After two decades of a turbulent life in the diaspora, Kizito Bijyinama Musabimana finally returned to the land of his birth in December last year. And it was no ordinary home-coming.
The film producer came on the invitation of the government to attend the eleventh National Dialogue (Umushyikirano). And he couldn’t have envisaged a better return. But more on that later.
Musabimana was born in Rwanda and lived here until the age of 13. The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi forced him and his family to flee, first to Kenya, and on to Canada. He lived in Kenya for three years, and Canada for seventeen years. For all the twenty years combined, he never set foot in Rwanda.
“From Rwanda to Kenya I had told myself I would not come back here. From Kenya to Canada I told myself I’m not going back to Africa, because for me I just didn’t understand how your brothers, sisters can do what happened here in 1994,” he says in reference to the genocide.
“In Kenya life wasn’t as bad but you would go somewhere and they ask for your paper work, and then after that they are going to treat you like a second-class citizen. I kept seeing that and initially I thought that was just an African thing but then getting to the West I realized it was the same thing. It took me a while to awaken to that.”
In 2000, he left Kenya for Canada, staying in Montreal for three years, before moving to Toronto.
Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, he left the relative comfort of his community and went to join “the Canadian community or any other community but the Rwandan and African community”.
One day, he decided to go and watch the movie, Hotel Rwanda.
“When the movie started I walked out. I left my friends there and sat outside waiting for them to complete the movie. At first I thought that maybe I was just not ready to see those images again. I didn’t think there was any psychological or mental attachment to it,” he explains.
Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder
“What happens is that there was so much that I had kept inside. Both I and my family were not talking about what we went through in the genocide, what we saw, and the suffering we went through in different ways. Eventually we came to the realization that there are entire families that were lost in the genocide, at least we were lucky we all survived. So what was there to talk about?
That’s how we started to look at it. So you keep it inside and it just keeps building up until one day you wake up and realize you’ve done some damage to yourself. It’s not me alone, but a lot of people in my family also have those issues.”
“In 2007 I started drinking and even when I went to work I would have a bottle of liquor somewhere in my pocket. I smoked cigarettes and did drugs, all of which I wasn’t doing by the time I left Rwanda. By 2009 I was on probation. It was so bad that even when my nieces would get baptized I would need something like that in order to be there.
That same year I developed another anxiety whereby people I associated with, whether colleagues, friends or family, when we would sit together to share a meal, I would develop anxiety to the point where I would throw up, and I did that for five years.
Writing his own script
In 2013, Musabimana was working on a script about Gen. Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peace-keeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide.
“When I read that he wanted to kill himself I was like wait a minute … and these are people who are trained …? That’s when I put that script aside and started looking at my own script. I started asking myself; who are you, what energizes and what weakens you? What is it that you think is holding you back? I began looking at Rwanda again. Before that you couldn’t tell me anything about Rwanda.”
Gradually, he begun opening up to friends about his situation. Other times he would write his thoughts down.
But before that, and like Gen. Dallaire, Musabimana at one point contemplated taking his own life.
“While driving on the highway I would try to hit something and then I would have no energy to do that. I would drive drunk many times, but still no energy to actually end my life.”
“Instead of killing myself, I decided to instead do something,” he explains. He staged a bold awareness campaign in which he walked over 500 km from Toronto to Montreal over a period of seventeen days.
“I begun these walks in 2014 and by 2015 I knew that was my answer. Every night after work I would do like a two-hours walk and from it I would think a lot and be inspired to do lots of things. I thought of something I could do to raise awareness and show what I went through that can help other people. Anybody could have done it any other way but for me I did the walk,” he explains, adding;
“It was mainly a healing journey, but also a journey of really looking at what my country has so far achieved. I had got lost on my way to the West. That’s why my walk was from Toronto to Montreal. I was pretty much retracing my steps or going down memory lane and trying to understand what my life was about. What I know is that I was searching for myself, and in the West if you really want to find yourself you can because almost everything is working against you.”
He initiated contact with the Rwandan community in Toronto and Montreal; “They told me stories of what they were going through and instead of working alone I decided to do it with them and it’s been wonderful ever since.”
“I met the Rwandan diaspora in Toronto and Montreal and also met the ambassador of Rwanda to Canada, I met the leadership of the Rwandan community in Montreal, I went to the office of the mayor in Montreal and they all congratulated me on the walk. By that time I had connected with officials here in Rwanda. So when the community informed me that I had been invited I took it as an honor. To be honest it was like a dream, because these are the answers I’m looking for, in terms of how are we doing as a country, and then to have access to our leaders and to hear from the first citizen himself in terms of where the country is going … that was an honor!”
Umushyikirano allows you to see yourself in it and ask what part can I play, and that’s really what it’s really about –taking responsibility in everything that we do. You don’t get that anywhere, not even in Canada. You could go in the parliament and sit but they are not talking directly to you that way it is done in umushyikirano.
Telling it through film:
Musabimana graduated from film school in 2007.
“After graduation I didn’t know what to do with my life. It is one thing to do films and videos but for what purpose? So they key for me was purpose, and that’s when film begun looking like what I wanted to do. I could tell stories that help the Rwandan community but also teach Canadians.”
It’s against this backdrop that he decided to embark on shooting Home Again, a documentary that chronicles his personal journey away from home, and then back.
“It’s my story but it transitions – you’re looking at me returning home after twenty years, but also what I find in Rwanda today, what I’ve learnt from it and what other people can learn from it.”
The film is being shot both in Canada and Rwanda.
“The official production will be here in Rwanda following about seven people –officials talking about where the country is going, survivors, entrepreneurs, creative minds …”
He is also advocating for a center for healing to be based in Canada, where stories like his can be shared.
“When you’re in Canada you belong there, so whatever you learn there you can’t just take it away – you need to use it to help people there as well, that’s why we’re asking for a center in Canada just because I’m responsible there too. It’s necessary for both Rwanda and Canada to be home to me.
What I’ve been doing is raising awareness. The next step is to go back and talk to the different potential stakeholders and continue the campaign and hopefully with the film we’ll make progress because it shows what Rwanda is doing that we need to do. We have a petition in the Canadian House of Commons which we will start to push as soon as we get all the details together.
I envision the center as a place where people like me can go and share their stories. It will be a place of healing for Rwandans and other people, and it will have a Rwandan identity.