TB Agent Akulah Agbami attended Ubumuntu Arts Festival in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2019. Here she shares her experiences and reflections from the event.
Six Janvier Muhira
You approach a festival of humanity commemorating 25 years since the end of a horrific genocide slaughtering 800,000 people over a 3 month period with caution. Peace is, of course, to be celebrated. Togetherness and tolerance are to be celebrated. And even the Ikrwandan word for ‘humanity’ which is synonymous with ‘goodness, generosity and kindness’ is to be marvelled at. But a festival goes deeper than mere content and the context, the backdrop, says as much as the content itself.
Soldiers with rifles stationed every thirty yards, day and night, all over the city. Smiling Rwandese people declaring proudly how safe the city, how safe the whole country. But there is something unsettling about being searched every time you set foot in a supermarket, about the full body and hyper-sophisticated vehicle scan for every single person/vehicle entering the airport. The streets are spotless, no speck of rubbish protrudes. And allegedly the trees lining the avenues have their trunks scrubbed nightly. So, unsurprisingly, we find ourselves in one party political system territory where any opposing voice is not merely silenced but snuffed out. A police state behind the ubiquitous smiles….
Free festivals are wonderful concepts. Making art and culture available for all irrespective of economic status. This festival takes place in the amphitheatre of the Genocide Memorial Centre – more on that anon. The performances commence nightly from 6-10pm and feature 8 or 9 acts from around the world. There are workshops and discussions scheduled every afternoon.
A varied arts programme comprising dance, music, theatre, poetry, involving local artists and artists from overseas. Friday’s focus is children and young people – 65% of Rwandans are under thirty and so are likely not to have had firsthand experience of the genocide.
Children aged 8 and above from Umabano Academy provide a charming performance. The performance is prefaced by charismatic Nigerian MC Fola Folagan who reminds us ‘When we are amongst artists, we are showing our humanity and thinking about our future. This next artwork made by children who are asking questions about the future, where we are going and where we want to be.’ They have collaborated with American gospel star Alexander Star and produce a 5 verse rap song entitled High Favour in which they count their blessings and give thanks for family, friends, education; their preparatory work can be seen here.
This is followed by a one woman show entitled Farbenreich by an Austrian artist. Farbenreich means colourful and I wonder whether we will be entering the realm of racial politics which would be very poignant in this country where race, tribalism and colonialism came together to brew the deadly concoction of genocide – more on that anon. Instead the piece takes us back to childhood evoking the random way in which children beautifully move from one playful pursuit to another. At times, mesmerising, the highlight of the show was an exquisite aerial dance sequence. At times, slow-moving and ponderous, the performance’s most important message was how much we all need to bring play back into our lives.
Mindleaves, a Rwanda-based dance company, interweave various dance styles in their performance. For me, the most poignant is their contemporary dance piece set to John Legend’s ‘Motherless Child’. In this setting, you cannot help thinking about all the, now adult, children whose mothers were butchered. It is a very haunting dance piece evoking power struggles, domination and, inevitably, extermination.
As sets are being changed and the stage rearranged, the festival plays videos of other artists to lift the mood a little. Soso Ingabe, Hope Inakabe and Eddy Mico’s rendition of Africa Unite is a breath of fresh air I find myself gasping for.
Some festival pieces are really wonderful, others are excruciatingly bad. I was taken by the energy and vision of StreetDance Company, a Democratic Republic of Congo, organisation. Dressed in black and white, their street dance skills and acrobatics are fabulous and their interpretation of war and conflict is beautifully brutal and again very poignant. The war – another tribal confrontation – in Congo started in 1994 and was supposed to end in 2003 and a total of 5 million people were killed over that period. But the conflict has never really stopped and lives continue to be lost, women continue to be subject to sexual warfare, whilst the world – dependent on the tantalum and tungsten produced in Eastern Congo is not unduly concerned. The price we all pay for our phones.
How does genocide come about? How can people be so manipulated as to ditch their morals and be prepared to kill their neighbours and friends if that is what it takes? An ironic demonstration of how people can so easily be herded was orchestrated by Street Dance Company. At the end of the set, their lead dancer asked for volunteers – and maybe 20 people rushed on stage, with no idea what they were volunteering for. The lead dancer got them to dip their hands in red paint and leave a print on the white board at the back of the stage. ‘Come on,’ the lead dancer continues, ‘Let’s have everyone on stage. If you care about stopping conflict, everyone on stage.’ A couple of hundred people dashed forward and added their hand print to the collective fresque. The lead dancer emboldened continues ‘Every single person here, every single woman and child, in the name of humanity, come and join us.’ And most people do. They obey, rise, join the throng on stage, dip their hand into the paint pot and fill the board with hand prints. Then everyone remains on stage and holds hands. Job done? Genocide abashed forever? I am not so sure. What I see – since I do not proffer myself – is how easy it is to get people to comply, to get people to follow simple commands unquestioningly. How easy it is to trigger mass movement.
How easy it could be to trigger a massacre, the right persuasion, the right degree of earnestness, the right lack of clarity at the start. What I see is how willing people are to abdicate personal judgement and be swept up in something bigger. Which tells me that it would not take much for the whole crazy process to begin again.
This is the theme of the Peace Panel I take part in the following day. Chaired by Fola Folagan, we share thoughts on the Biafran War, Syria, touch tentatively on Rwanda and even venture into the beleaguered realm of Brexit. What is it about us as a species that we need to build walls to keep ourselves in and shut others out, maybe killing them or their ideology on the way? Are we really so fragile psychologically that when other groups have different values, we cannot simply accept and feel enriched by a different take on life? We have to shut them down, break them down, eradicate.
Trump and his wall-building, ‘migrant’ deporting follies. Britain and our lunatic bid to cut ourselves off – so we can do things differently. Our way.
There’s not a lot separating that kind of surge, that kind of tribalism from the Hutu and Tutsi massacre. I learn so much about the causes of this war as I enter the museum itself. Learn that Tutsi is a fake tribe, a European-defined tribe. Anyone who owned more than 10 cows was labelled Tutsi buy the Belgians, irrespective of their ethnic origins. The rest were Hutu or, even worse in the pecking order, Twa. This all took place in 1926 but its full significance asserted itself as the massively more numerous Hutu became increasingly dissatisfied with their lot, increasingly frustrated at their lack of governmental representation, their lack of clout. Increasingly furious at being continuously derided as inferior and stupid. And took action.
The Genocide Museum is brilliantly constructed. You are given the inside story, no holds barred. Museums are not usually places for weeping but this one is. I decide to miss out the section which is prefaced with a warning of its graphic and disturbing content. It’s all graphic and disturbing to me. Instead, I take refuge in the Children’s Room, me with my misconceived ideas about things to do with children being simpler, more carefree, lighter.
Not in this case.
The Children’s Room gathers together fragments of the lives of 20 children. There is a black and white photo of every child.
Like Irene and Umawesi, aged 6 and 7, sisters, whose favourite toy was a doll they shared. They loved eating fresh fruit and were both Daddy’s girls. They were killed when a grenade was thrown at them while they were taking a shower.
Like Ariane, aged 4, who loved cake and milk, was a tidy little girl, who enjoyed singing and dancing. She was stabbed in the eye and the head.
Like Chanelle aged 8, who loved going jogging with her father and whose favourite song was ‘My native land which God chose for me’. She was hacked to death by machete.
Like Aurore Kirezi, aged 2, who loved to drink cow’s milk and play games with her big brother. A really chatty child, who was burnt alive in the church in which she and her family were seeking sanctuary.
Do not expect me to come back all smiles, all uplifted. I come back with even clearer knowledge and understanding, I come back heavily burdened. We preach and strive for the goodness, generosity and kindness enveloped in the Rwanda word for humanity, but the dark side is unbanished and unconquered.
Genocides sneak up on us – they are red droplets of rain which turn into a torrent while we are sleeping.
So I can talk about Ubumuntu’s poems, singing and dancing, and I can point out the ancient origins of the word festival – deriving from the Latin for temple ‘fanum’ and for rituals ‘feriae’ and allude to the spiritual dimension of those very first festivals, occasions designed to uplift and purify. But I would like to end as I began with 13 names plucked at random from the thousands and thousands engraved on the giant remembrance plaques.
We all, wherever we are, whoever we are, need our own peace garden. Our own Ubumuntu Festival. And to tend them constantly. Lovingly.
Six Janvier Muhira