In March 2019 Africa Writes festival co-producers, Caitlin Pearson and Marcelle Akita, travelled to Rwanda and Kenya on a scoping trip funded by British Council to connect with literature professionals. This trip was especially important for this year’s festival programme, where they hoped to highlight some of the amazing talent and work engaged with on the ground. In this blog we look at some exciting initiatives taking place in Kigali, Rwanda.
From Distant Observers to Active Engagers
In response to British Council’s call for ‘Festivals_in Motion’ grant, the co-producers saw an opportunity to move from a position of distant observers to active engagers. Africa Writes festival’s programming success is reliant on the collaborative relationship between the programmers and the growing African literary network in the UK, across Africa and beyond. This means the festival is not possible without input from individuals and collectives who are creating work and using Africa Writes as a gateway to connecting with audiences and like-minded professionals. This symbiosis is what keeps Africa Writes together, and with this grant the team were given the option to scope the literary scene of Kigali, with the aim of bringing a slice of their work to this year’s programme.
With personal and professional interests of their own, Marcelle chose Kigali to learn more about platforms created for writers and performers to share their words while Caitlin chose Nairobi to experience first-hand the buzzing poetry and performance scene. Marcelle set off the trip by visiting Kigali solo and meeting with Rwandan artists and organisers, and met Caitlin in Nairobi where they scoped the Kenyan literary scene. Read about Marcelle’s trip to Kigali and some of the awesome connects below.
Kigali, Rwanda: Where creativity fosters the art of resilience, hope & struggle ~ in Marcelle’s words
Image of Kigali Public Library, taken from Marcelle’s visit. The library served as a great space for meetings and attending readings.
In my immediate imagination, Kigali represented a rebuilding of hope and a narrative that progressed beyond the legacy of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. I was curious in wanting to connect with and learn from individuals who were creating spaces for conversations that were difficult as well as joyful, how Rwandans were using literature to convey their narratives, and also whether public art served as therapy for generational healing. Mindful that April 2019 marks twenty-five years since the genocide I was aware that some events may be taking place to pay homage to Rwandans’ collective spirit of resilience, hope and struggle.
Louise Umutoni is founder of Huza Press and no stranger to Africa Writes. In 2017 Africa Writes partnered with Huza Press and Jalada Africa on ‘My Song for Burundi’ workshop which culminated in the A Song for Burundi anthology. Louise and I spoke about exciting projects including ‘Generation 25’ a collaborative project between Huza Press, Spoken Word Rwanda and Ubumuntu Arts festival. One of the publisher’s most recent endeavours was launching bilingual (Kinyarwanda and English) pocketbook RadioBook Rwanda last year in partnership with Kwani? and No Bindings, and were also featured at Africa Writes 2018.
RadioBook Rwanda, Image courtesy of Huza Press
In learning about forthcoming project ‘Generation 25’ I was curious to hear more from Diana Mpyisi, founder of Spoken Word Rwanda. Through conversation with Diana I learned about the growing hunger and excitement for spoken word poetry. Hosted on the last Thursday of every month, the night promises to bring new and established poets alike to share a stage and their unique voices. An interesting thing I learned from speaking with Diana is how Spoken Word Rwanda has developed from being a performance platform to being an incubator for bubbling talent; by nurturing home-grown artists to seeing them on international stages, to now working informally as a talent agency to highlight the artists they work with and ensuring they are paid fairly. In hearing all the incredible feats Diana has overseen with Spoken Word Rwanda I was also amazed to hear the local spoken word event had also taken the form of an annual festival, with three under their multiple achievements thus far.
Marcelle with Diana Mpyisi, founder of Spoken Word Rwanda
Spoken Word Rwanda aren’t the only platform offering spaces for artists to share their words, in a brief meeting with Andrea Grieder of Transpoesis where we discussed the tools poetry equips us in navigating healing, power of creativity and social transformation. With that guiding principle Transpoesis offers artists and audiences interested in poetry regular spoken word events, workshops and runs competition at ‘Kigali Vibrates with Poetry’. When I met Andrea, their most recent winner was Casmir Yasipi for her poem ‘Humanity 60’. International Women’s Day was coming up and Andrea, with excitement in her eyes, shared that the video for Humanity 60 was being launched on that day.
Though our meeting was brief I learned of Andrea’s passion and dedication in serving the arts community. Swiftly I dashed to see Hyppolite Ntigurirwa at British Council Rwanda, who is Arts Programme Manager. We discussed the arts scene in Kigali and Rwanda as a whole, while also discussing disabled poets based in Kigali, spotlighting Ange the Poet and Anisia. Hyppolite shared further the British Council’s wider aim in supporting the development of disability arts in East Africa such as the workshop hosted during Collective RW.
Fiston Mudacumura, founder of Mudacumura Publishing House and Marcelle holding Kinyarwanda children’s singing book.
I met Fiston Mudacumura founder of Mudacumura Publishing House. We discussed the published titles by the company – Kinyarwanda books for children – and this is an area I am always interested in learning more about, publications in African languages both for educational and recreational reasons. During our meeting I had the opportunity to see Fiston perform one of the singing picture books about a crying cat. Sung with a soothing rhythm, we journey through the woes of the ill-stricken cat and transform the tearful feline into a smiling one.
There were many rich conversations had during my time, where I learned more about the literary scene through the amazing work Carole Karemera has been doing with Ishyo Arts. One of Carole’s initiatives which struck me most was the mobile library she organised in travelling through Rwanda – driving through the mountainous landscape in urban and rural areas. Carole was determined to see children reading. Libraries, Carole explained, was an essential resource for learning and a resource that was limited across the country particularly post-genocide.
L-R: Carole Karemera, Francoise Tuyishime and Marcelle Akita
With the backdrop on the scarcity of libraries across the country, it was easier to understand the significance of Kigali Public Library – a spacious, stunning building – built in 2012. I sat in the rooftop café and got to know more about the library’s objectives in programming more public art and literature events through my conversations with Francoise Tuyishime the Experience and Front Desk Manager. That night saw the launch of the Kinyarwanda translation of critically acclaimed Small Country by Gaël Faye. I sat and listened to the launch catching snippets, but due to my lack of French or Kinyarwanda I was limited in how I could engage with the conversations.
Gaël Faye in conversation at Gahugu Gato launch at Kigali Public Library
Cover of Gaël Faye’s Gahugu Gato, translated by Olivier Bahizi Uwimeza
The final of the trio I wanted to meet in my fleeting visit to Kigali was Hope Azeda, founder of Ubumuntu Arts festival. The meeting ended up taking place in London since, as fate would have it, Hope was travelling to London for two days when I arrived back from Nairobi. Grateful for finding the time to squeeze me in her tight schedule while in London, I learned more about the successes and necessity for the longstanding festival and why ‘being human’ was the central focus of the multi-arts festival. With a strong focus on dance, Hope explained how dance can communicate what words struggle to get across. As a refugee herself, Hope is adamant in creating and sustaining safe spaces where artists can exchange ideas and concerns they may struggle to communicate in everyday life. I learned that through the ‘Generation 25’ initiative she is aiming to create a more robust literature programme as part of the festival through working with Louise and Diana.
Hope Azeda and Marcelle Akita in London, UK
Meeting Hope brought my trip full-circle, reminding me of the ‘Generation 25’ initiative where arts and literature take centre stage in marking the 25th anniversary and ushering fresh interactions with new voices, movement and ideas. If there is one thing that I took from my trip to Kigali it was this: even in the face of heart-breaking adversity, the human spirit is resilient and art has the transformative ability to heal and connect us.
Written by Marcelle Mateki Akita