Charles “Bien-Aimé” Kamana Kalisa is an eccentric man who is reluctant to wear the ‘artist’ label.
When asked what he does for a living the 63 year-old responds: “I’m just a businessman and sometimes I try music.” Indeed, this interview ends with him giving us an acapella to one of his songs.
But we travelled from Kigali to Gisenyi to meet Kamana the visual/graffiti/installation artist, not the musician or businessman.
We find him at his regular business in Gisenyi town, a restaurant called Ibyiwacu Products Ltd. The eatery is busy with people ordering food and T-ZOK (or tea is okay, a beverage made out of fermented tea leaves served hot or cold).
Here, he is known to everybody as Bienaime, which he is quick to point out means “good friend”.
During the just-concluded presidential campaigns, his artistic works spoke for themselves; large, bold, grafitti-like inscriptions atop hills and on tree canopies that lit up campaign rally venues for the RPF-Inkotanyi candidate, President Paul Kagame – Kamana’s preferred candidate.
As we settle down for the interview, a plateful of small wooden key holders curved in the shape of sambaza fish is ushered before us. He explains that he started making these in 2010 and taught ten local boys how to do it. These he makes specifically as gifts for his clients at the restaurant.
“I’m an artist but I don’t have the time to do art,” he later confesses.
When the presidential elections of 2010 were due, I had been thinking about how I could contribute to my candidate’s campaign in an extraordinary way. One night I prayed about it at 3:00 am and later told my wife I wanted to contribute to the campaign using my art but I didn’t know exactly how.
A day before the president was scheduled to address a campaign rally in the district, a meeting was held for the district campaign team at which former Infrastructure minister Vincent Karega and now Rwanda’s High Commissioner to South Africa was guest of honor.
“The minister told us that the President is a person who loves new ideas and innovations, and asked what we could do for him during the campaigns.”
Kamana recalls that it’s at this moment that his vision to contribute to the campaign using art became clear where earlier he did not know how to go about it.
Thus he raised his hand boldly, ready to share his vision:
“In my heart I heard this vision telling me to write something on Mt. Nyundo,” he reminisces, adding that;
“Some people believed I could do it while others openly doubted me.”
But his mind was made up. He knew the exact words he would inscribe on the mountain: FPR Tora Kagame Paul ijana ku ijana.
“What was left was how I would write them, and what materials I would use.”
Shortly after a car was found and he was driven atop the hill for site prospecting and inspection. After the inspection he dashed to Rubavu town to source materials to work with; he settled for empty gunny bags used in packaging grain and flour. These he gathered from his farm and his restaurant, and bought the rest from shops.
“It took me just a few hours -I begun at 11:00 am and by 5:00 pm I had finished to write FPR Tora Kagame Paul ijana ku ijana,” Kamana reveals proudly.
I ask what the public reaction was and with a chuckle he responds that it was “a long story”.
“I wrote it in the evening. the following morning everybody in the town had got information that someone had written some things on the mountain. People were wondering who had done it and what the motive was. Everyone wanted to go and see it for themselves.”
Even the RPF-Inkotanyi Rubavu district office was impressed and lauded him for his efforts, later asking him to replicate the work at other sites.
“I came to Mount Rubavu in the middle of the town and made something even bigger so that someone from across the border in Goma would see it. The words could be read easily by someone from 5km away.”
Indeed, his work must have touched hearts near and far.
“After 2010, I was approached by some people from the DRC with a request to go and do the same for President Joseph Kabila but I refused,” he reveals.
“I told them this art was done for my candidate and my president alone because I love him. Until now I don’t know if I can do it for another person.”
After the 2010 presidential elections, he continued with his regular business.
Fast forward to 2017:
At this year’s presidential election, art, music and Made in Rwanda fashion were some of the more visible sub plots to the political rhetoric. Local musicians rooted for their preferred candidate in song at campaign engagements, while fashion and textile designers came up with some of the trendiest campaign paraphernalia like T-shirts, jumpers and baseball caps.
But it is the art decor at many of the RPF candidate’s campaign venues that bore Kamana’s artistic signature.
In the run up to the August 4th elections, at a meeting of the district’s campaign team for RPF-Inkotanyi, Kamana was asked if he could do it all over again:
“When I returned home later someone called from Ngororero saying the president would be campaigning in the area the following day. I told him I would not be available because I had other engagements with my district. After some time this person called me again asking me to spare just a few hours. I advised him to call the district vice mayor and ask if that was okay. The vice mayor told him I was busy but could spare a day. The next morning I went to the site for inspection, then came and picked two young men to work with.”
This year, his work took him to the four districts of Ngororero, Gasabo, Karongi, and Rubavu. In 2010, he worked in Rubavu and Nyundo.
Kamana is reluctant to reveal in detail any financial benefits accruing from the deal. All he says is that in 2010, he did all the work and bought all materials from his own savings.
He is married with eight children.
Asked what motivates him he says, “I do it just for mobilization. I love Rwanda, I love my President Paul Kagame, I love Rwandans. That’s why I am called Bienaime. I hate injustice.”