Actress Kabano speaks out on her first international award

When the novel Petit Pays, by Rwandan-French rapper and author Gael Faye, was first launched in Rwanda, Isabelle Kabano was among the first people to read it.

 “I was among the first people to read Petit Pays when it was first introduced in the country, and the story touched my heart,” said Kabano. 


Little did she know she would act in the film adaptation of the novel, but a year after the book’s debut in 2017, she found herself among 69 characters in Petit Pays. Among whom over 90 percent of the casting are Rwandan actors and Burundians living in Rwanda, mainly in Mahama camp.


Directed by the French film director, Éric Barbier, Petit Pays is a movie about the author’s recollection of the civil war in Burundi in 1993, and subsequently, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.


Published in August 2016, the novel, which means ‘‘small country”, was a huge success right from the start. The story revolves around a group of five boys aged between 11-14 years, growing up in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. The story is narrated by one of the boys, Gabriel (or Gaby), the novel’s protagonist born in Bujumbura to a French father and Rwandan mother, just like Gael Faye.

 “When the casting for the film came to Rwanda, I was selected for the role of Yvonne, something that I never expected that I would play such a role,” she said.

In the film, Kabano plays Yvonne, a mother of Gaby and his young sister Anna, who left Rwanda for Burundi with her family when she was a child because of the ethnic tensions in Rwanda. Part of the family still lived in Rwanda.

Life in exile was not good because they were always discriminated against and exposed to rejection.

In late 1994, Yvonne returned to Rwanda in search of her relatives, where she suffered from depression after learning that all of them were killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Unlike her husband, Michel, she is aware of the risks involved in returning but she dares to face reality.

Kabano received the Best Actress award for her role in Petit Pays, at the 13th edition of Francophone d’Angoulême, in Paris, France, on September 2.  

Established in 2008 by Dominique Besnehard, the annual film festival is held in Angoulême, France, and recognizes the bestselling French movies from all French-speaking countries.

The prize is a big win for Petit Pays documentary, which won the prize for the very first time it was submitted for an international festival.

After she was announced the winner of the prize, Kabano said she couldn’t believe how she could win such a big prize.

“I was so excited to have played the main role in this movie, and I am thrilled about the award because it is my first prize as an actress. It is an enormous honour for me and for my country,” she told The New Times.

“It’s a role I played with all my heart because it reflects on things we witnessed and happened to our loved ones. People like Yvonne exist in Rwanda because there are so many people in the country who have the same story as Yvonne’s in the film,” she added.

For Nibagwire, the film’s casting director, it is no surprise that Kabano scooped the prize given the impressive effort and passion she put in while acting in the movie.

 “That means we weren’t wrong to pick her for the role. Kabano was the first character we picked for the role and she did not disappoint because she put all her heart into her role from the casting until the film was finalized. There were so many bright candidates for the role, but we chose her because we were convinced she suits in it,” Nibagwire told The New Times.

About Isabelle Kabano

Kabano was born in Bujumbura, Burundi, in 1974, to Rwandan parents— who were in the refuge.

Her parents later moved to Kinshasa and then to Goma, where they lived until she and her family returned to Rwanda in late 1994 after the RPF-Inkotanyi stopped the Genocide against the Tutsi.

 Apart from acting, Kabano has been a journalist since 2000, where she worked at Radio Rwanda and Radio 10 before becoming the director of  Inzozi (inflight magazine of national carrier RwandAir).
She grew up in a world of theatre where she, together with Dorcy Rugamba, started a theatre studio in 1998. 

She passed her first casting audition to act in the film Shake Hands with the Devil, which was first published by Random House Canada in September 2003.

In 2005, she acted in Sometimes in April, an American made-for-television historical drama film about the Genocide against the Tutsi. Two years later, she featured in the Zone Turquoise.

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