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  • Theatre and the Rwandan Genocide
  • Chantal Kalisa (bio)

When I wrote this article in 2006, I was fascinated by the number of artists, writers, filmmakers, and photographers who were interested in exploring the Genocide of Rwandan Tutsi through their own artistic expressions. I focused on theatre because I knew from my own personal experience that this form had been used by Rwandans in exile as a way to express loss of land and identity. Writers and performers such as Kalisa Rugano, Jean-Marie Vianney Rurangwa, and Jean-Marie Kayishema were writing and performing stories to denounce their conditions as perpetual refugees and most importantly to ensure cultural survival by invoking history, "umuco kinyarwanda," through dances, music, rituals incorporated in their plays.

My original question for this essay was to ask whether theatre existed in postconflict Rwanda. When I recently addressed the same question to a Canadian theatre Director working with Rwandan artists, she responded by saying "what theatre?. . . but there is no culture in Rwanda." What she meant by her answer was that artistic expression is not a priority in Rwanda, echoing Cynthia Cohen's idea that states that "(i)n addressing painful historical legacies, trials and tribunals are likely to claim far more resources than theater, poetry or exchange programs for artists."1 As I showed in this article, however, theatre is not absent in Rwanda. First of all, it presents itself in unfamiliar ways to Western audiences. Like in most oral-based societies, Rwandan forms combine art (dance, music, etc.) with culture and rituals. The word "umuco" translated as "culture" means both art and culture. In other words, rituals performed in Rwandan daily practices as well as major life events are both cultural and artistic expressions.

Since 2006, the number of formal theatrical productions on postconflict Rwanda continues to grow and these can be found in Africa, Europe, and North America. What has since intensified is the transnational nature of this theatre. As I mention in the essay, the Genocide of Rwandan Tutsi brings together a number of global actors, compelling artists around the world to explore its causes, effects, [End Page 159] and possible preventive solutions. Whether in Rwanda or not, artists feel the responsibility to intervene with their craft for the sake of reconciliation, healing, and violence prevention. A play on genocide is a representation of and not the "true" story, as Jean-Pierre Karegeye explains. "[T]o paint, to film and to write genocide is to recreate . . . a drama shared by humanity at a smaller scale, without site and time contingency."2 This universality is well-illustrated in the words of the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop, who goes as far as saying, "I do not live in Rwanda, Rwanda lives in me."3 Thus, the existence of a transnational theatre can be explained by this universality, by non-Rwandan artists feeling inhabited by Rwanda and its history. Many of the productions are collaborative and a veritable mix of languages, cultures, and nations. The contexts vary and are flexible. The work of multitalented artist Koulsy Lamko, discussed below, shows him as the initiator of this transnational trend that currently dominates artistic responses to conflict in Rwanda. It should also be noted that for the last few years, Lamko has continued his interventions in Mexico, proving once again that geography is no hindrance to art projects.

In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of genocide, or more precisely in French le théâtre du génocide (theatre of genocide). Perpetrators and victims played their role while the rest of the world watched the "spectacle" live on television. Perhaps because of its spectacular aspect, the Rwandan genocide has inspired a number of artistic materials. In the last decade, we have indeed witnessed the growth of literary and artistic expression in relation to the Rwandan genocide. Survivors and witnesses have told their stories in books and songs, and journalists as well as other travelers "to the end of Rwanda," to use Véronique Tadjo's words, have borne witness to the genocide.4 Artists who were not there have also attempted to represent the "African genocide" and have cast themselves as participating in the process of reconciliation. I am...


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pp. 159-166
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