Every July since 2015, performing artistes and troupes from around the globe converge in Rwanda for a festival that has since come to define what it means to be human –Ubumuntu.
The Ubumuntu Arts Festival is the brainchild of the Mashirika Performing Arts And Media Company, the country’s premier theater ensemble. It takes place at the outdoor amphitheater of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, in Gisozi.
It brings together artistes and performance troupes from around the globe for a series of stage performances, workshops and panel discussions all centered on the theme of humanity.
The festival is staged symbolically after the last week of the 100 days commemoration period for the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, a phase of the country’s history that provided huge inspiration and a backdrop for the rise of both the Mashirika Performing Arts And Media Company, and the festival.
Hope Azeda, the founder and Artistic Director of Mashirika returned to Rwanda in 1998, with a singular mission in mind: to use Art as a tool for social transformation and initiate difficult global conversations on the theme of humanity.
She set up Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company soon after. “Your history is your shadow, and it will always walk with you,” Azeda aptly contends.
Over the years, Mashirika has never strayed from its core mission – to harness the Arts not only for their entertainment value, but also as a tool for social transformation and a source of employment.
2018 laureate winners Hope Azeda and Mehrdad Baghai with Madeleine Albright at the Aspen Institute award dinner in New York. Courtesy photos
Ubumuntu Arts Festival to the world
This year marks five years since the festival debuted in July 2015. The festival slogan is; “I am because you are, you are because I am: together we are human”.
The theme for this year is: When The Walls Come Down –Truth.
In 2014, Azeda submitted the idea for the festival to the Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI) as her leadership project proposal. It received positive feedback and sign-off by the founder Ali Mufuruki, hence the birth of Ubumuntu Arts Festival.
According to organizers, over 34 countries have been represented at the festival since 2015, with 53 performances staged and a cumulative attendance of over 13,000 festival goers.
As festival founder and curator, Azeda is the vision bearer for a forum that employs the arts to help global communities deal with their own tragedies while also connecting with other communities.
“The festival takes place within a physical representation of failed humanity and creates an environment of shared humanity,” Azeda explains the festival’s symbolic staging at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. “It is a grim reminder of the consequences when we lose our shared humanity.”
A year after the festival’s launch, organizers increased the number of performance days from two to four, owing to huge interest by foreign performance troupes. The extra nights were dedicated to theater for young audiences and for women. Performances typically feature movement, music, theater, dance, poetry, projections, and acrobatics, among others.
It was last year that Mashirika, Ubumuntu and Hope Azeda jointly flew Rwanda’s flag high on the global scene.
Incidentally, it was also a year of great personal tragedy for Azeda, who lost her mother, Beatrice Semana just three weeks to last year’s festival.
First, Mashirika was chosen to close the annual Brave Festival in Poland with two performances of Africa’s Hope, one of its popular productions. The festival is an artistic event devoted to the presentation of various cultures and traditions from all over the world, particularly those that are rare or face extinction.
Mashirika also received a Lifetime Achievement award from MAAFA at the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York.The award came with a $15,000 cash prize.
At a personal level, Hope Azeda scooped five distinguished international awards in the same year. On November 3, she received two global regional awards (Great Lakes Region) in the Arts and Culture Sector from CEO Global Women Titans in Kampala, Uganda.
Four days later, at the Metropolitan Club in New York, Azeda was honored as a laureate of the John P McNulty Prize, which came with a $25,000 purse to further her artistic ventures.
Actors Malaika Uwamahoro and Liza Umuhire act in Africa's Hope, one of the flagship stage productions by Mashirika
On November 9, she received the MAAFA Lifetime Award at the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. On November 27th, Azeda was announced continental winner by CEO Global in the sector of Arts and Culture. She bagged $15,000 with the win.
For the McNulty Prize, Azeda was one among four global recipients, all fellows of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. The award went to “ordinary individuals who have effectively leveraged their expertise and entrepreneurialism to create meaningful change across the world”.
Azeda was particularly lauded for her efforts in “amplifying the arts to move Rwanda and other countries from trauma to understanding”.
The winners were selected by an international jury that included former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, international statesman Olara Otunnu from Uganda, and development expert Brizio Biondi-Morra.
“Art and artistic expression are very effective as therapy in the aftermath of conflict. Hope has extended this practice as a reconciliation and peace-building tool. The Ubumuntu Festival inspires and connects attendees, but the event’s global nature brings the impact worldwide,” remarked Olara Otunnu, a former United Nations (UN) Under Secretary.
Brizio Biondi-Morra, another juror had this to say:
“I appreciate Ubumuntu Arts’ ability to reach those who have gone through great trauma. It’s easy to think that people who have faced terrible tragedies and traumas cannot heal. But I have seen music and dance repair those fissures. I have seen the power of the arts and whole heartedly believe in and support Hope’s mission.
Mashirika wound up a successful year 2018 with two lofty contracts with the Embassy of the Netherlands in partnership with RCN Justice & Democratie for the UBU (UbutaberaBwegereyeUmuturage) project, and UNICEF in partnership with the National Council for Children (NCC) and MIGEPROF for a project about protection of children against violence.
Mashirika won the 2018 MAAFA Lifetime Achievement Award in Brooklyn, New York last November.
2019, a new generation
2019 marks 25 years since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, and for the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, it’s a new milestone worthy of inclusion in this year’s festival program.
Organizers in partnership with Mashirika are working on a new production titled Generation 25 aka G25, that focuses on the generation of young Rwandans born right after the genocide. The production is currently working on partnerships at national and international level.
It will be staged in April, at the Kigali Genocide Memorial amphitheater to coincide with the start of the official genocide commemoration period.
“This year, festival goers should expect to see growth in artistic approaches at all levels, and this goes to the space itself (amphitheater). We will have sound and visual installations, and international collaborations,” Azeda reveals:
“More young people will be engaged in panels, workshops and performances. We will also be launching our first international residency in acting in partnership with the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg (FABW) and Robert Bosch Stiftung.”
In October last year, Azeda penned an opinion piece titled Can Art heal a broken society? in the Ideas section of Time Magazine, a space dedicated to leading voices providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture.
In the article, she highlighted the progress that has been made in Rwanda and the remarkable achievements registered in the past two decades.
Sam Kyagambiddwa is one of the pioneers in Mashirika, a jack-of-all-trades who has seen and done it all:
“I have no permanent position in Mashirika. Sometimes I’m a writer, a director, an actor, stage manager. Sometimes you will find me writing proposals or reports, or behind the desk doing administrative work.”
The festival stage at the outdoor amphitheater of the Kigali Genocide Memorial
He knows Hope Azeda from when they were still at University:
“I share a bit of background with Hope as we attended the same university, in the same year, same course, majoring in same discipline (drama). So hooking up and putting heads together to do theater was a perfect match.”
His satisfaction, he says, “is seeing the work we do impacting the target audience, but also earning me bread and butter.”
For his part, Samuel Mugiraneza joined Mashirika in 2016 as an intern from the University of Rwanda (Arts and Creative option) in the Modern Languages department of the College of Social Sciences. Today, he is a script writer and logistics assistant at Mashirika.
“I have gained much here. Mashirika is a professional company. Here we work and learn. We often get new tasks which expand our skills not only in theater, but also related activities like how to organize a project, community outreach, developing messages for plays, and storytelling. From Mashirika, I have improved my skills in script writing, acting on radio and for stage.”