MindLeaps Rwanda: Giving street kids a new lease of life

Rene Byiringiro is not your typical definition of street child. Although he loved to spend most of his time with friends on the streets of Nyamirambo, he was lucky to have somewhere he called home - a place to which he could retire at the end of the day.
The children take time off to till their backyard garden. (Moses Opobo)
The children take time off to till their backyard garden. (Moses Opobo)

Rene Byiringiro is not your typical definition of street child. Although he loved to spend most of his time with friends on the streets of Nyamirambo, he was lucky to have somewhere he called home – a place to which he could retire at the end of the day.

In other words, he just preferred the company of his peers over that of his doting mother and elder siblings at home.

Because of his preference for a life on the streets, he had long dropped out of school.

Early last year, Byiringiro heard about MindLeaps, a dance and vocational program that aims at improving the cognitive abilities of youths as it prepares them for a stable life in school or in a working environment.

He gladly enrolled for the dance program at the Nyamirambo-based organisation.

“When I joined the dance program at MindLeaps, I started dividing my time between this place and home where I stayed with my mother,” Byiringiro recalls.  

Since then, he has abandoned the streets because this place keeps him occupied.

When I visited the MindLeaps home a few yards across the road from the popular Green Corner Pub in Nyamirambo on Wednesday afternoon, the place was abuzz with about 60 youths who come from the same or similar circumstances as Byiringiro:

They are either street children, out-of-school kids that live at home, or children that live at home but are at risk from psycho-social problems.

So in joining the program, Byiringiro basically found a new family and a new life. Just like him, most of the other boys on the program also heard about it through friends.

MindLeaps is basically a simple three-phase model designed to help less advantaged children leap out of destitution, and dance is the first and most important.

The two other phases cover vocational training, and youth advancement.

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Dance is a key component of the program. (Moses Opobo)

Dance for change:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays each group comes for two hours and has a dance class to develop their cognitive skills.

There are four different groups and they all have their classes at different times.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays they also have a designated time and have to come for vocational training and English lessons.

Of the 75 children enrolled, 60 are boys, while the remaining 15 are girls who make up the Girls’ Program, which is relatively new.

Stepping into the dance studio, I encountered two separate groups being handled by two experienced instructors.

The classes were fast-paced and energetic, much like an aerobics session.

Eugene Ssali, a dance instructor and trainer is leading the classes:

I saw him take his class through the paces, from warm-ups, then on to the floor with unique dance moves, some choreography sessions where they perfect a move together, and then the cool-down session at the end of it all.

Ssali has been at it since 2011 when he joined MindLeaps.

“Basically it’s dance we teach, but we go into details like what you need to do to become a professional dancer,” he explains.

He reckons that dance helps put their minds back on track, to focus and to dream big.

“I can’t say it’s really easy working with these children, but on the other hand it’s easy. First of all I know the people I’m working with, so I’m aware of the situations they are going through, so I tend to go easy on them. I make sure they are all my good friends, and that makes it easier to work with them.”

“We try to talk to those who have abandoned home to go back even if the situation back home is not good.”

The dance classes proved quite engaging, offering a whole range of options –Jazz, Ballet, Afro and Contemporary dances.

Dealing with street children:

Like you would expect, this is no mean feat.

“It’s hard, that is why we use dance,” explains Rebecca Davis, the founder and Executive Director of MindLeaps.  “If we told them come to the center and sit in the classroom for five hours in a day, even if we told them we were giving them food and all these things they wouldn’t come. With dance, the kids can start to adapt to that behavior in the studio, and then be able to carry on with that behavior outside of the studio.”

A professional ballerina and choreographer from the US, Davis believes in the transformative power of dance:

“The reason that the behavior transformation happens is because it’s dance, and it takes time of course,” she starts.

“If you came to see these kids the first day, almost all of us working together as teachers couldn’t control them. They would be hitting each other, fighting, running around, or trying to steal from each other. We couldn’t just get some of them to stand in a line.”

“And then by the time they’ve been here for three months, anyone could teach them, because they are so attentive and so organized and so interested in learning, they will try to understand even under difficult circumstances. And that’s just the mindset they need to go back to school, because in school they will be older than the other kids, and without the same literacy level and yet still they’re expected to perform.”

She contends that, other than just impart dance skills, the program seeks to inculcate wider attitude change among the beneficiaries:

“Some of them tell us they want to become professional dancers and artists, but I don’t think that’s because they see dance as something they were born to do or are talented in. I think for most of them it’s because this is their first time they feel encouraged to do what they feel talented to do, and I think that when they go to school or get a job and find out they are also good at that, their desire to become a dancer will probably change.”

After the two-hour dance class, and after taking a short rest, I was invited to join the children for their meal break at the back of the building.

They were served rice, cabbage and beef, and seated quietly in rows, they begun to dig in to their plates.

They inform me that most of the food they consume here comes from the backyard garden that I see blooming with legumes and vegetables.

The garden is quite big, and soon, management intends to venture into selling off what’s in excess.

About MindLeaps:

Founded in 2005, as the Rebecca Davis Dance Company (RDDC), the organisation changed its name in 2014 to reflect its new international orientation.

Entrepreneur and choreographer Rebecca Davis started the organization as a dance company offering pure classical dance in the United States.

Originally she was inspired to create works about history and social issues. However her perspective on the power of dance changed after producing her 2008 ballet about the genocide in Darfur.

“After I went through that experience with the dancers, for the first time I wanted to come to Africa.”

In 2008 she came to Rwanda to see what a post-genocide country would look like.

“Like everyone that comes to Rwanda I was so shocked and surprised and just thought this is a fantastic place. I kept meeting all these kids that were dancing everywhere and I thought that was strange –there are so many kids around here who love what I’m trained to do –the thing that I do professionally in the US. What surprised me really was to learn that most of these kids I saw dancing happily away in the streets did not really have stable home lives.”

Over the course of the next years as she returned to Rwanda, she started to realize that maybe dance can be used here in a way that would not only be fun for kids, but would actually help them to finally get educated.

“Then we decided to change the whole organization from a professional dance company to an NGO that works in countries using dance as a tool for change.”

Currently, it works predominantly in Rwanda and Guinea.

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