Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Harsh Realities

Since the boys started "Bret Record Studio" at the centre, recording has become all the craze with them. Every day I am greeted by newly-formed groups who have a song they want to record. So far there have been Time Boyz, Empire State, Angel Boys, Talent Boys, T.Y.J., Drago & Young Shooter, Lucky, Gisiment Boys, Jean Paul, Hope Choir and True Boys (shown below).

We record the songs in the local cowshed, and boys climb in the rafters to get a good view as well as sit patiently with their songbooks waiting for their chance to record a song. They have learned to be completely silent in the face of boredom during the many takes required by recording sessions.

How can we possibly record in a shed in Africa and have the tracks produced across the sea in America you ask? Well, the boys pick a metronome speed on my phone. They sing to this basic rhythm while it plays in their ear and I record with a portable flash card recorder. I then send the beat per minute number along with the vocal recording to the producer via email, so that they know what rhythm to build the finished song on. It is as simple as that.

Many vocals have been sent off to producer friends (and heads up to those who haven't heard back from me yet, I'm about to send out one last batch). To the frustration of the boys, I have temporarily ended all recording sessions. This is because the songs are piling up too fast, and we need to give the producers a chance to finish them. Once we have received all the finished tracks, we will hold a lip-synch competition at the centre. The winners will get their own music video made! Don't worry though, all groups get to make an appearance in the video. I have already started to receive finished tracks, and below is an incredible example to wet your appetites by Drago and Young Shooter, produced by Raphael Xavier.

agashari kumuhanda by downroc

Many of these songs sound like good innocent fun, and for the boys they are, but once you translate the lyrics and learn what they are talking about, you see a much darker side to their lives. The boys at EDD are lucky, because they have made it off the streets and are even getting an education. The things they faced back on the streets can be difficult for the western mind to comprehend and even accept.

I'll give you one example from the many horrible things Dorota and I have discovered so far. On Paul's last night with us, we decided to go out for a goodbye dinner at a nice restaurant. On the way there, we were stopped by a group of very young street children who asked us for money. We said no, but promised we would bring them some food later. One of the boys, about 10 years old, was already pretty high on glue. Children buy plastic bottles full of glue at the market. Yes, the business of selling glue to street children does exist here, and glue is priced by volume. This particular boy had on an oversized jacket with a bottle hidden up one of the sleeves. We see this all the time. To the casual passersby it looks like a child is simply chewing on their sleeve. In reality they are inhaling glue fumes.

Just a few steps away from this disturbing scene, we found ourselves in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Kigali skyline. American tourists at the next table were taking photos of their table's floral arrangement with their phone. After dinner, we bought some bread, milk and biscuits and found the children again. By now they were all very high, and acting a little scary. I looked into one young girl's eyes, and they were vibrating crazily. Another girl looked like she was just being shy with her head down until we noticed that she had a large bottle down the front of her shirt. Every breath she took was pure glue fumes. These kids were aged about 6 to 12. As we started to hand out the food, some large boys came out from the bushes. They grabbed the milk and biscuits away from the younger children and ran off. The smallest children started crying, so Paul grabbed back the bread from one of the girls and started breaking it off into smaller pieces and giving each child equal shares.

At the same time, something squirmed out of a sewer opening. At first I thought it was a rat, but then I realized it was a boy. He had seen the food and was squeezing himself through a tiny hole in the pavement to try and get some. Paul saw this as well, and it shocked us both to the point that I think neither of us will ever forget it. Willy, Paul, Dorota and I have been collecting footage and interviews to make a Kinyarwanda (Rwandan language) film which tells the story of street children, in the hopes that it will educate more Rwandans on the reasons street children come to exist, and ultimately end the cycle. The harsh realities we have come across have affected us all in lasting ways. Paul Eggleston Brown has shot some beautiful digital and film shots which capture the grit we have seen here in ways words cannot describe. The film shots are too good to share here, so you will have to wait for our documentary to come out, but here is a taste of his digital work that sums up what I've been rambling about in the preceding paragraphs.

Volunteer work has become an industry, and it mainly targets young people who are taking a year off before university and looking for a year-long holiday that their conscience will forgive. I feel I need to share something with young people from the western world who may be planning to come on one of these Third World do-good adventures. I don't think many young people can or should handle this kind of thing. It requires a certain level of life experience to see these things and at the same time give the proper respect to the culture of the people whose country it is.

We have seen teenage volunteers taking plastic trinkets to villages to hand out and pose for pictures and staged hugs. For me, this is cringeworthy, because they are looking for instant personal gratification from their trip here, a nice photo for their Facebook page. They are not considering the long-term effects of their actions, and the reality of the situation goes completely over their heads. Also, I have seen a young volunteer insult a Rwandan twice their age in front of his whole community by calling him a liar and talking to him like he was three years old, simply because the said young person got emotional about a perceived injustice. I have also seen a volunteer lie to achieve their own goals, thinking they had gotten away with it, when in reality the nervous smiles they received back were due to polite embarrassment rather than fooled agreement.

There are major challenges of accountability in this country, but overall the people are extremely polite and there are certain aspects of their culture that must be respected, or you can end up painfully embarrassing people and in the long run doing much more harm than good. Our own efforts here have been far from perfect, but I know that if I had come here as a teenager, I would have made many more mistakes. In my opinion, volunteering ALONE abroad is not something you should do while you are deciding whether to go to university or not. It is something you should do after you figure out who you really are.

Now let's leave my little rant behind and end on another positive note. You may be wondering about some of the places we have been traveling to outside the centre and the people we have been meeting. We visited a second centre for former street children in Gisenyi. It is much smaller than EDD, but also seems to be functioning very well, with happy children and a lovely elderly man overseeing them.

The children there have much less than the children at EDD, and they eat, sleep and play in one room. The centre is in danger of losing its funding, but I sincerely hope this will not happen. We will try to fill you in with greater detail after our next visit. The children there invited us warmly, and we had a wonderful day teaching a breaking workshop and hanging out. As with everywhere I seem to go in the world, hip hop becomes a common language. Not so much in a deeply profound way, but in a basic way where people from different cultures can share in some fun. I met a guy at the centre in Gisenyi who was an ex-child soldier. He had escaped from the Congo and grew up in the streets and ended up at this centre (pictured below). A shared breaking session became a simple conversation between us and the younger boys at the centre. Whatever you may do with your life, if you have a passion to share with others, then this can become a powerful way to overcome cultural barriers. If you are having thoughts about volunteering abroad, I say go for it, but first think about what you have to offer that will actually help with the healing that some of these places and people desperately need.


  1. Powerful reading - rang true 100%

  2. This post brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me of seeing people high on glue in Dundee - a messy, cheap, nasty substance. There's such a bitter irony seeing young people, with all the potential we associate with youth, high, lost. Powerful. Baz