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our work > news > A Music Therapy Student in Rwanda: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
A Music Therapy Student in Rwanda: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
August 4, 2015   Rwanda

Musicians Without Borders have been running the fourth and final week of Community Music Leadership training for the current cohort of young leaders in Rwanda. We have been joined by Keren Rosenbaum, creator of Active Listening Playground, who is leading us through the week. During an exercise yesterday morning we were paired up and while one drew the other had to sing in response to the marks being created. Together music was composed in the moment. I was taken by surprise as what seemed obvious to me really wasn’t. I found I was being frustrated by the process. As I drew I heard sounds in my mind. Yet, what was sung by my partner in reflexion was not what I had anticipated, and rather than embrace and run with this difference I found myself getting worked up by the fact my partner did not hear as I did.

I again was challenged this afternoon when at the start of another activity I wasn’t sure I had understood the instructions. I tried to clarify them with my group but I was not able piece together the responses I received. I was now left even more confused, unsure whether I had misheard the initial instructions. Perhaps I had not accurately heard what the members of the group were trying to explain. Perhaps the message / meaning was changed down the line like in Chinese whispers, further confounded by the translation between languages.


Listening in

I know I do not listen to everything. I filter out the seemingly less important messages or white noise. This generally happens unconsciously as it would be too overwhelming on the senses to take in every sound, but I’ve been questioning whether I listen to enough.

Over the last few days I have been trying hard to listen. Listening to music. Listening to people. Listening to nature and the surrounding environment. Listening to myself. But also trying to listen to what is not said. To the silence. To the gaps. To the what is not.

Here in the guest house I hear the colourful songs from the birds, so different from those back at home. There is the low rumble of an airplane that passes overhead on an evening. Last night I heard a dog bark which made me realise that this was something that had been missing from my soundscape up until this point. There is also the sounds of passing cars and motos throughout the day.

Last weekend it was the last Saturday in the month which means ‘Umuganda’ for the Rwandan people. People stop their usual activities and participate in community work such as litter picking or even building repairs. Someone suggested that as a non-resident to stay at the house and so I took the opportunity to spend the morning sat on the veranda reading. Despite being behind the compound walls I was aware there was something different about the atmosphere. I listened. I could hear very little. I was particularly aware of the lack of traffic. It was very peaceful but a bit unsettling.

This weekend also saw Kigali Up come to Rwanda. Kigali Up is an annual Music Festival which is held outside the grounds of the stadium. Going from the peace of the morning to the blasting bass from the stage in the evening was quite a contrast. Saturday night’s bands seemed to mainly play in a reggae style with a similar tempo, that was until the last act Eddy Kenzo came on. Backed by some incredible dancers, three singers, a horn section as well two percussion players, two keyboards, two guitars and a bass guitar, Eddy Kenzo knew how to entertain the crowd and get us all dancing. I came away with ringing in my ears.

From the section I attended on the Sunday evening, the artists seemed to present a much more varied programme (and to a higher calibre). However it was only during the penultimate act when Chris commented that this was the first distorted rock guitar he had heard since being in the country that I was aware of a change in atmosphere, a shift in the audience. The band were musically rather good and gave a really persuasive performance but as I looked around I felt that the crowd were just on lookers. They listened and watched but the dancing seemed to stop. They appeared to be listening in but not participating or experiencing it as they had the previous acts. This was certainly different to what I had become used to. Perhaps it was a lack of familiarity with the style. Maybe it was just the different intensity that stopped the dancing. I’m sure there could be many other reasons.

When reflecting I found myself wondering more about these musical gaps. What is not being said through this medium? Thinking back I don’t think I have heard any songs which are expressing “negative” emotions and I’ve been left wondering whether music is used for processing and expressing these more difficult emotions here in Rwanda.

Music can speak and access emotions which words alone cannot and in Music Therapy these can be explored in the safety of the therapeutic relationship and space. Many Music Therapists in the UK would say that exploring these more negative emotions through the medium of music is often a poignant experience for clients.

This has led me into thinking about my weekend based clinical placement work in particular. When I’m with the children on the oncology ward, will there be any fear or pain or frustration shared through their music? When I work with the young people affected by HIV/AIDs will the groups allow space for processing their difficulties? But a bigger and more important emerging question is, if individuals were to share their stories and emotions in the music, will I hear them?

I know I will never be able to hear everything or be able interpret it accurately, but I do need to listen enough. How will I know if I’m listening enough? At this moment in time I’m not sure. But for now I will keep trying to listen more.


P.S. I think you’ll be eagerly awaiting the news that I am now happily riding moto around the city…

Bethan Fitzsimons lives in Cardiff (Wales, UK) where she is studying to be a Music Therapist at the University of South Wales. Previously she studied Viola with Jon Thorne at the Royal Welsh College of Drama from which she graduated in 2010. She is spending 8 weeks in Rwanda as part of her MA Music Therapy training programme. 

Topics: Rwanda