, and now writes his own songs, many of which address the genocide and the challenges of national reconciliation.

“The Inanga has been in my family for generations,” he says afterwards. “My parents died when I was very young. But this has connected me to my roots.”