Thespian keeping the genocide memory alive

Monday April 8 2019

Hope Azeda Semana, the founder of drama art

Hope Azeda Semana, the founder of drama art performances Mashirika Group. As a playwright, performer and tutor, Azeda has performed at theatres across the world, and also worked as casting director for international films Shake Hands with the Devil, Beyond the Gates and Africa United. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG 

JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
By JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
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Every April since 1994, Rwanda comes to a standstill. It is a month of sad reflection, remembrance and hope. 

It is the month of national commemoration also known as Kwibuka, for those who died in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. 

And for those who survived to mourn those who died. And to vow never again. This year marks the 25th commemoration thus Kwibuka 25. 

Every Rwandan has a personal story, struggle and coping mechanism for Kwibuka. 

But for Hope Azeda, the burden of Kwibuka includes dealing with pain on a national level for the good of not just Rwandans but anyone else in the world who has been touched and affected by death on the scale that it has affected Rwandan society. 

She is the founder and director of the Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company. Her company will on April 12 present her new play Generation 25 at the theatre hall of the Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi. 

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The play focuses on young people born after or during the genocide, capturing their questions about the killings, as well as their hopes and dreams in the post-genocide era. 

Questions 

Azeda was born and raised a refugee in Uganda of Rwandan parents, one of 11 children. 

In 1994, she heard of stories of the killings that were taking place in Rwanda but no one, not even her father would tell her the details of what the war was about. 

She recalls asking her father, “Why are people fighting in Rwanda? What exactly is the issue? If we are Rwandans, why are we here? Why can’t we go home?” Then her brothers left Uganda and joined the liberation war in Rwanda. 

Finally her parents were forced to explain to her. She learnt the truth of the genocide and it changed her. 

She learnt from her parents that the Tutsi were being killed in Rwanda, her motherland, for no other reason other than for being Tutsi. 

She, like many young Tutsi refugees in Uganda, had never been to Rwanda, but the gruesome stories of what was happening there made her curious. 

Her life moved along and in 1997 as a final year drama student at Makerere University’s Department of Performing Arts and Film, her dissertation was on a play about Rwanda, a country she didn’t know much about, with her primary source of information being her father. 

Her play was titled Amashyiga ya Sehutsitwa. “My father had told me there were three ethnic groups in Rwanda: The Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. I thought, if that was an issue why don’t we just mix up the words? and come up with one name for all Rwandans? 

So I came up with Hutsitwa and I got the ‘Se’ from my father’s name Semana. I literally stole ‘Se’ and just added it on Hutsitwa to come up with Sehutsitwa,” she says, amused at her creativity. 

She recalls that it was the lack of answers about the genocide that pushed her towards drama. 

As a drama student, specialising in theatre for development, she was trained to identify gaps in society and respond to those gaps using art. 

The gap in her life was the genocide. She had never-ending questions that no one had answers to and this is what brought out the artist she is today. 

“I was eager to find answers to this thorn in my flesh because up to now, I struggle trying to understand why a man can kill another for no reason. Through art and theatre, I learnt that I can find those answers, as well as contribute to the healing of my country by portraying what happened, but also giving hope to the survivors and victims,” she says. 

‘‘A wound will always hurt when you wash it and apply medicine. It is not easy to perform about mass rape, but people need to hear these stories. We also always try to take into consideration the feelings of the victims, by showing them that even after such horrors, hope abides,” she says. 

“We don’t want to be like some Hollywood movies that only look at the entertainment value and end up distorting history. Our form of art is not just to entertain people but to help in the social transformation of the country. We also want to create employment for the youth.” 

Best play 

Amashyiga ya Sehutsitwa became one of the best plays at Makerere University that year. It was also around the same time that she was also engaged with a performing arts company called Impact International. 

“I was an actress in a play, acting as a Rwandan disc jockey. It happened that one day as we were performing a play titled Radio Mambo Bado, in the audience was the director of information of ORINFOR which today is Radio Rwanda. It was a stage production but of a radio setting. I had the major role of a DJ interviewing people in a mixture of the little Kinyarwanda I knew and English.” 

The gentleman from ORINFOR came backstage after the performance and asked her how she came to know and speak Kinyarwanda. 

“I told him I am Rwandan. Then he advised me to move back to Rwanda and do my theatre there. I was hesitant and told him that I didn’t have friends in Rwanda. And that I didn’t know where to begin and to make matters worse, I couldn’t speak French or proper Kinyarwanda. 

“He told me to look for him once I was done with university and that he would look for people who were into theatre with whom we could start performances together,” she says. 

After graduation, she did just that. She moved to Rwanda and started working for the drama section of Radio Rwanda. 

It was during her time at the radio that she translated her play Amashyiga ya Sehutsitwa from English into Kinyarwanda and she started training people in theatre, from under a tree opposite the offices of Radio Rwanda. 

This led to her first major production, Amashyiga ya Sehutsitwa, the first of its kind in Rwanda, which opened the doors for her theatrical ambitions. 

Azeda says theatre should not just dwell on the gloom of the genocide. Through her plays, she portrays acts of individual and collective bravery, love and heroism, which in her opinion have not received the attention they deserve from the theatre industry. 

Her famous theatre play Bridge of Roses is inspired by Grace, a 10 year old Hutu girl who chose to take care of a baby whose Tutsi mother had been slain by extremists during the genocide.

On a mission 

Azeda is spirited and once you engage her in a conversation, especially about the arts, she becomes animated and her demeanour changes to that of a person on a mission. 

She speaks with intense passion using anecdotes and wit to tell stories of her journey through life. Her stories, she says, are her gifts to the world as they come from a deep place. She calls it art from the heart. 

She can now laugh at the thought that she would have been a pharmacist if she hadn’t turned to theatre. 

Her ambition was shaped by her life living in a hospital compound all her young life, with her mother as a midwife and later being raised by her sister who worked at the Mengo Hospital in Kampala. 

However, this mother of two says she knew she wanted to tell the genocide story after a chance encounter with Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar winning film, Schindler’s List

Her breakthrough came in 2004 when she was commissioned by the Rwandan government to do a production for the national genocide commemoration. 

“The country was commemorating 10 years of the genocide, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial and the Ministry of Culture asked me if I could do a play to be performed at the Amahoro national stadium. The tradition had been that families would gather around bonfires and do skits. But now they wanted a full production on a national platform,” she says. 

Azeda was given two weeks to come up with a production that would ideally take at least three months to pull off. And the performance was going to be before 30,000 people instead of the 400 people she was used to in a theatre stage setting. 

It was a daunting task but she managed to successfully stage the Rwanda My Home play. The performance opened doors for her nationally and internationally. 

She was invited to perform the play at the G8 Summit in Edinburgh, Scotland. This meant that she had to cut down the number of performers from 1,000 to just 12 for purposes of travel, and then collaborate with schools in Scotland to provide the rest of the performers to stage the production at the G8 Summit. The production spawned other tours to the UK. 

No comfort zone 

Azeda believes in the famous quote from the 1989 film Field of Dreams, ‘‘If you build it, he will come'' because this is what has happened to her throughout her life. 

“We have that generation that has always tried to create ''walls of love.'' That you are in a comfort zone even though it really is not comfortable. But it makes a comfortable scene for the children. That is the kind of refugee I was growing up, living comfortably but yet not so comfortable,” she explains. 

Azeda says that it was through the experience of working with diverse actors that she developed her own methodology. 

“I realised that when we are telling a story, it must have a certain part that is a burden. And we have personal burdens as performers. To bring out the story, the performers must connect by tapping into each other and present a shared experience. 

“My stories have my pain as the originator, so I had to have workshops on how to carry this story and convey the pain in order to connect with the audience. Because it is not easy to perform someone else's story.” 

Although her plays evoke painful memories of the genocide, she is committed to finding a balance between showcasing the evil acts and how one can find hope and healing. 

Performing on April 7 (the International Day of Reflection) every year is special for Azeda’s team, but also challenging, she says, because it is also a delicate time that requires performers to warm the hearts of Rwandans at a time of mourning. 

“You cannot just perform these things; you have to feel them, otherwise it will turn out fake. If you’re going to showcase something, you need to do a lot of research, which will in most cases lead to unlearning and learning afresh,” she says. 

“It is through this belief that my work comes from a lot of input in research, including several interviews with victims of the genocide, perpetrators, scholars and politicians. It is important to read; do not assume that you know everything.”

One of her inspirations comes from Raul Pack, the Mexican director she worked for as a casting director for the genocide film Sometimes in April

She says Pack taught her the relevance of doing research and the need for actors to put their feet in the shoes of the lives they portray on stage or on the screen. 

As the founder and curator of the Ubuntu Arts Festival and organisation, Azeda has provided the vision for using arts to help societies around the world deal with their traumas and to connect with the international community. 

Ubumuntu Arts provides a platform for artist from all over the world to present performances dealing with difficult aspects of societal violence and human nature, from police brutality to mass incarceration, civil war and genocide. 

Azeda is a recipient of the 2018 McNulty Prize Laureate. The John P. McNulty Prize celebrates a legacy of leadership and was established at the Aspen Institute to honour individuals who pivot from successful careers to address critical global challenges. 

When not touring the world or acting, Azeda writes poetry and reads. She collects pens and notebooks and considers ice cream her guilty pleasure. 

As a playwright, performer and tutor, Azeda has performed at theatres across the world, and also worked as casting director for international films Shake Hands with the Devil, Beyond the Gates and Africa United.

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