Maija Rivenburg, Secretary at Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company, describes herself as an arts activist. As Mashirika, her brief involves preparing project proposals, researching grants that the company can apply for, and attending meetings with partners, among other duties….
Tell us a little more about yourself
I’m 22 years old, an only child born in New York State in the US. I graduated in May from the University of San Francisco with two degrees; One in Performing Arts and Social Justice with a concentration in Theatre, and the other in International Studies with a focus on Peace and Conflict Studies and African Studies. I am extremely curious and outgoing and I have a witty sense of humor.
What’s your claim to the arts?
I remember the first time I knew I wanted to be an actress. My babysitter was in the high school production of “Oklahoma!”, an American musical. She invited my mother to bring me and at intermission I, wide-eyed, told my mom “I wanna do that!”
Ever since then I’ve been bitten by the theatre bug, involved in school productions, community theatres, and went on to study theatre at university. However, the program was unique in that it was called Performing Arts and Social Justice, with my concentration being theatre.
My courses consisted of some acting and movement technique classes, theatre and social history, performance and culture, and even a class where we went into the county jail and worked with incarcerated men. In every class we were dissecting art forms that were infused with social justice, by way of the themes, people involved or methods used.
Why, when, and how did you end up in Rwanda (Mashirika)?
I was finishing my studies at the University of San Francisco when my advisor, Roberto
Varea, asked me if I had any plans for after graduation. I was previously thinking of returning to Tanzania, where I had studied for six months and had a contact with a theatre professor, but nothing had been set in stone. Then he mentioned that he had a contact in Rwanda, Hope Azeda, who had a theatre company called Mashirika. He told me that Hope was a bubbly, energetic person and he thought our personalities would click nicely together. Then we started exchanging emails and Hope invited me to come work on the preparations for Ubumuntu Arts Festival and other activities at Mashirika.
What’s your take on the arts scene in Rwanda?
Rwanda has a newly emerging arts scene, especially for theatre and contemporary dance. I think people tend to be more drawn to music here, which is a common trend in East Africa.
Even so, I think that Rwandans can benefit a lot from developing a vibrant arts scene in all disciplines because arts bring people together to share an experience while also being a space of creativity and innovation. Artists are a source to discuss social issues and make people reflective of the lives that they live.
Do you think theater is still a force to reckon with, in light of the proliferation of other forms of mass entertainment such as music and comedy?
I think that theatre has a special power in that it exists in a space between reality and make-believe where things that are not normally possible can happen. It is a place where options can be explored that can be then implemented in reality.
For example, in 2013 I had an internship in Masaka, Uganda through an organization called Foundation for Sustainable Development.
I was placed in a primary school and told to make a project that could be done for less than $300. When discussing with the headmaster, we decided that the use of corporal punishment at the school was having too many negative side affects on the children. I then started a social justice drama club and worked with some of the children to teach them basic acting skills. Then we used the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to address children’s rights and responsibilities at school.
The children developed their own scenes based on these rights and performed them for the whole school. It made the teachers and staff reflects on their roles and now the headmaster reported that as of last year he has not seen or heard of any corporal punishments being used at the school.
He now wants to make their school a model school for others in the area who want to change engrained behaviors that can be harmful.