In 2012, the Rwanda Professional Dreamers launched Mu Mataha, a three-year project in preparation for the 20th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“One of the specific characteristic of the Genocide is the incredible massive participation of the Rwanda people in the killings. Mu Mataha seeks to mobilise the same people to perform an impossible exercise: to undo, at least symbolically, what happened in 1994,” says Kiki Gakire Katese, the brains behind the project.
The name of the project is derived from that time of the day, mu mataha y’inka, (sunset) when cattle return home. It is also a moment when people gather around a fire for storytelling.
According to Gakire, April is therefore a quiet moment when Rwandans gather to remember victims of the Genocide by sharing testimonies.
“Rwandans are always overwhelmed by pain and grief every time they evoke memories of the 1994 Genocide. But, by only remembering the way the victims perished, they are simultaneously writing a tormented and bleeding memory full of bones, which invokes pain and anger and causes trauma. Over time, if they only tell the story of how the victims died, they kill them again and again, and at the same time, they freeze them in the box of victims. And the following generations will never come to know who they were before they became victims of the genocide,” she adds.
The project, she says, seeks to further rewrite history through the eyes of the very people that experienced it first-hand.
“For some years now, Rwanda is rewriting its history because it was written by “the others”, which is potentially a source of conflicts. This important and challenging work seems to have been left to “historians and other academics”, when rewriting history must be done on many levels and in different contexts”.
Sowing positive seeds
Kiki contends that 20 years after the genocide, there is still urgent need for a more participative and positive approach to the question of collective and individual memory, to offer a memory which eases, reconciles people with themselves, with life and with the world.
“Mu Mataha is a commitment to tame and heal the past and its wounds; to write a living memory of the victims of the 1994 genocide and to build an appeased memory so that both the dead and the living may truly rest in peace.”
The project aims to sow love, fortify hope, bring serenity and perform beauty where there was hate, despair, torment and horror; to constitute to a ‘democratic history’ a history of the people, by the people and for the people, she says.
“Write your Story – Own your History,” is the motto of the project. It seeks to encourage the people to work with schools and the media, and to propose and explore new and positive approaches to the memory of the 1994 Genocide.
The project is made up of five different activities: The Book of Life, Mu Mataha Album, Once upon a time, Remember Me, and Tour of 100 days.
The Book of Life
This is basically an exercise in writing letters to loved ones that perished in the genocide.
“As a result of what happened, people separated so abruptly without saying goodbye to each other. The ones that survived now find themselves trapped in memories of the past, so they can’t move forward.
The Book of Life is an opportunity for the Rwandan people to contribute to the writing of the ‘big history’ through their own stories, because by the time you write to someone, it means that they are not dead anymore. It encourages us to take up writing, because historically it has not been our culture.
Since 2009, we have been encouraging people to write, and we have collected letters from widows, orphans, survivors, and perpetrators alike. We had very many incredible letters submitted, and some of those who wrote asked us whether the dead would reply. It is an exercise in resuscitating the dead.”
With the necessary funding, the project hopes to make its first compilation of letters for the 20th commemoration exercise, but that’s not all: “We hope to make it an annual project where each year, we write our stories and publish them in a book,” explained Katese.
Mu Mataha Album
This is a double music album made of 20 songs created by local composers and interpreters that “bring hope, celebrate life, and build a different bridge between life and death where Rwandans can all meet to remember with serenity,” she explains.
Once upon a time a life
This is a series of 100 video-portraits in which people talk for a minute each about the life of a victim of the genocide. It is specifically aimed to give those that can’t read and write a similar opportunity to share their stories.
“As most of the testimonies collected until now are mainly about how people died, these video-portraits are an opportunity to put back to the bones in the memorial sites their identity, to bring back their flesh, eyes, smiles, faces, habits , to keep them alive’ she further explains.
Is an installation play that will function as a performing space as well for the play, assembling all the activities above.
Tour of 100 days
Kiki describes the tour as ‘an act of purification and restoration of life and harmony.’
“This tour will revisit the 100 days of the genocide to symbolically “undo” what happened in 1994 by offering to the Rwandan people different opportunities to grow life where there was death.”
A personal journey
She describes the project as part of a journey she embarked on in 2004. Since then, she writes on commemoration.
“In 2004, I created a play, Iryo Nabonye, and for three years we toured schools, prisons and villages staging performances.”
In 2004, she organised five activities for the commemoration; Arts Azimuts under the theme; conflict and culture; Feeding Root, a documentary marking ten years of the National University Center for Arts and Drama, and a play, Ngwino ubeho (Come to life).
“We had two other projects that we didn’t do because of lack of time, but it was a good thing we didn’t do them because they became bigger projects for 2014.”
Alluding to the power of theater, she describes the stage as “a safe and secure space from which you can have a look at things from a distance.”
“When we performed Ngwino ubeho in schools, the kids for who we performed were traumatised, and it was quite understandable because it was just ten years after the genocide. Everything was still fresh in people,s minds,” she says.
“Since then, I started asking myself whether the memory of the genocide could bleed forever. Was there a way of finding some serenity amidst the horror of genocide? The genocide story was full of bones and cries because we only tell how people died, not how they lived. We needed to strike a balance between those stories of death, and of life.”
Kiki’s thinking is partly shaped by her own, less-than-ideal early life:
“I was born in exile in the then Zaire (now DR Congo). When I came back to Rwanda, I attended a few mourning and commemoration activities, but I felt like I was a mere tourist. People were crying, but I couldn’t cry along with them, much as I felt sorry. I lost many of my own people, but wasn’t able to mourn them because I had never known them. I realised that I first had to know these people that I was mourning before I could talk of missing them. For me, it’s important that you first tell me who these people were, and by this, we bring them back to life.”
Her concluding remarks are: “Telling the story of how people lived is like putting bone to meat and bringing back life. Let’s have stories about life. Let us keep life alive.”