Promoting conservation through moving play

One of the resounding themes at the 10th edition of Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla naming ceremony was the aspect of community conservation — giving back to the communities that live around protected areas. 
One the scenes in a play about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. (File)
One the scenes in a play about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. (File)

One of the resounding themes at the 10th edition of Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla naming ceremony was the aspect of community conservation — giving back to the communities that live around protected areas. 

In fact, this year’s event was held under the theme: “A Decade: Conserving-Empowering-Growing.” Like the previous years, the celebrations and festivities were held in Kinigi, in Musanze, Northern Province. The village sits at the foothills of the Virunga Mountain range, and is the official entry point for gorilla-tracking tourists.

But how does one take the seemingly complex subject of this year’s theme: “Conserving-Empowering-Growing” to the estimated 40,000 local residents that turned up for Kwita Izina? What would “conserving, empowering, and growing” mean to them? 

Enter Mashirika … 

There seems to have been no better way to drive this message home than through drama, a language that is easily understood across social and academic categories.  

Mashirika, arguably the biggest local theatre production company, stepped up to the task after being contacted by organisers. Their job was well cut-out for them: To come up with a production that captures the essence of this year’s celebrations, that is; Conserving, Empowering, and Growing. 

The play the group came up with was called Imari ishushye (Hot deal), and to say it was one of the highlights of the otherwise colourful event would be an understatement. Judging from the crowd’s response, it is safe to say that through Mashirika’s production, the organisers achieved their target of disseminating the conservation message to the people that matter the most.

The play had four main characters, two of who, a couple, were picked from among the locals. 

It opens when Bizimana, a native of Kinigi returns noisily from a seemingly fruitful trip to Kigali. Back home in Kinigi, he is here to visit his uncle Birushya and his wife, who stay a stone’s throw away from his own home. Bizimana is acted by radio personality Skizzy, of Royal FM.

Bizimana finds Birushya and his wife rehearsing a song to celebrate twenty years of the country’s liberation.  

Bizimana lays claim to a booming business which he is sure is going to mint him money and hopefully lift his entire family out of poverty. Enough is enough, and now is the time to say bye-bye to poverty, Bizimana silently vows to himself. 

Of course, Birushya and his wife are excited by this talk, as fighting poverty has been their shared mantle as well. Birushya and his large family have been surviving on the sale of a few traditional handcrafts and entertainment to tourists either heading to or returning from gorilla tracking in the nearby national park.  

The couple is impatient to know their friend Bizimana’s business dealings that are supposed to financially transform his life. 

Bizimana reveals that while in Kigali recently, he had been linked to a racket of international wildlife traffickers who traded poached wild game on the international market. 

When they learn that Bizimana hails from Kinigi, they ask if he knows anyone who can get them young gorillas for a commission. They are offering $10,000 on the spot for each baby gorilla delivered alive. 

Bizimana knows well that his uncle, Birushya’s eldest son Birumwabo, now works with the national office of tourism as a tour guide, and can be a good link and even give hints on how they can get the gorillas easily. 

Birushya and his wife are even more excited now, considering the bright prospects ahead. This is a big deal, and their son Birumwabo surely won’t deny them this golden opportunity.  Or will he? 

As the three talk, Birumwabo shows up on a routine visit to his parents, and is excited to meet his old friend Bizimana. 

The parents now take turns to brief their son about the secret deal, stressing that they had to move fast before it slipped through their fingers. Birumwabo is further briefed about the key role he would play in the mission. 

Would he be up to the task? “No!” the son declares sternly before his parents and friend Bizimana. 

He educates them that poaching and trafficking of gorillas is illegal and if caught, they risked serious consequences.  

“Gorilla trafficking also hinders the economy of the country as it can lead to extinction of gorillas yet they are a tourist attraction that brings a lot of dollars to the country which has enabled many development projects like schools, roads, hospitals and water that benefit local communities,” he counsels. 

Turning specifically to his parents, Birumwabo wonders if without the gorillas, tourists would still come to Kinigi. “Without people coming to our village to see the gorillas, who will buy your handcrafts and who will you entertain?” he asked.  

Birumwabo then embarks on convincing the three to think of conserving the primates instead of poaching them. He asks them to join him with his team to welcome a guest of honour to the presentation they will be making during the Kwita Izina ceremony.  

At this point, the stage is raided by a swam of energetic acrobats who are joined in by a group of baby gorillas. 

A pyramid depicting 10 years of “Conservation, Empowering, and Growing” is erected in the center of the stage, drawing frenzied drumming from the Intore troupe standing guard at the back, and wild ululations from the crowd. 

Been there, done that:

It was not the first time that Mashirika were staging such a crowd-moving production before a mammoth gathering. In fact, this is their main stock-in-trade, in the 15 years they have graced the country’s and world theater stage. 

Mashirika’s first acid test on the big stage came in 2004, courtesy of that year’s Genocide commemoration activities, for which the troupe was contracted to come up with a befitting play.

Titled Africa’s Hope, the play addressed the subject of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi through the eyes of a child. Lasting 100 minutes long, to symbolise the 100 days of the genocide, the play was Mashirika’s biggest fete yet, having cast before a 25,000-strong crowd at the Amahoro Stadium. Also, it was the first time the group was addressing such a sensitive topic. 

Written by Mashirika’s founder and artistic director, Hope Azeda, Africa’s Hope was inspired by personal experiences she gathered of survivors and refugees of the genocide. 

The group still casts the play occasionally on demand, mainly in Europe and America. 

More recently, at the Kwibuka20 commemoration activities at the Amahoro Stadium on April 7, the group staged one of its most ambitious productions to date, working with a cast of close to 1,000 actors to pull off a 20-minute theatrical piece titled Shadows of Memory. 

Basically, the company uses its productions to foster the spirit of unity and reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda, as well to better equip the outside world to better understand the events of 1994.

According to Sam Kyagambibwa, the deputy director for Mashirika, the group is currently casting its latest production, Bridge or Roses, which was launched on July 01 at Gisozi Genocide Memorial auditorium. The group has already been booked for a few international castings. 

“We are writing some TV series, which we hope to launch before the end of this year. We are also working on a sensitisation campaign for TVET in the Western Province using community theater and radio spots,” he added. 

The group also plans to launch a holiday programme for children and the youth, at which beneficiaries will be taught traditional and contemporary dance, acting and public speaking.

 

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