Hope Azeda: tackling the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide through the arts

We meet the woman behind an annual arts festival that takes on the history of one of the bloodiest episodes in Africa’s recent history.

“When I returned to Rwanda,” says playwright and performer Hope Azeda, “the country was on its knees. It was in ashes and was trying to rise. As an artist, your instinct takes you there – what can I do?”

Rather than shy away from the genocide that had blighted the country, Azeda approached the subject head-on. Her first play, The Firestones of Sehustitwa – written while she was still at university, in Uganda – was an allegory for the internal social conflicts of Rwanda. For Africa’s Hope, which was commissioned in 2004 for the 10th anniversary of the genocide, more than 1,000 performers drew on personal testimonies from the war. Its running time of 100 minutes represented the 100 days of the genocide, and it played to more than 25,000 people in Rwanda alone.

“The subject matter is very difficult,” she says of her work. “But I was more scared of the outcome – what is going to happen? I remember the first performance I did. It was the 10th commemoration of the genocide. It was looking at genocide through the eyes of a child. I didn’t want to talk about adults. We had messed up everything enough.”

“I thought to myself, what is a child asking about this? Because they are part of our memorial week – when the week of April comes, students stop going to school, clubs close, everything happy stops.” “For me, it was the eyes of a child questioning why it happened. What happened on that day?”

Her plays since have dealt with other topics plaguing people in Rwanda – from sexism to Aids – in sites ranging from refugee camps to open football pitches and village halls. In 2015, with a grant from the African Leadership Initiative, she set up the annual Ubumuntu Arts Festival, bringing music, dance, art and theatre to the amphitheatre at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It attracts about 5,000 people per day. “The shows run at 6pm, but people start arriving at 4pm,” she laughs.

“It’s still very challenging,” she says. The memorial “is not a place that people are accustomed to. It’s very special in Rwandans’ hearts because there are people buried in this space.”

Azeda chose it not only for its symbolic value, but also because the performances give Rwandans a way to engage with the conflict both individually and as a group, or through what she calls “public introspection”. “The set is well-dressed, the scenography is there… It crosses into your own internal conversation,” she says.

Indeed, spaces have become of utmost importance to Azeda’s work, in part because of Rwanda’s lack of dedicated spaces for theatre and performing arts, which has meant she has had to improvise. “In Uganda, I grew up in an environment where there was infrastructure. But when I went back to Rwanda, there’s no infrastructure,” she recalls. “So spaces become key characters in the works I create. Wherever I go, I make up a space. It has made me not become a slave to what I don’t have, but a solution-based thinker. If this is where I am performing, where will the audience be? If we don’t have a source of power, I bring the scenographer, the set designer, and we design that space as it is.”

Azeda is not only building a performing-arts network in the country, but is also helping to rebuild the country itself. Despite this role, she seems to make a point of not taking herself too seriously. When we meet, she says to look out for someone with “a hairstyle like that of Minnie Mouse”. During her panel at the CultureSummit in Abu Dhabi last week, she described the “child-like faith” that motivated her to take on each new project. Her eloquent and impassioned argument in the power of conviction and straight-up gumption was met with spontaneous applause by the audience. Afterwards, as she moved through the conference atrium, people kept telling her how much she had inspired them.

Azeda accepted the praise politely – I had the feeling she was used to this. After Abu Dhabi, she was heading on to Edinburgh, to participate in a conference about theatre, and she has been an artist-in-residence at the Institute for the Arts and Civic Dialogue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a member of the Lincoln Centre Theatre Directors Lab in New York, and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Now married with two daughters, she was raised in Uganda to Rwandan parents who fled the country during the revolution before the war. Her family were scientists, and her mother and father worked their way out of a refugee camp into the house where she was born, as one of 11 children. “I kept having to prove I was not on doom’s path,” she jokes of her decision to pursue a career in the arts.

“I joined a Catholic boarding school, where everyone had to dance ballet,” she recalls. “I didn’t know there was a dancer in me, but discovered I was a performer.” She went to Makerere University in Kampala, studying music, dance and drama, writing The Firestones of Sehustitwa while there.

Azeda was so young when she wrote The Firestones of Sehustitwa that, when she was asked to perform it, she had to create a theatre company for the production. Mashirika Performing Arts is still going strong as a site for Azeda’s work, as well as a production company supporting Rwandan and African playwrights and performers.

Though her work has expanded beyond being a playwright, it hasn’t moved on from its core belief in the power of theatre to represent and collectivise the trauma of the Rwandan experience in 1994. I ask how Africa’s Hope answered the question of what happened.

“The performance ends without the answer,” she replies. “Because I use testimonies of children. The piece is about their hopes and dreams. This is what they went through, but what are their hopes? You deal with memory and then you deal with hope.”