Mashirika tours India, Sri Lanka with message of humanity

Rwanda has no formal training for arts in schools and universities so it is through training and collaboration that our arts sector gains knowledge.

It is through such collaboration that a team of five young up-and-coming artistes from Rwanda recently toured India and Sri Lanka for a series of trainings and collaborative performances with their hosts.

They are Kayigi Fred Andy, Innocent Munyenshuri, Claudia Ishimwe, Mupende Alexia, and Mujyambere Abdul.

The group’s first stop was Sri Lanka, where they spent two weeks rehearsing the whole piece with their Sri Lankan counterparts, before staging a huge performance in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

In India, the Rwandan group staged performances in three different places–in Kashmir, at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav festival in New Delhi, and in Kerala state.

Opening of the 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsav International Theatre Festival in Jammu and Kashmir, India. (Courtesy)

They tour was organized as a joint collaboration between the Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company of Rwanda, and Stages Theatre Group from Sri Lanka.

Started in Ireland

Hope Azeda, the artistic director of Mashirika and curator of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival first met Ruwanthie de Chickera, the co-founder of Stages Theater Group in January 2015 at the Theatre of War Symposium in Dublin, Ireland.

The two realized that their companies had similar scopes of work and visions for the role of theatre in society. Azeda had been planning for the inaugural Ubumuntu Arts Festival later in the year and brought up the idea of artistic collaboration between stages and Mashirika.

For her part, De Chickera had started a project in Sri Lanka of interviewing people over the age of 80 about what information they wanted to pass on to the next generation.

First meal together in Sri Lanka. (Courtesy)

“Given Ubumuntu Arts Festival’s theme of humanity, I thought apiece about passing on history and information would fit in well considering the troubled history of both Sri Lanka and Rwanda,” Azeda explained.

Thus Dear Children, Sincerely… was born. It is a three part performance that maps the history of both countries through the last century, showing aspects of traditional culture and moments where humanity failed.

“The interviews from elders were transformed into a narrative performance that showed that although we are hurting from different pains, we can realize the pain that one another feels,” Azeda further explained.

It is a devised theatre piece made up of five Sri Lankan and five Rwandan actors.

Dear Children, Sincerely… played on the second day of Ubumuntu Arts Festival at the Kigali Genocide Memorial amphitheater in Gisozi to a full, captivated audience.

It is against this background that the piece was invited to perform at the Indian National School of Drama’s 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsav festival that was held in New Delhi from 1st to 21st February 2016.

“This was truly an honor to be chosen out of more than 500 applications,” Azeda added.

“It is a unique opportunity for young actors and dancers from Mashirika to work internationally and get on-site training and growth of skills. “

Azeda and Ruwanthie share a common interest in physical theater as an art form.

“Physical theater is where your body is more active, and what you can’t say with words you use your body to communicate it,” explains Azeda.

“That has come as a result of the work we do here. Some stories here are so sensitive that words are not enough to tell them, music is not enough, and only your body can communicate it. So it’s all about communication through the body.

Started on Skype

After their chat, Azeda was struck by Ruwanthie’s idea of creating a conversation between generations in her native Sri Lanka.

“We are disconnecting with our roots, we are disconnecting with our hinge of growth, our walking sticks of wisdom. So for me this was a good way to start a conversation –urging young people to talk to old people because today people don’t do that.

So when I returned home we started working through email. She urged me to look for young people in Rwanda to replicate her idea here. So we had to look for available and capable artistes, some regulars at Mashririka and some that just come in for trainings and we cast them to start a conversation with the Sri Lankan team on Skype.

So the whole thing started on Skype. Every Wednesdays, despite all the challenges, people met to chat on Skype,” Azeda explains.

For the Ubumuntu Arts Festival last year, the Sri Lankan cast came earlier and had five days to meet with their Rwandan counterparts and put together what they had been doing on Skype.

Once back in Sri Lanka Ruwanthie went and applied to the Indian National School of Drama’s 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsav festival and because of the nature of the piece she got invited. That is how the Rwandan artistes found themselves there.

“One of the main objectives of starting Ubumuntu was artistes coming together in their diversity because we can only learn by sharing, so this to us is a big success,” Azeda added.

What’s more, this is the first time Rwanda is being represented in that part of the world.

“I think the Rwandan artistes have gained very much from this tour–something you can’t find in the US because the art from that side of the world is very different,” Azeda concluded.

On stage after performing in Jammu and Kashmir, India. (Courtesy)

All that the artistes needed to do was get to Sri Lanka and come back. The rest was taken care of by the hosts.

“Because they went for training we approached the National Capacity Building Secretariat because they are now also focusing on the arts and media so we wrote a proposal to them and had to defend it a lot. We explained that as members of the private sector we don’t have really skilled artists to perform these things.

They gave us return tickets for five people and also paid their Visa fees in Sri Lanka. But to be honest we were not sure we would get the offer because it was the first time we were doing this. We take risks so we took a risk and it worked.”

Ubumuntu Arts Festival 2016

Azeda promises “substance” at this year’s festival. “We’re really striving and working hard to get art with substance because we live lives of substance and we need to respond with art that has substance -art that is us, not art for art’s sake; art that restores what we’ve lost.”

What’s unique also is that this year the festival runs for four days, as opposed to last year’s two. Day one is a dedication of children’s works and by children, and day two is a dedication to artistic responses to women, “where we are basically honoring our mothers because every time things crash, or there is war, it’s always women and children that hide somewhere and then we betray them”.

The fourth day is dedicated to artistic responses to humanity.

Key highlights will include a piece called Rebound, and another piece from Nigeria about the Chibok girls, where some of the performers in this piece are former victims.

Reflections from the cast

Alexia: “It’s an extraordinary opportunity of a lifetime…a learning experience…very humbling…from the team…cast…audience…this story is so powerful it should be shared with the world!”

Abdoul: “For me Dear Children Sincerely has no racial, geographic or time limits! It’s a world dedicated message! It’s for the sake of humanity! We learn from our own mistakes! Our differences should strengthen our unity and power

Claudia: “I feel very proud of myself and the rest of the cast! We got the chance to show thousands of people how our version of the story about a conversation across generations looks like. I learnt a lot not only as an actress but also as a person. By doing this tour, I learnt to be patient, I felt incredibly happy, got hurt sometimes, I saw the world and all of those things made me really richer as a person.”

Innocent: “It’s a golden opportunity being part of this collaboration; this has been a channel of growth, mentally: knowing that every minute of my life is a new module. Most importantly I reminded myself to trust my instinct as far as giving ideas is concerned in the creative process.”

Andy: “This was and is still a great journey, a great opportunity to expand in carrier, a chance to know and trust one’s self much better, a chance to rehabilitate humanity. In all I am the bridge to your dreams as you are one to mine, collaboration taught me that.”