“Can you please explain what is happening now to me? This is a miracle.” Patrick Bihoyiki, a MindLeaps participant, upon entering boarding school after participating in the very early days of the MindLeaps program.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the rebirth of Rwanda is the astonishing number of humanitarian organizations that have sprung up across the country in the 28 years since the Tutsi genocide left the country bloodied and broken.
I have visited or been introduced to a few dozen over the years that I have returned to my adopted country.
While all the efforts I have observed were heartfelt and effective in their own way, MindLeaps spontaneously moved me to tears in a way that only happens with art. And that’s the key to the eight-year-old organization’s success in reaching vulnerable children with the lure of music and dance but with the promise of much more.
Having originated from the Rebecca Davis Dance Company in Philadelphia, MindLeaps supports positive life pathways for children and youth through a codified, kinesthetic movement program that demonstrably improves social-emotional learning skills. And the administrators stand ready to prove the success of social emotional learning that is the aim of MindLeap’s specific curriculum using a data-driven monitoring and evaluation system called Tracker, developed in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University.
On the first of my three visits to the MindLeaps campus in Kigali, Bashir Karenzi, MindLeaps, Africa program director, and Vedaste Nyambe, the Rwanda country director, were excited to show me exactly how the data system works.
All of the MindLeaps instructors are taught how to use the tracking system and provide input on a consistent basis. There are seven measures of growth that are assessed: memorization, grit, teamwork, discipline, self-esteem, creativity and language. And since tracker gathers data from a child’s execution of dance moves to visually graph changes in cognitive development and social-emotional learning, there is little room for subjectivity.
But data is merely a dry, rather lifeless measure of success. Dance is the animated avenue that takes these young people to a place that nothing else in their short lives had done.
Naturally that makes dance the most enlivening part of this story. But without a strong, strategic foundation, miracles would be harder to come by.
Where vulnerable youngsters are found, there too is often found trauma and serious family problems. So, the young people are not met at the door and left to their own devices when they leave the space day after day. MindLeaps Rwanda employs a coordinator whose responsibilities include visiting the surrounding homes and assessing what circumstances the students or young people might be negotiating when the youngsters are living at home. Some are living on the street, in which case the social worker coordinates with other organizations to find shelter for them.
Poverty is one thing that limits the options not only for the youth but also for their families. To that end MindLeaps Rwanda also includes a mini-loan component that helps primarily mothers set up businesses together and support one another in changing their financial conditions.
On that first visit, we took a walk up the street to visit one of the co-ops, which was found in a tiny but efficiently used space squished between traditional mud brick or clay dwellings a few blocks from the campus. Four women sat behind their sewing machines, embraced by their handiwork hanging from the walls and in some cases, the ceiling. Briefcases, shopping bags, purses, clothing in vibrant patterns and colors were a testament to the creativity and determination of these entrepreneurs.
Support groups and family strengthening programs are another foundation that fosters success for parents and youngsters alike through regular sessions between the parents of the enrollees.
Yet another basic service exposes students to technology. Jewish Helping Hands donated 20 Chromebook laptops as well as Wi-Fi. When COVID-19 lockdowns hit, students were able to engage in virtual learning via cell phones. When the lockdowns lifted, all of the students returned.
OK, here’s what they returned to. Dance. Music. Choreography. Joy.
There is no way to impart, even with video and photographs, the spine-tingling thrill of being in the presence of these youngsters leaping across the floor, smiling and laughing while completely focused on the very specific kinesthetic exercises that are designed not only to offer exuberance but also education.
Along with predetermined 45-minute warm-ups and lessons, they are encouraged to develop their own choreography and present it for their fellow students and teachers. All of the teachers and most of the administrators that I met are MindLeaps graduates.
My visit to MindLeaps coincided with preparations for participation in the annual Ubumutu Arts Festival first held in July 2015 during the last week of the 100 days commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
Ubumuntu, meaning “being human,” is portrayed by the music and the choreography and magnified by degrees when considering the tragedy of 1994. But it is the quote from the late theologian and human rights activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu, that provided a baseline for the arts festival that is all the more poignant for his having passed away this last year: “My humanity is bound together in yours, for we can only be human together.”
The sharing of our common humanity has always been part of my deep love for Rwanda. So when I asked the dancers ranging in age from 9 to 18 what they had gained from their time working with their teachers their answers were also testament to our shared humanity.
“I am learning English”
“I have access to learn about technology.”
“It keeps me out of trouble.”
“I got to go back to school.”
“Coming here is like coming home to my family.”
“It’s like home.”
MindLeaps has made its way into five additional countries since its beginnings in Rwanda in 2014: Guinea, Uganda, Mauritania, North Macedonia, and the United States. Each country has unique partnerships and provides adjunct services relative to the needs of the particular community, which can include everything from daily meals to academic sponsorship.
Having met the determined, energetic founder, Rebecca Davis, there is no doubt the program will continue to spread and succeed in many more cultures and communities across the globe.
Editor’s Note: Source founder and Publisher Emeritus Shaun A. Pennington will be featured in a “moments with MindLeaps” interview at 4:30 p.m. Friday on Instagram Live.