Niyonshuti on preserving Rwanda's culture through film
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Born in Nyagatare in the Eastern Province in 1992, Henderson Niyonshuti was only two years old when he was separated from his parents during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
He says he owes his existence today to the Good Samaritan, Beatrice Mukakanani, who found him and took him under her care. He was raised in Gatsata, located roughly 4km North-West of Kigali.
Naturally, Niyonshuti doesn’t remember the events that brought him under Mukakanani’s care, and as he grew up, he was forced to believe that his parents had been killed in the Genocide.
“I decided to consider myself an orphan because no one knows what happened to my parents,” he says sadly.
Niyonshuti says Mukakanani raised him like he was her own son, and encouraged him to always work hard and use whatever God-given talent he had in him to make it in life.
The 24-year-old says that as a child, he loved listening to the history of Rwanda, and watching films and this made him dream of becoming an actor one day.
One of the stories that fascinated him the most was the ancient Rwandan King Ruganzu II Ndoli, a man he first learned about at Muhima Primary School in 2003.
Through his years in school, Niyonshuti’s passion for reading and learning more about Rwanda’s culture and the king matured. He consulted teachers and asked elder people about the king.
At Ngarama Secondary School, Niyonshuti learned Computer Science; however, he later dropped out owing to financial constraints.
However, his dream was still very much alive, and that was to one day make it as an actor and possibly, bring to theatre the life of King Ruganzu II Ndoli.
“I even already had a title for my movie,’ he says. “It was to be called ‘Ruganzu n’Ibisumizi’. It is all I thought about. Even when I went to sleep, I dreamt of becoming a film star and acting the life of the king. He inspired me.”
Niyonshuti fixed computers for a living and also earned a little extra by narrating ancient stories to interested travellers in Nyabugogo normally waiting for departure.
Niyonshuti, or ‘Cyambarantama’ as he is commonly known, also travels around the country selling local DVDs.
He later put his savings together that came to a total of Rwf4 million. Last year, he recruited a group of about 80 young actors and travelled to Tanzania, specifically to the place where Ruganzu II Ndoli lived during his childhood before coming to Rwanda.
With the money, he worked with local film makers and made a very low budget movie, his dream project, ‘Ruganzun’Ibisumizi’. He made copies of the film on DVD and sold them to travellers in Nyabugogo when he came back.
The movie-series tells the life of King Ruganzu II Ndoli and his soldiers who were known as Ibisumizi. It comprises of ten parts but only the first part is out.
With a traditional Rwandan hair called the ‘Amasunzu’, Niyonshuti uses his Android smartphone to show people the trailer of his movie. Travelers in different buses call out to him and are interested in buying his DVDs. He sometimes earns as much as Rwf50, 000 a day from selling his movie.
“This film serves as a reminder to Rwandans to always be in touch with their culture. I chose Ruganzu II Ndoli because of his good deeds and the way he loved his country. He is the most renowned king of Rwanda. He was a great warrior and was alleged to have performed miracles. His life and reign pervade many legends in the history of Rwanda,” he says.
Although he is one of the most famous ancient Kings of Rwanda, he is also called “Ruganzu the Fool” because he is believed to have done great things but never revealed the secret of his power to anyone to pass it to the following generations.
But the mere mentioning of Ruganzu, leads to the mentioning of his “miracles” and the mentioning of miracles, raises doubts of his deeds and unfortunately to some people, his existence.
Niyonshuti dismisses this and adds how Ruganzu reunited the kingdom under one kingship and his expansionist policy that expanded the Kingdom beyond the current borders.
“There are many people around the world who don’t know about our king’s life. In the film, we try to cover as much of it as possible,” Niyonshuti explains.
Niyonshuti explains that the film is supposed to be shot in all historic areas of the country.Some of the areas targeted include Rulindo’s Ngarama Rock which is in the shape of the king’s foot. Today, in every part of Rwanda, you will find marks on rocks and places, waterfalls, hills and caves named after Ruganzu.
“All viewers should know the beauty of the country, and not just its culture. We will include almost all historical sites,” he explains.
In the film, the actors don outfits that resemble a leopard’s appearance, the style of the king’s soldiers.
Though Niyonshuti managed to start his project, he faces challenges, like the fact that he is only fluent in Kinyarwanda.
“I can fluently speak Kinyarwanda, however, some of the people I want to reach out to, to sell my movie to or even share details of our culture with; do not understand the language well. It is hard to communicate with them, and they want to know about Rwanda alot,” he says.
He adds that many people from abroad want to listen to his cultural teachings but he fails to communicate with them. However, he is currently taking a small course in languages that include English, Kiswahili and French.