CMU Project Rwanda

“The days pass, but laughter does not,” … by cmuprojectrwanda
June 19, 2010, 1:13 pm
Filed under: Planning

this was the title of a song Abhay, Jim, and I learned from the kids during one of our Tam Tam lessons and it has truly inspired me. Kigali has helped me grow so much. The children, my fellow team members, everyone who helped us and gave us the opportunity with utmost faith, and the Rwandan culture and people have left a permanent impression on my heart.

Tam Tam is a series of music applications on the XO laptops. The applications we taught included Tam Tam Mini, Tam Tam Jam, and Tam Tam Edit. Before we began teaching the first application however, we realized how important it was to convey to the students the purpose of learning music. I remember a late night planning meeting when we sat down together to finalize the agenda for the first lesson and Jim stopped midway, looked at us anxiously, and asked “Guys, why are we doing this? It’s very important for the children to understand why they are exploring music, what will they understand and get out of it?” He then crossed his hands, and while he sat back in his chair ruminating – he was clearly searching for a response from Abhay and myself.

I made an attempt to respond: music sparks creativity and is a form of expression. Music is universal language, it knows no boundaries and even though we have some language barriers here we are going to develop a strong bond with the children because music is something that ties us together. Music is everywhere, you don’t need fancy instruments — try clapping on a table or throwing pebbles in the water. The point is that the children can create their own music individually or together and take ownership of the experience. Music can be heard and it can also be visualized — the laptops are going to help us prove that. Responding to Jim’s question really helped me realize how quintessential it was for us to establish a strong foundation to what we were going to do the next morning.

Abhay seemed instantly motivated and made some pretty impressive beats with his hands and feet that really got the ball rolling for our planning. We planned to have an activity where each student could make his/her own instrument and opened our bag of kaboodles to explore the possibilities. We started playing and putting together chimes, bells, popsicle sticks, bamboo sticks, colorful streamers, and bottles to experiment while jamming (no pun intended here) to some XO beats on our new loud speakers! It was so much fun planning! Sruthi, Melvin, Josh, and Vishal decided to take a break from their programming lesson planning to see what the buzz was about and help us  figure out an instrument to make with our limited materials . It is important to note here that they are all engineers and making new instruments came with extraordinary ease to them. =)

All three groups worked really hard that night to ensure a strong start.

Day 1

Going to school early morning felt really good and I loved to see how active and responsible the children were. Every morning before the first session they clean their own classrooms and they would even help us bring out the laptop and supply boxes from the Headmistress’s office. Before and after school many of them play soccer, it’s a sport they just can’t get enough of!

What really saddened me however was the fact that there was only 1 water source for the whole school – a single faucet on the grounds and to see the kids always lined up there with these yellow jugs to get even a little bit of water.  I thought about how lucky I was to have had a water fountain at almost every corner in my elementary school.

Before we knew it, we were in the classroom and connecting the laptops to get started. “Muraaaahooo! Amakurue??” we said with excitement – that means “Hi, how are you?” in KinyaRwanda. Our whole team wanted to make a collective effort to make the kids feels as comfortable with us as possible, we tried our best to learn their language and had an ice breaker each day to get to know each other better. We still needed translators however given the time constraint and we had some great translators who not only helped us get the point across but who also went around helping with the laptops. For us, a special shout out to our translator Bonfils!  

Our ice breaker the first day was hot potato, but with a rainbow beachball — works the same right? 😉 Whoever was holding the ball once the music stopped had to tell us anything about themselves. Often we ended up singing and clapping together to favorite tunes.

To start off our discussion we really wanted to get a sense of what music meant to each person. In all six classes that day, the response we received the most was “happiness,” or “joy.”  I think the discussion went really well, it was great to see the students taking so much interest and actively participating, definitely eased our tensions coming in the first day knowing we might have to improvise a lot! We were so happy to get to know each other better as well as our musical tastes! We then made instruments together – Jim headed the bell and streamer instruments, Abhay the windchimes, and myself the drums. After everyone made their instruments we played them together and created some catchy beats. In this process, we gained an understanding of rhythm and coordination.

We then transitioned into Tam Tam Mini on the laptops for the rest of the lesson. The application is really cool as it has a variety of instrumentals including voice overs.

First day – went very well! But once we got into the van to head back, I was already thinking “these students are very bright, learning advance musical applications, programming, and acting … are we boring them? Should we turn it up a couple notches tomorrow and delve deeper, shouldn’t we be challenging them?”

Lesson planning, or meaningful lesson planning I should say, was harder that night than we anticipated. I gained  more of an appreciation for my professors who not only try to teach their subject matter, but also try to present and convey it in a way that would be interesting and dynamic to learn.

Day 2

Today we heard all of the children sing their national anthem before the first session, it was very touching.

Our icebreaker was a game of “what do you like?” we stood in a circle, one person would get into the center and say for example … “I like chocolate ice cream” and everyone else who liked the same would then run around, switch spots, and the one left would say what he/she liked and so forth. We were very hyped when a student said “I like Tam Tam!!” and everyone switched spots!!

We then began exploring Tam Tam Jam together by starting off with an introductory tempo and loop exercise – we stood in the same circle, Bonfils and Jim would clap their hands, I would stomp my feet, and Abhay would snap. We then repeated the four beats with everyone and went faster every round. We found these complementary exercises aside from the laptops to be really effective and fun for learning key musical concepts.

To test what we learned, we then had an activity where we created a beat on Tam Tam Jam, played it on the loudspeaker, and asked the students to replicate the beat. This was a challenge and difficult but we were ok with that, knowing that this would push them to delve deeper into the application to find the right instruments, loops, and tempo.

At this point I realized that we really had a productive Day 2 and it wouldn’t have been the case if it were not for the multiple OLPC interns and volunteers who helped tirelessly to fix glitches and aid our teaching with the kids.

Day 3

It’s Day 3 and it’s time for the students to really see how they can create their own music!!!  Our game of the day was a human knot activity which really helped to hone in on some teambuilding skills.

We explained that for the following day, we are having a “Nonko’s Coolest Band” competition where everyone is encouraged to participate and those selected would perform at the Finale. Bands were to create their own beats on the XO laptops.

We then went straight to work to show exactly how this could be done with Tam Tam Edit and explained measures, beats, how to add instrumentals, how to move notes up and down to create personalized loops etc. We then asked students to create a composition and play it on the loudspeakers for the class and we got so many volunteers!  That day we realized, not only are these students SUPER bright and SUPER at creating music, but they also AMAZING at dancing and jiving to their own beats!!  This was very very exciting, but this also meant our decisions on who was to perform the following day would be all the more harder.

We then wrapped up with a pitch activity where we sang Do Re Me in groups with different pitches.

At this point, I would just like to point out how fun each of our breaks were during the 4 days. I remember one break where Melvin and I grabbed the beachball and decided to toss it around outside with the kids, we went crazy and ran from one side to the other but we had to keep the ball within the main grounds and out of the gutters. With hundreds of kids, this proved to be a game within itself. I realized at that point that I never want to stop being a kid at heart and just enjoy the simple moments life has to offer. Also, I cannot talk about our breaks without talking about Ariel and Vishal dancing to bhangra and I think some hip hop — and in some ways, putting on a show for the kids who would stop and just look with amused expressions into the class room where we were on break! I was also really happy to get to know Jessica a little better during this time too, her helpfulness and eagerness to learn about our project meant so much to us.

Day 3 night was definitely the toughest night as far as planning went. Things were winding down fast, we had to come up with the best and most inclusive way to showcase the work of our students keeping in mind a 10 min. time constraint for each group for the finale, electrical limitations, and that things would have to be translated. On top of this we had some tensions within our group that night and I think each of us was stressed because we had different work styles and just wanted everything to go smoothly. I’d like to point out here that the one time we got frustrated with each other was not for personal reasons or any sort of drama, but it was over our project and wanting it to turn out amazing.  We worked so well together as an entire team and we take a lot of pride in that. I remember Waleed and Urna coming in to show us the masks the Record group made for the kids, and at a much needed time to restore the smile on our faces! In the words of Andrew Carnegie …  “my heart is in the work,” and that day, I felt like all of our hearts were in the work more than ever. 

Day 4

I’m feeling happy and sad – happy because I’m so excited for the students to show us what they’ve learned and sad because things were wrapping up and I want to spend more time at Nonko and in Kigali!!

Today at the beginning of class we wanted to have the kids teach us games they really like to play, one of them was cat and the mouse where we held hands and enclosed the “mouse” in a circle while the “cat” had to try to break in from the outside. We also played some competitive hand clapping games!

We started off with a review of the three programs and asked questions on key concepts, most of our questions were met with many hands to answer them which was a good sign!  

We gave the students 10-15 min to practice their performance before the competition. We then called everyone inside and started. We gave each person/group a score on a scale from 1 to 10 and then made a decision. All of the performances were wonderful and it was very very VERY hard to choose 1 or 2 from each class. Before each person/group performed we asked them to give us a band name and in every class we had one band name titled “Happiness.” The bands we chose were: Happiness  from Class 1, Happiness from Class 2, Me to You, Lions Gate, Soldier Babies, Intore, and Stars.

By the 6th and last class, we were feeling rather emotional. Multiple times during the lessons on all four days, Jim would have moments where he would just want to do something spontaneous and improvise and today was no exception. So we turned up the volume to “I gotta feeling” by Black Eyed Peas and we all danced and formed a train. We just went round and round holding hands and let loose.  It was definitely one of those Tam Tam moments.

Prepping for the finale the next day was a challenge – we had to compile a video from all the clips we had of the past 4 days and we had to figure out logistics for the performances. Somehow we got it done. I think everyone got some sleep that night, except for Josh, who stayed up the whole night working on the final Project video.   


We arrived at Nonko early to get everything in place. The Finale would take place in a nearby Church. The Scratch and Record groups were not having live performances and ours took a little more prep time. The headmistress, so poised and amiable, took our list of names to multiple classes and asked the students to join us. We then wanted to cheer everyone on, and expressed our enthusiasm to see them perform. The hard part was getting every band’s laptops, labeling them, charging them up front, and making sure the music would play once they actually got up to perform but I think Abhay did a fantastic job of making things go fairly smoothly, he’s the collected one in our group which is a huge asset.

Everyone was seated – the students, some of their families, headmistress, teachers, Jimmy, Jessica, OLPC crew with interns and volunteers, and our translators.

It was time to start and my heart was beating so fast that I think it could have qualified to be a new instrument on the Tam Tam applications.

There was a surprise dance/vocal performance by some of the students in the beginning which was absolutely wonderful. We then played a Simon says ice breaker with everyone – Ariel did a great job being Simon!

The lineup was Scratch, Tam Tam, and Record for presentations and showcase of what we did. Josh presented for Scratch, myself for Tam Tam, and Ariel for Record. Seeing how much each team accomplished was so motivating and touching. Bonfils translated for all of us that day and he asked questions on each application to the students. It was great to see so many of them boldly get up and answer on the spot based on what they had learned.

Tam Tam showcase took the longest with some technical glitches but it was definitely spectacular! The bands really took ownership as they did their thing perfectly in sync with the music they created. One of our biggest regrets was that one band whose members even dressed up, did not get to play because their music file was not functioning. Jim tried fixing it to no avail. Nonetheless, we had a combination of traditional dances and break dances that both got the audience very hyped. I was teary-eyed.

At the end, we all gave heartfelt thank-you’s and gifted books, art supplies, soccer balls, and of course, the Tam Tam loud speakers to the Headmistress for the school. She was very happy to receive them.  We also wanted to take back something personalized so we asked the kids if they would sign a mural with their names and we also gave out tons and tons of chocolate and candy.

I didn’t want to say goodbye to the kids. We knew that our relationship would not end when we left from Nonko that day, and we wanted to make sure they knew too.

As we departed in the van that day…we kept the smiles on our faces, listened to “Forever Young” and reminisced.

We are so grateful for not only being given the opportunity by our campus community and OLPC but also for being given the trust and space we needed to develop the Project.

Trips to Lake Kivu, a soccer stadium, a memorial site, dinner with Professor Rugege and his family from the Ministry of Education, dinner with OLPC along with all our crazy moments around Kigali and late night conversations made for a tremendous complementary experience that is just unforgettable.

As our trip drew to a close … I realized “the days passed…” but the “laughter did not.” I was still laughing out of joy and I was as happy as could be knowing that we had such an impact and that we helped start something so simple and yet so magnificent.

This would only be the beginning of our newly formed relationships.