Mashirika’s Africa’s Hope comes of age

In a way, the story of the Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company is the story of Africa’s Hope, its flagship theatre production.

This play was Mashirika’s first acid test on the big stage, gracing the 10th commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi at the Amahoro National Stadium in April 2004.

At the time, Mashirika theatre troupe had been contracted by the government to come up with a befitting theatre production for the commemoration.

Africa’s Hope addresses the subject of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi through the eyes of a child.

Lasting 100 minutes, to symbolise the 100 days of the Genocide, the play is Mashirika’s biggest production to date, having been cast before a 25,000-strong crowd at the 10th Genocide commemoration.

Hope Azeda, the founder and artistic director of Mashirika, wrote the play, with inspiration from personal testimonies and experiences pieced together from Genocide survivors.

Befittingly, Africa’s Hope was cast as the closing piece for day one of this year’s four-day festival on Thursday July 14. In its second year now, the second edition of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival closed Sunday, July 17, at the Kigali Genocide Memorial amphitheatre in Gisozi.

From left to right: Eliane Umuhire, Anita Pendo and Angel Uwamahoro were part of the earliest cast for the play. / Moses Opobo

What initially drew Rwandans and the world’s attention to the play was the sheer size of its cast when it first debuted at the 10th Genocide commemoration on April 7, 2004. That time, it was performed by a cast of 1,000 actors!

The following year (July 2005), the Mashirika troupe staged the play at the 31st G8 Summit in Edinburg in the UK.

The initial cast of 1,000 was downsized to just a dozen actors who made the UK tour.

A nation’s hope, continent’s hope

Azeda aptly describes Africa’s Hope as “the anthem of humanity and, therefore, for the Ubumuntu Arts Festival as well.”

To underscore the play’s importance, it was staged on the first day of the now two-year old Ubumuntu Arts Festival, a day that otherwise was dedicated exclusively to theater by and for the young.

When I joined Mashirika for their rehearsal session two days before the festival, the conference facility that overlooks the outdoor amphitheatre was abuzz with activity, with different participating theatre troupes putting finishing touches to their pieces.

Inside Mashirika’s own rehearsal room, the air was emotive. Here were some of the members of the original cast of Africa’s Hope when it first debuted in 2004.

A few of the faces were readily recognisable to me; Hope Azeda, Umuhire Eliane, Angel Uwamahoro, Charles Kayitare, Anita Pendo and Charles Rwema, among others. In 2004, almost all of them were but kids.

One of them, the actor and comedian Arthur Nkusi is caught up in some situation and could not make it to the rehearsal.

Nkusi was just 10 years old in 2004 when he first starred in the play, and it’s through his eyes that Rwanda’s and indeed Africa’s story of survival and hope is told.

“It’s about the hopes and dreams of young people. Actually the owners of the stories and testimonies we perform in Africa’s Hope are still alive,” Azeda reveals.

Hope reborn

By far, this is Mashirika’s most internationally toured and most high profile stage production. In 2008, the group embarked on a long performance tour of the UK, premiering the play on September 18 at the Princess Royal Theatre in Port Talbot, Wales, before travelling to Leeds, Glasgow, London, Taunton and Nottingham.

Between performances, Azeda’s team also worked with schools and community groups in the UK to promote diversity and social cohesion within communities.

Since then, the play has been Mashirika’s way of showing the world what Rwandans are doing to rebuild their country socially, politically, economically and culturally in the new post-Genocide dispensation.

Formed in 1997, out of the ashes of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Mashirika employs theatre platforms like dance, song, poetry and movement to re-examine the very notion of humanity, highlighting the grave dangers of extremism and racial intolerance.

Africa’s Hope manages to successfully honour the lives that were lost, violated or debased in 1994, while skillfully shielding the audience from the trauma that would ordinarily result from taking these real life testimonies in.

The play’s powerful message has been commended for its critical contribution to healing and reconciliation in Rwandan societies, while at the same time it has played a pivotal role in helping international audiences to understand the nature of conflict and the copying mechanisms in the aftermath of mass human atrocity.

Mashirika was formed in 1998 when Azeda moved to Rwanda from Uganda where she had studied Music, Dance and Drama at Makerere University in Kampala.

She is of the liberal view that theatre and the performing arts can be a great tool for socio-economic transformation and for healing from past pain, but insists that it can still be fun and engaging.

This thinking has since endeared Mashirika to a loyal audience, both locally and internationally, as seen from their track record at past national and international appearances.

In December 2008, the troupe staged a special performance in Kigali to mark their 10-year anniversary which was attended by the First Lady Jeannette Kagame, among others.