Tuesday 23 June 2009

Day of the African Child

Sunday 21st June 2009

It’s Sunday and I have an extra day off, resting, reading and relishing the extra time on my hands.

Last Tuesday was ‘Day of the African Child’, an annual event which commemorates South African children who lost their lives protesting against poor education….

“In Soweto, South Africa, thousands of black school children took to the streets in 1976, in a march more than half a mile long, to protest the inferior quality of their education and to demand their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young boys and girls were shot down; and in the two weeks of protest that followed, more than a hundred people were killed and more than a thousand were injured. To honour the memory of those killed and the courage of all those who marched, the Day of the African Child has been celebrated on 16 June every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organization of African Unity. The Day also draws attention to the lives of African children today. This year's theme is the need to ensure all children are registered at birth.” UNICEF

Four years ago We-Actx chose this as the day on which to celebrate the good health, future possibilities, hopes and dreams of all the children in the We-Actx programme, linking the importance of their lives to the wider history of Africa.

All age groups, from the 4-5 year olds to the 18-20 year old young adults, worked hard for weeks preparing for the day’s celebrations. Watched by proud parents, invited guests, local government representatives and We-Actx executive, many of them displayed their diverse talents during the half day programme of music and dance performances, poetry and comedy sketches. There were speeches from the We-Actx programme directors, the giving of prizes by to those who had excelled and also a few choice words from the United Sates Ambassador to Rwanda - including a smattering of Kinyarwanda, which had everyone raising their eyebrows, impressed.

The ambassador described the children as the ’lights of Rwanda’, and asked them all to look into each other’s eyes. “Can you see the light in the eyes of the person sitting next to you?” The children ogled each other. Some smiling brightly while others had fun pulling faces; some pensive while others were confused as to what was being asked of them. He then turned to the parents and asked, ‘Do you see the light in the eyes of your children? That light is the light and hope of Rwanda: the light from the future stars of your country.” I wasn’t sure how to interpret this. It reminded me of drama exercises I used to do while doing theatre studies in Amsterdam and creative personal development workshops I did in London soon after the shock of losing one of my beloved sisters. On the one hand I felt slightly embarrassed. It was so American, so cheesy. On the other, here was a very simple technique employed to bypass the critical mind and connect to the deeper place of hope and inspiration that is a perpetual source of creativity and love in us all. This is the light that shines so brightly in children unless it is dimmed and marred by the harsh consequences of social unrest, war or, in the case of Rwanda, Genocide. Poverty, HIV infection and the attendant maladies of ill health, mal nutrition, social stigma, lack of education, the trauma of genocide and genocide rape together with that of sexual abuse etc. all combine in different ways to impede the lives of the children and families all We-Actx staff and volunteers serve. There was something very special and necessary about this day of celebration that reminded everyone just how precious each and every one of the 600 odd children present that day really is and that in the wake of so much devastation, hope lives on in the lives and dreams of all Rwanda’s children.

Speeches were followed by a slap up Rwandan lunch of rice, spinach, bean stew and or meat stew, baked potatoes, macaroni cheese and a bottle of Fanta. The children were served first and, as a few of the volunteers queued up to get food for the children, I noticed several Rwandan guests or perhaps journalists taking the opportunity to photograph ‘mzungus’ (white or rich people) serving food. It was good to meet and mingle with more of the We-Actx staff and to see many of the women I teach out in their Sunday best. Happy, proud and enjoying a little respite from the hardship of their daily lives to celebrate the good health and future hopes for their bright and beautiful children. The event made the front page of a local paper, hailed as a success all round.

Monday 22nd June 2009

Numbers in some of the groups seemed to be a little low and after a little investigation through the group counselors, we discovered that many of the women are tired: they walk a long way in the heat of the dry season to get to the class, or they have been working for hours before the class. They are hungry and thirsty and don’t have money for food and yoga is relatively or completely new to some. Speaking with Deirdre, who was instrumental in setting up the We-Actxyoga project over a year ago and overseas all the teaching, we are beginning to understand that the yoga we offer is not just a way to exercise and relax body and mind but also an opportunity to have some fun, feel happy, elevate serotonin levels and feel loved.

As a result, Hanna (my co-teacher) and I have loosened our teaching approach considerably. Astanga yoga follows a set sequence that is repeated each time one does the yoga practice. This is both a benefit and a possible drawback. On the plus side, once the sequence is learned, one has a very well designed yoga sequence for life. The down side is that the practice can lack creativity and become a bit too serious if followed to the letter blindly. Although heavily modified, the yoga we’ve been teaching the various groups has followed the Astanga primary series sequence fairly faithfully. Letting go of adherence to the set primary sequence even further has brought change, liberating creativity and freeing us up to be more playful and spontaneous.

Yoga classes taught after the emergence of this new understanding last week were much more fun. There are fewer struggles with the language, the adjustments and the pace and more connection to joy. Rearranging the sequence a little, including in a variety of balance poses, being led by spontaneous movements women made and weaving them into asana (yoga poses), things began to flow more freely. These small changes have upped the entertainment factor in our classes, making way for more laughter, more energy, more sweat and more of the “happy” hormone, serotonin. Serotonin occurs naturally in the brain and greatly influences an overall sense of well-being. Stimulated by exercise, laughter happiness it helps to regulate moods, temper anxiety, and relieve depression. It is also credited with being a natural sleep aid. All of which will go a long way to bringing health happiness and healing the women who come to class.

The notion of yoga as performance or entertainment might seem contrary to some but its ability to unlock, release and stimulate healing in the body-mind complex is now undisputed. I feel as if I’ve turned a corner and got my yoga teaching groove back!

Tuesday 23rd June 2009

Its now the early hours of Tuesday morning and im still buzzing from the best an most sociable weekend yet in Rwanda. This included a delicious brunch overlooking a spectacular view of Kigali with a few members of the yoga group I teach at the American Embassy; a few films shown as part of the 5th Rwandan Film Festival and a twilight hour leaving party which offered all who went from the house their first dance in Rwanda. The band played butt shaking Congolese style music that, in spite of the sporadic problems with the mic and speakers, kept us going after other guests had gone. The waiting staff and musicians and our selves the last limber occupiers of that starlit, green dance floor.

Sunday 14 June 2009

Meeting the WE-ACTx Women and Children

Ineza Sewing Co-operative
Wednesday 11th June 2009

WE-ACTx has set up various projects and collaborates with various partner organizations to offer medical treatment, care and support for those living with HIV. Staff and service users of many the projects are offered free yoga classes by WE-ACTx Yoga a branch of the parent company. Ineza is an income generating in-house sewing and crafts co-operative set up by WE-ACTx in 2007 to make crafts and cloths for sale on the international market.

This is the longest standing yoga group that WE-ACTx Yoga support and has been running twice a week for two years. The women of the group are very familiar with the Astanga Yoga Primary Series and happily our stammering Kinyarwanda and tell us how to talk through the movements we are demonstrating. We teach yoga and we are taught Kinyarwanda. There are 25 women in the co-op. I have met about half of them. It is not always the same group present every week but there is hard core that are regularly there, ready and willing to get on their mats. A couple of the women have injuries that prohibit them from doing Astanga so a gentler style of Hatha yoga is necessary. Its wonderful to see that, in spite of the horrific experiences they have been through, the Ineza women have a high degree of body awareness and are not afraid to say if they don’t want to practice, they are tired, I’m going too fast or they have had enough.

Relaxation, Savasana - Corps Pose - seems to be the favourite time. It is perhaps the most healing time but also potentially the most risky time. All the women are genocide survivors and some of them were in churches, feigning death, as their kinfolk were hacked to pieces around them. Hanna and I have been warned never to take photos at this time as it can trigger PTSD flashbacks although gladly, we were informed, there haven’t been any for over a year. In the case of flashbacks, we have been instructed to stand back and let the women deal with the situation. They have learnt how to group round anyone who has been jolted back in time to horrific and terrifying events that are then relived as if occurring in real-time. The women know how to cope and do what needs to be done to help each other return to a place of safety. Never take photos in Savasana.

There is a photography issue in general. Volunteers are not permitted to take photos of anyone on any of the programmes unless we seek approval first. The Rwanda guide book advises to request permission when wanting to take photos of people, their shops stalls etc. So, posted photos are taken on routes too projects or looking out from project venues etc. Until i get some photo release forms signed. Under no circumstances are people to photograph any military presence or activity including soldiers or guards with guns, who I see often around town.


This is a relatively new group in the busy market district of Nyabugogo. The group has only had a few classes with Gail, the previous yoga volunteer. Many women come to see, speak with and be around their trauma counselor, Alice, and the feeling of health and healing that emanates from being together for the yoga. We practice on large reed mats, laid out to overlap each other and cover a large dusty floor. This is to accommodate the 5 or 25 women who may want to practice yoga while others sit on long benches against the walls and watch. We don’t have so many regular yoga mats so having a sticky mat each, although preferable, is not possible just now. We rely on people bringing a few with them when they arrive or leaving their behind when they go.

With this group, we are slowly building up the foundations of breath, body awareness and alignment, together with the strength and flexibility required to sustain the continuous flow of standing poses that make up the Astanga sequence. For now, we focus on warm up asana (poses) leading to few slow rounds of Sun Salutation A. We then do a few standing poses to prepare the women for Sun Salutation B. Some of the women tire easily because they are hungry, ill and have low energy or have injuries of some kind. They take time out, as they need to, sit against the wall and rest a while. After our last class (Wed 11th June), there was a tangible air of ease as the women eased into Savasana, to take rest on their backs. After a few moments, I found myself getting up and heading for my camera. Nooooo! Hanna, my co-teacher whispered urgently. I remembered instantly, halted in my tracks. How on earth could I forget, even for a moment? It was the look of peace on the women’s faces and the presence of peace in their bodies as they lay still resting that I wanted to avow. To see again and share with others at some other time to show that it is possible to feel a sense of safety and peace after experiences of extreme trauma, even if only for a few moment. It’s a good thing there are two of us teaching together. There is so much to learn and remember and of course mistakes can easily be made. Thankfully, with two of us, there is less chance of serious error. This is very comforting in the midst of so much that is new.

Friday 13th June 2009

This is a completely new yoga group that we have just set up at the Nyacyonga District Health Center on the outskirts of Kigali. It’s about 30 minutes from the centre and is the furthest class on my teaching schedule. I enjoyed the views whizzing past as we drove and took photos through the open car window. We got to the centre round 1pm as arranged, and introduced our selves at reception. Seraphine, the co-ordinator was occupied elsewhere so we took a seat on one of the long wooden benches and waited. We sat with 30 odd men women and children who were waiting to be seen for various reasons including from prenatal care, birthing, well-child care including vaccinations, diagnosis and treatment of acute illnesses such as malaria and endemic infectious diarrhea and HIV evaluation, care and treatment with antiretroviral (ARV) medications.

By the time Seraphine arrived it was a little too late for us to give the class. To clear the space, wait while everyone got changed have a decent time for the class and then pack up would have made us late for our next appointment. This was African yoga time – very different from English yoga time. I am learning to go with the flow, be more flexible with time and enjoy the space this gives to become more aware of and engaged with my surroundings. Still, we couldn’t let go of our schedule completely so had to disappointment those who wanted the class to start that day (Wedensday 11th) as planned.

We visited the Nyaconga group again today (Friday 13th). We arrived early to set up and allow for people to get ready. Still, we had to wait for some time for people to change and be ready to begin. This group is made up of the health centre staff and took place along a shaded corridor outside nursing rooms full of inpatients receiving treatment at the centre.

It was a very different experience teaching this group of well educated young people as opposed to the women service user groups, most of whom will not have had such a high level of schooling. Everyone was completely new to yoga, wondered what it was all about and wanted to know a bit about it before we began. Many of the participants wanted us to teach in French, some wanted English but we settled on Kinyarwanda so that everyone would understand and we could practice our talking through. It was a pleasure to teach such a lively group and experience their surprise and wonder as they executed movements they had not done before and encountered the bodily sensations, thoughts and feeling that came with this new form of breath synchronised exercise. It was also a challenge because they all chatted away through most of the class, some even answering mobile calls and texting as they went along. They ignored my suggestion to put aside their phones while doing yoga. Not seeing any reason why they should not. This reminded me of going to the cinema in London with my mum many, many years ago. My mother is Nigerian. I forget what we were seeing but we were quietly talking through the film. After a while someone behind us leant forward; “Shhhhh! Be quiet”. My mother, offended, turned round and raising her voice said, “What do you mean keep quiet? You can’t tell me to keep quiet.” She kissed her teeth and we carried on. For her, and me when I am out with her, it is normal to talk at social events, be it the cinema, theatre, live music, whatever. It’s a cultural thing. Relaxation was also different with this group. People found it hard to keep still and stop talking. Once the movement stopped, it seemed the session was over. We explained that relaxation was an important part of the practice.

The class was also attended by a whole host of people who had come to seek help and treatment at the centre, so we had a sizable audience for the proceedings with much chatting, laughing and commentary as it was a new experience for them also. I cant say whether this was a disturbing distraction for those doing yoga or whether is didn’t make any difference at all. Interestingly, after the class a few people wanted to know why the Sun Salutation greeted sun and not God. I said it was because the sun is the source of energy for all life on earth. This answer seemed to be acceptable. I look forward to seeing how the group develops as they become more familiar with yoga and discussing with them what they think about this practice from a cultural point of view. In London, people of African and Caribbean heritage make up a very small percentage to the overall yoga community. I often wonder why this is. I know there is a common perception in the black community that yoga is perceived as a religious practice and no not compatible with Christian belief. If anyone can shed any light on this, your comments will be very welcome.

Gadaffi Mosque
Sunday 14th June 2009

Over a hundred children between the ages of 4 and 20 gather every Sunday at the Gadaffi Mosque in Nyamirambo district to attend the children’s programme. They play football, take lessons in English, receive supportive and motivational talk reminding them to take good care of themselves, take their medicine, study well etc, and, at the moment, prepare for the Day of the African Child celebrations. The younger children 4-10 have been having yoga classes once a week for some time and love it. We hope to start giving yoga classes to the teenage girls in a week or two.

I first taught the children’s session last Sunday and had been looking forward to meeting them all week. After they had finished their weekly support and motivational talk from Bertin, who runs the children’s programme, about 40 odd of the younger children, ran over to where we were waiting in the outdoor yoga space, smiling, chatting and clamoring to hold our hands. What a welcome. The innocence and love that emanates from young children must be one of the eternal joys in life. The class is held on a big open square of dusty concrete without mats. Slowly we arranged ourselves into a circle, held hands and, with eyes closed, stood in silence for a while - the little ones peaking from time to time. This is how we commenced an hour of fun yoga. We did a few rounds of sun salutation A then tackled sun salutation B. Once in downward dog we counted to ten in English, Hanna and I doing our best to slow down their quickening pace. Trying to keep an eye on so many of them was almost impossible but amazingly most of them stayed with us. We played with various standing poses, balances and sitting partner work. It was definitely the highlight of my teaching week.

The session today was equally fun although the children were a little less focused and therefore more restless. We did more standing partner balances, trying to keep off the dusty floor and worked in smaller groups. They play well together but often want to have Hanna n I as a partner instead of each other. Especially Hanna because she is a muzungu – white person! After teaching the children and hanging out with everyone for a while, watching some of the chidren playing football, I walk back with hanna and other volunteers through the busy streets of Nyamirambo enjoying the sights to be seen, wishing i could have taken more photos.

Thinking about my teaching practice, usually flowing and full of detailed instruction, here it hobbles along awkwardly. Much as I feel I have reached a certain level of attunement in teaching yoga, my slowness in picking up the language throws me back to a that challenging and uncomfortable place we inhabit when learning something new. Without words, it feels at times like starting all over again. On the positive side, this is a wonderful opportunity for Svadhyaya, which means self-study. Using our experiences in life, our mistakes, hurts and challenges, joys and successes, to help us cultivate greater self-awareness that works for the betterment of our selves and our community and world at large. In this vein, it’s interesting to watch myself oscillating between and tussles with varying ego states of mind and emotion that are harsh and throw me off centre, clouding access to more forgiving inner resource. What is required here is that invaluable tool that new and old yoga students are encouraged to adopt: ‘the beginners mind’. This is the child-like attitude of open curiosity, uninhibited enthusiasm and a non-judgmental receptivity to new experiences. Teaching from this frame of mind, the inner critic, ever ready to judge, quietens.

Beginners mind enables a letting go of overly high expectations that I should be teaching flowing Astanga Vinyasa classes in fluent Kinyarwanda inside two weeks! Instead I attempt to fully inhabit my body and mind and tune into the present moment of experience and be with the women, children or mixed group I am teaching. The present moment of experience being the most potent place to be when learning anything new and the best place from which to meet all challenges that arise. As the Ineza women say, Buhoro Buhoro! - Slowly, Slowly! And as the late Pattabhi Jois would say, “practice, practice and all is coming.”

Sunday 7 June 2009

Arriving in Rwanda

Home away from home

It’s a full moon day today. I’ve been in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, for just over a week now and am still feeling my way around. I arrived here last Saturday night at about 10pm after a long day of travel. It took three flights over 12 hours to get from Cape Town to Kigali, via Johannesburg and Entebbe. I was so happy to see Marcel at the airport holding a sheet of paper with my name on it. We chatted a little as we drove the short distance from the airport to the We-Actx guesthouse in Kiyovu, where I will be staying. I had my head to the window most of the way, peering out over the darkened city enjoying, the night-lights liberally dotted around the numerous hills. Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills.

The house sleeps 8 people in 4 bedrooms. The open plan living area has French windows on opposite sides of the living-room/ dining area, giving the space a light, open feel. The veranda looks out onto a sizeable green, leafy garden that is home to some interesting looking birds. None that I recognize, but they wake us up at 5.30 am and are a delightful to listen to in the cool stillness of dawn. The sun rises swiftly a little before six and the weather is very accommodating. It’s the long dry season now, which runs from June to August. The days on the whole are bright and not too hot although it will get hotter as the season wears on. There are 7 of us here at the moment with people coming and going all the time.

Anyone from abroad who is affiliated with the We-Actx organization is welcome to stay at the guesthouse. At the moment we have Jessica and Shereen, two public health workers; Lisa, a gynaecology and obstetrics doctor; Mary, a Dr of psychologist specializing in trauma; Hanna, a multi lingual yoga teacher from Finland (we will be co-teaching yoga classes at the various We-actx projects during our three month stay); Jeff who just passing through on is on his way back to working on a project that offers economic empowerment and trauma counseling to child soldiers in Burundi and myself. Guests are well looked after by Candida who cooks delicious mostly vegetarian food for us and meat occasionally for those who want it; Josse helps with laundry and cleaning and Joseph guards the compound. The house is situated in a well-heeled part of Kigali. President Paul Kagame’s residence is just round the corner. The streets are wide, lined with shrubs and clean. There is little traffic on the roads in this art of the city so it’s relatively quiet and peaceful. I’ve only ventured out alone once so far and, apart from the anxiety associated with being in a new place and not knowing ones way around, I feel fairly safe. Lisa and Shereen leave today. Cathy the director of We-act arrives t and more volunteers will be here in July. I have my own room, the view isn’t bad, and I feel nicely settled in my new home away from home.

Preparing for work

The first couple of days this week were taken up with the handover from Gail, who has just completed 3-month yoga teaching here. She introduced Hanna and I to staff at the central We-actx clinic, in the city centre, where antiretroviral medicines, trauma counseling and yoga is given to service users. We were shown good places to have tea, to shop for provisions and gifts and to change money. We were shown several routes linking the guesthouse and the clinic and given a verbal run through of the various groups we will be working with.

Participating in Gail’s last few classes was useful preparation for teaching. She taught mostly I Kinyarwanda, the first language of Rwanda with a smattering of English and perhaps French too. French and English are spoken by those who have had access to education although French usage is dwindling slowly as English is officially implemented as the second language of the country. Kinyarwanda is not an easy language to get master so it’s going to be a challenge working with a co-teacher and an interpreter while picking up Kinyarwanda and French as I go along.

Driving up and down the numerous hills, on the way to and from various classes, it was a joy to get my first sight of the city in daylight. Every so often, another expansive view of the city would appear, giving a wonderful sense of space. Some hills are much more densely built up than others, but in every direction you look you will see green. The city centre and business district area are noisy, bustling and packed with people go about their daily business. People are not at all afraid to stare and hawkers abound selling airtime for mobile phones, sunglasses, tourist maps of Kigali and no doubt a hose of other goods that I haven’t registered yet. Although the traffic could be much worse, there are countless 4-wheel drive vehicles and seemingly hundreds of motorcycles, motos, all of which give off uncontrolled amounts of exhaust, leaving a toxic haze of fumes lingering in the hot Rwandan air - somewhat distracting from the natural beauty of the landscape.

During the second part of my first week I started teaching proper. As imagined, I’m on a steep learning curve. It will take a little time for everything to come together: To get to know the women and children I will be teaching, their bodily strengths and weaknesses, their energy levels and how best to serve them. For Hanna and I to establish the best approach to teaching the various different groups we will be working with while keeping it enjoyable and fun for us all.