Dr Peter Stepan’s stay in Rwanda ended on a note of symbolism. Stepan flew out of the country on the night of July 2, after eventful two years as Director of the Goethe Institut Kigali.
A day before he flew out, the country had hosted the world to one of its biggest cultural events –the annual Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony, in Kinigi, Musanze.
A non-profit organisation established over 50 years ago, in Germany, the Goethe-Institut works in more than 140 countries worldwide facilitating cultural exchange and relations with citizens of the host country.
People who have been to the Kiyovu-based organisation know that it actually only employed two core staff; the director, Stepan, and his personal assistant, Lydia Holter. The rest are either support, or part-time staff.
The institute’s name has come to be associated with filmmaking, and indeed, most people know it as a filmmakers’ hub.
Although the institute’s primary mandate is to extend technical support to local cultural initiatives across the board, it is clear that film makers enjoy the biggest support.
On a weekly basis, the institute organises film screenings and filmmaker’s workshops where new short, feature, and documentary films are screened to the general public.
Basically, you will bump into a prominent personality in any of the arts here for a concert, a mentorship workshop, or a movie premiere on a weekly basis. From film producers, script writers, painters, American Jazz singers, journalists, novelists, musicians, instrumentalists, to poets and civil rights activists, their corridors are ever busy.
Asked why film makers enjoyed preferential treatment from the institute in an earlier interview, Stepan said: “I’m convinced that cinema is the most creative industry in this country. In more than two years of my stay in Kigali, I have observed that young Rwandan filmmakers have made a tremendous evolution towards new artistic horizons.”
End of an era
Although he flew out on July 2, word about his imminent departure had seeped in quite early. Perhaps the only thing that kept people guessing was how exactly he planned to execute his exit. Would he throw a mega bash in his flat and treat guests to exquisite wines and nibbles? Would he just slip away quietly like a fugitive?
Would he simply convene a press conference at the Goethe Institut and break the news? That was the question on the lips of most of the people that usually converged at the institute. Peter was a rather hands-on man who occasionally sent out personal e-mails to journalists and his other e-mail contacts, something that his personal assistant otherwise did diligently.
At media events, he enjoyed an easy acquaintance with almost all members of the press, and it was common to see him hauling chairs and microphone stands ahead of an event at the institute.
When I received an invite to lunch at the German Ambassador’s residence in Nyarutarama, it had a side note pinned to it that read: “To bid farewell to Mr Peter Stepan, Director of the Goethe Institut –Liaison Office Kigali.”
Naturally, I knew it was a press invite and expected to find my media colleagues with who I occasionally covered the institute’s press events. I was in for an early surprise.
First was the discovery that I was the only journalist among the over twenty invited guests that showed up. The second surprise was when I realised I could only recognise three faces in the crowd –Stepan’s, his personal assistant Lydia, and that of the German Ambassador, Peter Fahrenholtz, a man I was meeting for the first time.
The rest of the guests tended to have diplomatic portfolios or at least something close to that, so it was not the kind of place to pluck out notebooks and cameras.
What followed was a very emotional affair, as the Ambassador kicked off the session with words of endearment towards the Goethe Institut, and Peter Stepan in particular. Guest after guest also chipped in with their own emotional tale about Stepan’s zest and enthusiasm for culture and the arts, and for the propagation of the Goethe Institute’s cultural mission.
By the time we moved to the dining room for lunch, a few calls for an extension of his contract had been echoed. At the very least, one lady suggested, Peter would have to consider coming back periodically to Rwanda on consultancy terms.
At lunch, Stepan assumed a low profile, while the ambassador rose to the occasion as host. It was a cordial lunch, full of intimate talk as guests loosened up and got chatting.
When lunch was over, Stepan announced a farewell party organised in his honor by a close friend, slated for the next day, in Muhima.
Stepan wound up his stay in Rwanda with a dinner party organised for him by one of his closest friends in Rwanda, Assumpta Mugiraneza, on June 26. Mugiraneza is the Director of the IRIBA Center for Multimedia Heritage, an organisation that gathers the country’s audio-visual history and makes it available for public use.
That night, her home in Muhima played host to about fifty guests who converged to see their friend off.
Here, a few faces were familiar –at least one journalist apart from me, and a few of the artistes and filmmakers that work regularly with the institute.
Still, Stepan played it low-key, just plying from one person or group to the other, exchanging hugs and engaging in light banter. He did not wish to get any more emotional than he already was, it would seem.
Even when dinner had been served, Stepan kept to his wandering ways, moving from crowd to crowd or person to person, all the while dishing out cake.
But the highlight of the evening was something else –the Intore traditional dance.
“Intore belongs to my great personal discoveries in Rwanda so far. I have come to associate it with dignity, elegance, and devotion to a universal rhythm,” he had told me in an earlier interview.
According to Lydia Holter, “Peter is in Munich now where he is also meeting his successor, but he will return to Africa as soon as possible to travel and write.” The new director, Markus Litz, arrives in August.