When you ask Rwandans where they were during the genocide of 1994, they will tell you that they were not there, Odile Gakire Katese tells the audience. During the hundred-day-long mass murder in which at least eight hundred thousand Tutsis and defiant Hutus were slaughtered, they were away at school or visiting relatives. The entire country was inexplicably empty. “I don’t know how heavy your story is,” Katese says, “maybe you have to change it to survive.”
Katese, better known to her audience as Kiki, performed her one-woman show The Book of Life as a part of Rwanda’s annual Ubumuntu Art Festival. This year, the three-day festival brought together artists from twelve different countries and five continents. These performances included dancers from Spain and The Democratic Republic of The Congo (DRC), poets from Kenya and South Africa, singers from Nigeria, actors from Burundi and Uganda, and of course, a strong representation from Rwandan artists as both collaborators and standalone presenters. While some performances uniquely centered dance or music, most performances intertwined multilingual dialogue, dance, music, poetry, and media in various combinations.
These young performers carry the weight of this history and take their duty to tell and retell the stories seriously.
“Ubumuntu” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “humanity.” Embracing our shared humanity, especially in the face of fear, is the prevalent theme of the festival. This is further illuminated by the festival’s venue, the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the burial site for 250,000 genocide victims (and counting), which contains an overview of the history leading up to and during the genocide. Each evening, the master of ceremonies, Fola Folayan, began by leading the audience in a moment of silence to honor the lives lost.
What followed these quiet moments was far from somber but was always just as reflective. The performances were often exuberant and celebratory. They heavily engaged the audience (my husband and I found ourselves frequent targets for audience participation). And they explored the full breadth of what it means to be a human post-tragedy—the highs and the lows.