Rwanda 2008

The Friendly FolkDancers Tour Rwanda:

Land of a Thousand Hills

by Rosemary Coffey


Between February 13 and March 4, 2008, a troupe of Friendly FolkDancers toured the central African country of Rwanda, famous in modern history mostly because of the genocide of 1994 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 4000 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 shared with us by the guides 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 the above context, Friends may well wonder how this tour came about. The initial invitation was issued impulsively by David Bucura, a Rwandan Friends pastor and Assistant Clerk of the Africa Section of the Friends World Committee for Consultation. He learned of our 1996 Kenyan tour when I met him in the course of his 2006 visits among American Friends. “Why don’t you come to Rwanda?” he said. I thought the project unlikely, but referred him to the Clerk of the Africa Section, a Kenyan woman named Gladys Kang’ahi, who just happened to be the person who set up our tour of Kenya. “Talk to Gladys,” I said, “and see if you really want to do 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 US (California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York) and three additional nations: England, Kenya, and Rwanda itself, as Gaston Shyanka, our designated interpreter, 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, but often they were unnecessary, as the refugees who had spent time in Uganda and Tanzania had learned English instead; more important, many of the children really understood only Kinyarwanda.) 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. We 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 of Rwanda, founded in 1986 and now numbering about five thousand members. My friend and correspondent Antoine, Clerk of the Yearly Meeting, 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 twelve 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, they 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 Americans, 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.”

            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-Moslem 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 Americans 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 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!

One of our most interesting evenings was as the guests of the resident Evangelical Friends International missionaries, David Thomas (who grew up in Bolivia as the son of long-time Friends missionaries Hal and Nancy Thomas), his wife Debby (whom he met at George Fox University in Newberg, OR), and their young associate Brad Carpenter, from Wichita, KS. 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 its leaves; she has also developed an experimental farm to grow various crops on a small amount of land, including the use of mounded areas and large pots. The moringa tree, it turns out, has a tuber rather than roots, so it can be planted among other crops without damaging them. 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 to and type in “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, coming as most of us did from unprogrammed Meetings, with regard to spending three weeks with Evangelical Friends, 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.



(1) You can view and download photos from the Rwanda tour taken by tour member Peter D’Angelo by clicking on

(2) Below are some notes by tour member (and FFD founder) Mark Helpsmeet as possible “sidebars” for the article.

Two possible sidebars to the main article

By Mark Judkins Helpsmeet


Title: Dancing Divinely


Liberal and Evangelical Friends probably approach Quakers in Africa and Latin America quite differently, and it’s quite clear that Evangelical Friends have been the greater influence there so far. While Liberal Friends probably think of themselves as very interested in other cultures, Evangelical Friends have been the Quakers who seeded and nurtured thriving communities of Friends in several regions of the “Third World.” Though unprogrammed Friends are almost exclusively white and of the middle and upper economic classes, you’ll find that programmed Friends around the world are truly multi-ethnic and spread all over the economic spectrum.


Being aware of the relative “disadvantage” in terms of unprogrammed Quaker influence, I found one rather surprising point of connection as part of the 2008 Friendly FolkDancers tour to Rwanda. Because of historical and traditional evangelical Christian (and Quaker) attitudes about dancing, most Evangelical Friends are either tepid about or downright opposed to dance, and they conveyed this attitude to Rwandan Friends. Still, Rwandans love to dance and they’ve held onto it, even in the light of the disapproval of their American Evangelical “parents.”


So I was pleased to hear from some of the leaders of Rwandan Friends that the Friendly FolkDancers visit was particularly welcome because we brought with us proof that dance and Quakerism fit very well under the same roof! Though our silent worship was strange and challenging to many of them and though our religious vocabulary was less Christocentric and definitive, unprogrammed Liberal Christians danced divinely with the Evangelical Friends of Rwanda.


Title: Beggars to God


We scarcely see beggars in the USA but they can be found almost everywhere in Rwanda. I’ve wrestled with how to react to out-stretched hands since I was first a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Africa 30 years ago, so the issue is not new to me. My time with the Friendly FolkDancers in Rwanda brought the questions to the forefront once again and moved my thinking a little bit further along.


I cringed when I was first confronted with beggars in Togo. The mixture of the repulsion, anger, shame and compassion I felt was powerful and confusing. There was the knowledge that there was no way that my resources could make a dent in the need around me, and that a hand-out to one beggar would only bring 20 more needy faces to surround me. Yet I knew that even if my wallet was middle or lower class in the USA, I was famously rich in my African village. And, of course, the obligation to share with the orphan, the widow and the poor is more mentioned in the Bible than any other social duty. I sometimes felt completely torn by the conflicting feelings. Should I pretend I wasn’t even noticing them? Maybe I should try to make eye contact, admit I had money, but explain why I wouldn’t give it to them? Should I invite them all to share a meal with me, or should I just empty out my pockets to them?


Halfway through my time in Togo I witnessed something that totally shook up my thinking about begging. The endless droves of small children begging, saying “Donne-moi vingt-cinq francs,” were sometimes heart-tugging, but were more often annoying, and my skin had thickened to the point of mostly ignoring these pleas. While accompanying some recently arrived Peace Corps volunteers, I watched while their discomfort with beggars morphed sometimes to resentment. As we entered one place, there was a 9-year-old boy with the ubiquitous “Give me 25 CFA” (about 10 cents US), which particularly frustrated one of the new PCVs. As we prepared to leave, he saw that the same boy was going to try to hit us up again, so he made his own preemptive strike. As the boy opened his mouth to speak, the volunteer beat him to it, asking the little beggar to give him 25 francs! The little boy immediately reached in his pocket and handed over the money. We were all stunned! What had happened? Why had the beggar boy done what he had?


With experience I came to realize that communal sharing is an intrinsic part of most Africans’ lives. If someone asks you for something, you give it if you are able. The idea of “I have and you don’t have” is really foreign to them, though it is completely acceptable and far too prevalent in the USA. I witnessed endless cases of Togolese dividing their meager resources to help a cousin, friend or family member, thereby limiting their own opportunities for individual advancement. I’ve often felt shame at being part of a culture, here in the USA, that believes itself so generous, yet has nothing to equal the selflessness, hospitality and generosity I’ve seen in Africa.


I carried these thoughts with me as I returned to the USA. By the time I again visited Africa I had come to think that it was my duty to look beggars straight in the eye and to give what I could, and that’s what I attempted to do on my succeeding trips around Africa. I got an altered perspective on it while visiting Rwanda this year.


I traveled to Rwanda thinking that I would attempt to give hand-outs to beggars when I could, and even did it once or twice before Antoine’s example and witness caught me up short. Antoine is Clerk of Rwanda Yearly Meeting, and Rwandan Friends are very much involved in social witness, including peace work and aid to the poor and orphaned. I had expected that he would approve of donations to the beggars we met, but he made it clear that he did not. He explained to me that he strongly supported efforts to really help the poor, but not actions that would entrench them in poverty.


To some degree, I had always feared that I might conveniently seize upon this “excuse” as a good way to appear noble while protecting my pocketbook. I probably judged some others for doing exactly that. But what if it wasn’t an excuse, but the right thing to do? Antoine’s example gave me permission to re-examine both what I was and was not supporting by the way I participated in charity.


A second influence on my thinking came from David Thomas, an Evangelical Friend from Oregon who has been a missionary in Rwanda for 10 years. As I interviewed him for my Spirit in Action radio program (available on, he talked about a leading that he received a few years into his residence in Rwanda. He had come to believe that the Quakers in Rwanda needed to take full ownership of their Yearly Meeting and the projects they committed to, and that depending on donations from abroad undercut that kind of strength. This could be an excuse from outside to reduce missions spending, but that was clearly not what was motivating David Thomas. Some Rwandan Friends felt that the rug was being pulled out from under them, that Rwanda Yearly Meeting and its programs would crumble without primary support from outside. David received a lot of flak and anger for the first few years, as this change in orientation was considered and then adopted, but eventually even his more severe detractors came around. There is power in being “the benefactor” and there is disempowerment and lack of ownership in being the “needy recipient.” The poor and the beggar end up seeing their salvation as coming from outside until they are encouraged and freed to draw on deeper sources of strength and wisdom. Rwandan Friends have since “come into their own”; even when they do receive financial aid from outside, they are now sure that they are at the driver’s wheel.


Witnessing these changes in Rwanda has affected my relationship to beggars. I don’t know if I’ve reached final conclusions. There are layers of Biblical duty, white guilt, selfishness, judgmentalism, generosity and goodwill to be examined and faced. While in Rwanda I learned that I might also need to give up my superiority and enter into a relationship of deep equality with those I meet, of all economic classes. Everywhere we went in Rwanda, we learned of their needs. Yet the main thing that Rwandan Friends asked of us was to pray for them. With our hearts, eyes and spirits wide open, we can learn how God leads us into relationship with the needy.