Musicians Without Borders: Rwanda Youth Music

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Musicians Without Borders: Rwanda Youth Music

Chris Nicholson, Program Development Manager, Musicians Without Borders


It was a flat-pack cajón, self-assembled in Rwanda. Hard to trust that it would hold your weight, or that the front panel wouldn’t splinter when you played it. The bass note on it was good, though, and the snare sound cut through sharply. I could hold the small group safely with my simple rhythm as they improvised around it.

One of the five teenagers in the group had arrived early and started to play on a djembe, so I had accompanied him. The others had come in one by one and joined in on the drums positioned by their chairs. We were a few weeks in, and they knew they were free to pick up instruments and to play as they wanted. There wasn’t much eye contact, I remember; all of us focused on something else. Occasionally I changed my beat, or echoed an idea I heard from someone, and then I would catch an eye or a smile. It must have been 15 minutes we played. The cajón’s wood chafed at my skin, bruised the heels of my palms. A young woman looked up and smiled, sighed hard. We laughed gently. She blew on her fingers. The others too looked up, broken from their concentration. The beat slowed, softened. One of the boys played a loud burst on his drum, and I mimicked him, giving a roll on the cajón to come to an end.

This was my first period living in Rwanda, and I was there as a student music therapist. The group was made up of young people living with HIV, all patients of Musicians Without Borders’ partner organization WE-ACTx for Hope. I asked them how the improvisation had been for them. Four answered simply, just saying that it had been good, enjoyable, or energizing.

The young woman was the fifth to respond. She smiled and thanked us all, as is culturally expected before talking to a group. She hadn’t spoken much at all in previous weeks. Now she looked at each of us and told us that when she had come in and started to play, she was really thinking of some memories that were very hard for her; painful things that often were on her mind and made her sad. As our rhythm changed, her thoughts shifted too. Every time with the change of beat, different memories had come, and different feelings. In the 15 minutes of playing she had broken away from the problems that had gripped her. Moved past them, she said. Her expression now looked open and she held my eye contact—something she was never normally able to do. The skin around her eyes was dark, like she hadn’t slept well for a while.

My aim had been to create conditions where everyone could engage in making music. The young woman’s response showed how people were able to take from the music what they needed. There were six people playing, and we could all take something different from the music. I didn’t control that, just the conditions.

The safety in the group, and her confidence that she was welcome to be included in the music-making, meant that she entered easily in our impromptu drum circle. Drumming is often viewed as a male activity in Rwanda, but she knew we didn’t view it that way and she had equal access. We’d established in previous weeks that technical knowledge wasn’t important to join in, creativity was the important thing. In that moment, we all gave it our best, and engaged as best we could.

Outreach workshop, Eastern Province, Rwanda.

Those conditions of safety, inclusion, creativity, equality, and quality guide Musicians Without Borders’ methodology for facilitating music-making. Musicians Without Borders uses the power of music for social change and peacebuilding, working in communities around the world affected by war and armed conflict.

Rwanda Youth Music began in 2012, developed at the invitation of our partner, WE-ACTx for Hope. Two trainers from Musicians Without Borders visited and ran workshops for children from the clinic, and everyone saw the impact: smiling faces, strengthening relationships, and a feeling of positive engagement with clinical support. The following year, another group from Musicians Without Borders returned and ran workshops together with a group of the clinic’s youth, who worked as ‘peer parents’ to support children and younger patients. At the end of two weeks, they sat together and discussed how they thought a music program might look.

Following the lead of those initial discussions, we began training that group of peer parents in Community Music Leadership, so they could run music activities and workshops themselves. Since then, music has been embedded into clinical care. When children come to collect their medicine from the clinic, there are drop-in music groups for them to join while they are waiting around; teenagers can join therapeutic music groups run at a local music school; at psycho-social support groups, everyone makes music. Three cohorts of music leaders from the clinic have been trained over the past eight years.

Expanding impact into the community, an outreach program was established that now reaches over 1,000 young people every year. The young Community Music Leaders run workshops with children and youth at other organizations, including with former street children, in refugee camps, at centers supporting children with disabilities, and for those living with HIV.

Such is the success of the program that we have been invited to run trainings and replicate the model in Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For the past two years, those trainings have been run solely by the Rwandan team, two of whom have grown to be Musicians Without Borders international trainers. We have a team of 30 assistant trainers.

Traditional Dance performance at graduation celebration for new Community Music Leaders.

All these initiatives provide people with access to music-making, guided by the principles of safety, inclusion, creativity, equality, and quality. At WE-ACTx for Hope, we try to offer points of access that allow everyone to participate. That ranges from one-on-one sessions to large group music-making. Some children learn instruments, while others take part in games and movement-based activities. The outreach program has sometimes involved leading music-making with hundreds of young people in a refugee camp, without any instruments, for hours. Other times, it has involved working for 20 minutes with a small group of children with autism, playing on xylophones. In the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, we trained youth leaders who work in communities affected directly by conflict and by outbreaks of Ebola.

In each setting, the team aims to establish the conditions for people to engage in making music and to feel connection and recognition. Our evaluation shows that participants find the specific benefits they need.

I self-assembled that cajón on my first morning in Rwanda. I didn’t understand then that every time someone played it, it would mean something different.


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