Mashirika’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival: A call for humanity

Published: 14 June 2015 at 09:20

Simon Iyarwema, Eliane Umuhire and Arthur Nkusi in 'Bridge of Roses'. (Courtesy)

Simon Iyarwema, Eliane Umuhire and Arthur Nkusi in ’Bridge of Roses’. (Courtesy)

“Not many people, particularly in Africa, think of the arts as a means of effective communication or as an avenue for solving social problems. The truth is, art played a crucial role in tackling Rwanda’s immense post genocide challenges; from genocide perpetrators giving truthful testimonies, to victims forgiving perpetrators,” Hope Azeda begins to explain the origins of the idea for the upcoming Ubumuntu Arts Festival, her brainchild.

Ubumuntu is Kinyarwanda for “humanity”.

“Art has manifested itself world over as an efficient form of communicating, expressing opinions, airing issues, and sharing values about all aspects of life that affect humanity. Life is an encounter, and so is art,” she adds.

Azeda is a leading light in contemporary Rwandan theatre, and the founder and artistic director of Mashirika Creative and Performing Media Company – the premier theatre company in the country.

Hope Azeda. (Courtesy)
Hope Azeda. (Courtesy)

The Ubumuntu journey started when she submitted its idea to the Africa Leadership Project (ALP) as her leadership project proposal last year. The overwhelming positive feedback the proposal received is what would then culminate into the idea for the festival.

Azeda explains that the festival will be an exercise in human introspection –a chance for Rwandans in particular and the world at large “to re-question our humanity, to bridge the gap between being a human being, and being human because the two are totally different”.

One world, one problem, one solution:

The project’s rationale hinges heavily on the huge role that art and theater played in Rwanda’s post-genocide recovery, with a view to helping to solve similar challenges faced by other countries that have suffered or continue to suffer wars and indiscriminate killings.

Here, Azeda offers a few case studies: The September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US that claimed over 3,000 lives, the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, in which 1,500 people were killed and another 250,000 displaced from their homes, and the on-going civil wars in Nigeria and Syria, to mention but a few.

“The Ubumuntu Arts Festival therefore comes in as a remedy to the myth that art is nothing more than entertainment. It aims to avail an avenue where people from different walks of life can come together and speak to each other in the language of art, and to act as a bridge over nations and provide an avenue where people from different countries can come together to learn from each other and be empowered to spearhead the healing process in their countries,” she explains.

Actress Angel Uwamhoro and Eliane Umhuire in "Bridge of Roses" by Hope Azeda. (Courtesy)
Actress Angel Uwamhoro and Eliane Umhuire in "Bridge of Roses" by Hope Azeda. (Courtesy)

Scheduled for July 11th - 12th at the Kigali Memorial Centre Amphitheatre, it will be the first festival in what is hoped to be an annual event.

It has attracted a large number of participants and volunteers from different parts of the world. The performances, workshops and forums will feature individual artists, artist groups, and journalists of diverse nationalities; the USA, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Serbia, Canada, Lebanon, Egypt, the DRC, Burundi, Zimbabwe, and Sri Lanka.

Azeda explains that though the participants come from different walks of life, they face the same social problems and the festival will provide “a forum for them to bring these issues to the table and come up with solutions through the arts”.

The festival further intends to arm attendees and participants with the tools they require to start “art for humanity projects” in their countries to foster dialogue and peace building, promote peace building and healing from violence, and provide space for public introspection and artists to network, grow, and share.

Equally important for the festival organisers is the need “to show society that the arts can be taken seriously as a career and not just as mere entertainment,” Azeda contends.

“The Ubumuntu Arts Festival is an innovation in Rwanda, a country with no theatre and where art is not even taught in schools. Often, it’s perceived as an activity for those not lucky to pursue “serious” professions. It is only recently that the understanding of the creative industry as a potential source of employment is starting to emerge,” she adds.

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Arthur Nkusi. (Courtesy)

The first of its kind and magnitude in Rwanda, Azeda explains that she settled on the art medium “because it (art) is an efficient form of: communicating, sharing, expressing opinions, airing issues, emotions and values about all aspects of life that affect humanity.”

Its wider objective will be to make art an appreciated discipline in its own right, and create a signature event for Rwanda. It will further lend itself to promotion of peace building and healing from violence, provide cutting edge training and mentorship to artists, as well offer artistic sanctuary for artists to network, grow, share and create:

“To prevent fires of inhumanity,” as Azeda puts it.

Azeda further plans to document the process to be used in creating artistic presentations for the festival, with a view to developing a school performing arts curriculum which would later be integrated into Rwanda’s Arts and Theatre Education System.

In the festival, she envisions an annual event that will bring together different artists from around the world to convene in Kigali every last week of the 100 days Genocide memorial period (11th to the 12th of July).

Azeda is confident that such a large gathering of local and international arts practitioners and enthusiasts will go a long way in further improving Rwanda’s image as a must-visit destination after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi –the perfect platform to showcase the country’s immense post-genocide gains, and future plans.

Through the festival, she believes that more people will be open to the idea of using art to spark civic dialogue.

“Artists should be able to live off their art as a source of livelihood too”.

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Mashirika actors in a play "Cut Out My Tongue", which was produced by Sitawa Namwalie. (Courtesy)

Through the networks, documentation and materials gathered in the life time of the project, Mashirika intends to then develop an arts training school which would grow into a center of arts for breeding professional artists.

Project Team

Hope Azeda is working with a dynamic and passionate team to put the festival together. They include: Samuel Kyagambidwa, a Rwandan who has worked in several ranks as a playwright, actor, director, stage/radio and TV producer, and manager both with Mashirika and Urunana DC, and Matt Deely from Ireland, a world re-known set designer and creative director who made the set design for the Olympic games opening act in London and the 20th Genocide commemoration in Rwanda.

There is also the Kenyan Eunice Kangai, whose forte is in advertising, marketing, event planning, management and coordination as well as theatre and film production.

About Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company

Mashirika is a theatre performing company which was established in Rwanda in 1998 by graduates of Music, Dance and Drama from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Currently, it consists of 15 actors.

Starting just four years after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the wounds from the genocide were still fresh, and all efforts to advocate for unity and reconciliation were needed to achieve the government call. Mashirika’s initial productions focused much more on unity and reconciliation, creating awareness on what the root causes of genocide were, and how to avoid a repeat of the same.

Mashirika today

After years Mashirika’s focus was widened to cover other social issues affecting the citizens of Rwanda, the region and the world at large. They have had successful productions on the national and international scene, with themes on “health (HIV prevention, youth sexual and reproductive health), and girl child empowerment, among others.

Their main activities include theatrical performances, community outreach through theatre video production, choreographic performances for big events, and capacity building.

The mission of Mashirika, explains Hope Azeda, is “to show that performing arts is not only fun but also a tool of social transformation and source of employment.”

Source: The NewTimes.

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