I was called “Mzungu” over 500 times on Friday. It was screamed at me while my back tyre was stuck in a muddy pothole, and yelled repeatedly with increasing and advancing intensity when I dared to exit my car for a toilet break. For four hours I endeavoured to travel 90kms in my 1996 Toyota Corona, hoping for breath-taking views of Lake Kivu, but instead with my eyes glued to the road to avoid spine and axle shaking crater drops. The road was a bad choice of route-finding. I had been seduced by the shorter distance on my map, without fully appreciating the importance of the line’s width and colour. “Mzungu” means foreigner, outsider, white person.
They were young children who ran towards my car, calling out to me excitedly, asking for a lollipop, and then when they were disappointed, changing their request to money. This is a famous scene for a traveller, attracting the attention of local children keen to play and try their luck for a treat. I’ve read the scene in blogs, told as a cute story of local need and poverty, but overall of resilience and the beauty and happiness that the children hold on to. I read the same scene described by a journalist last week in the wake of a twitter storm caused by a PR representative’s 140 characters about HIV in South Africa. The foreign journalist in Rwanda feared that the offensive tweet may impact on the positive stereotype that was currently attached to the word “Mzungu”. Driving at 10km/h along a mountain road that did offer the occasional, stunning glimpse of Lake Kivu, I can assure the journalist that the racial stereotype remains intact. However, it is not positive.
Being identified by a set of factors with which you do not choose to identify yourself, is not positive. The argument that the stereotype holds positive connotations, does not make it positive. As soon as someone says – “you are this, and therefore you are this”, the rest of you is denied. Spending an afternoon being identified by my skin colour, and thereby having a set of behaviours assumed about me, meant having the possibility that I was something else ignored. Reducing anyone to a stereotype is dehumanising.
Where I think the journalist’s fears were misplaced, is that reality rarely affects a stereotype. People hold on to the stereotype that they want to; the one that best suits their needs. For those children, it suits them to believe that I will give them something if they behave in a certain way. For some foreigners it can suit them to be seen as benevolent and kind, and the bringer of help. Therefor the stereotype survives. Experiencing someone who does not give out lollipops to children will not impact on the stereotype (despite my eventual scowls and visible frustration!).
This holds true for negative stereotypes as much as “positive” ones. People hang on to negative stereotypes despite positive experiences, because it suits them to do so. It helps them to think badly of other groups of people in order to explain their own situation. Such negative stereotypes require ignorance, as do “positive” ones. For a group of beautiful children the ignorance of their requests is innocent naivety, but in adults it is often a conscious, managed ignorance.
The children we work with in Rwanda face the daily stigma of many enforced identities, including those of HIV and “illness”, often combined with poverty. This stigma can result in horrifying prejudice and behaviour, meaning limited opportunities, life choices, and marginalization.
In music therapy, and within Musicians without Borders’ ethos, participants’ music is heard without prejudice. All expression and communication is accepted without judgment. This can be a transformative experience. Often when someone plays for the first time in music therapy they look up for a response, checking how their music has been received, checking that they’re OK. Sometimes there seems like a fear that they’ve done it wrong. Previous experiences are in that look.
Music therapy can offer a space within which participants can exist outside of others’ imposed identities. We can use the experience to explore different identities, or to come to a greater understanding of what an identity may mean and where it might come from. Away from assumption we try to hear each other, and interact. Music offers both verbal and non-verbal means of doing this.
In addition, music can offer a resource to challenge prejudice and stereotypical constructs. Although the scowl of an angry driver or an idiotic tweet may not shake a belief, music is a powerful means of communication that has proven to change minds. When Evelyn Glennie performs on percussion it challenges preconceptions of deafness as a disability. When Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles play piano and sing it challenges the preconceived limitations of blindness. Apartheid-era musicians from South Africa’s townships forced the world to view them with humanity and dignity, and the support that they needed was expressed and not assumed.
In September 2012, Chris Nicholson set up a music therapy program for people living with HIV and AIDS at a clinic in central Rwanda. In September 2013, he returned for 9 months to continue his therapy work with vulnerable HIV+ adolescents and to train staff in Music & Health. Prior to his involvement with music therapy, Chris had an international performance and teaching career as a classical guitarist. He studied classical guitar at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and in Spain with maestros Jose Tomas and Alex Garrobe.