Tracing Stromae's Rwandan roots

“Papaoutai” is a song that gets people on their feet when it plays. A night out in Kigali is not complete if you don’t dance to this hit.
Stromae. (Net photo)
Stromae. (Net photo)

“Papaoutai” is a song that gets people on their feet when it plays. A night out in Kigali is not complete if you don’t dance to this hit.

In June this year, fans were left disappointed when the singer of this popular hit called off his Kigali homecoming concert after suffering side effects from anti-malaria medication. Now, he is expected to perform in Kigali next weekend on October 17.

In the song, Stromae, real name Paul Van Haver, 30, broaches the subject of a childhood without a father and it is actually a situation he has himself experienced.

Born to a Rwandan father and Flemish mother, many of his admirers know little about the singer’s roots in Rwanda.

Who is Stromae’s father? Where is his family? What’s their story?

It is said that Stromae’s father, Pierre Rutare, an architect, was absent for most of his childhood. He was killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. His mother raised him and his four siblings in Brussels, before moving to a suburb outside the Belgian capital.

Stromae’s family, however, isn’t keen on talking about Rutare or the family for that matter out of respect for other members, some of whom are also departed.

However, Stromae’s 46-year-old cousin, who asked for anonymity, gave us selected insight into Stromae’s Rwandan roots.

Who is Rutare?

Born in 1958 into a family of seven, in Nyarugenge, Kigali, the young Rutare and his family initially lived in Nyamirambo but due to the strain of living in town coupled with the political tension at the time, Gabriel Gasamagera (Stromae’s paternal grandfather), an established farmer, then moved the family to Shyorongi. It was hard adjusting from town life to the harsh village setting, a location that was once home to elephants.

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Stromae’s father, Pierre Rutare (right) and his cousin Jean-Marie Vianney Rubayiza. (Courtesy)

Rutare attended Collège de Rulindo for his secondary education. He later moved to Kigali and enrolled at Collège St. André in Nyamirambo. His younger brother, Paul, died of burn wounds he suffered under circumstances that remain mysterious to date.

Paul’s death at a tender age took a toll on Rutare, and he later decided to leave the country.

During his last year in high school at St. André, he ingeniously managed to acquire a passport—which wasn't easy because Tutsis were barred from obtaining travel documents—and later, a Belgian visa.

He presented the documents to his father and asked for financial help to facilitate his trip. Taken completely unaware by the 19-year-old’s decision, Gasamagera couldn’t say no. That was in 1978.

Once in Belgium, Rutare completed his high school and proceeded to university where he studied civil engineering and architecture (génie civil et architecture), at a private university and graduated around 1986. He was registered as a foreign student.

Without a scholarship it was a very difficult situation—he had to think of ways to support himself.

His cousin says, “It is not easy at all to cope as a foreign student in Belgium without a sponsor or scholarship. He was busy day and night. He studied during the day and worked at night. Once, he worked as a night time fuel pump attendant. He didn’t sleep much as he needed to be awake most of the time; at least that is what he told me.”

Gasamagera tried to support his son but could only do so much. He had the money, but he also had an extended family to look after.

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Rutare holds aloft trophies in jubilation after a basketball tournament. (Courtesy) 

In March 1985, Stromae was born to Miranda Marie Van Haver. She met his dad in Brussels but nobody knows where exactly or the circumstances that led to their relationship. After Stromae’s birth, Rutare didn’t stay long.

After his graduation, he was informed that his father wanted him to return home.

Rutare was his most educated child; a perfect candidate to carry on his legacy. Gasamagera, who was in his sixties, needed somebody by his side.

“Stromae’s grandfather thought about his estate; he didn’t necessarily want to pass on the responsibility and was still able to run it himself but at that age, he had to look at life differently,” says the cousin.

When Rutare came back to Rwanda in 1988, the political situation was still tense. He opened up a private company in Kigali called “Bureau de Deux Génies” (B2G).

It was located at the top floor of the then popular building, Kwa Bayingana, which also housed the Kenyan Embassy. The building is still there but is now overshadowed by new buildings that have since come up.

As a rookie architect, Rutare should have struggled to establish the business, but luck was on his side.

Just before leaving Belgium, he had interned at a firm owned by a Belgian architect. The owner, however, was planning to close the firm and needed to get rid of the furniture and tools he used.

Seeing an opportunity, Rutare requested for the furniture and tools. When returning home, he hired a container and shipped the furniture to Rwanda, as his company’s initial assets.

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The structure that Pierre Rutare built in the heart of the capital, Kigali. (Courtesy)

Rutare didn’t stop the hard work and spent sleepless nights drawing blueprints and estimates for his building projects. Among his projects was a fountain at the Kigali City main roundabout (pictured above).

According to Stromae’s cousin, Rutare asked the city authorities not to dismantle the concrete structure.

However, it would give way to the current look of the roundabout when, in 2005, Kigali underwent a facelift ahead of a major conference for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Summit. It took six months to dismantle it.

Among Rutare’s other projects are well-designed villas in Kimihurura, a Kigali suburb, that stand to this day.

Papaoutai?

Many people have claimed that Rutare was an absentee father during Stromae’s early life.

But, his cousin says, “Claims that Stromae was abandoned by his dad hold no water. Rutare made trips to visit the boy every year. It was an expensive trip during those times but he tried his best. The song Papaoutai raises the topic of Stromae not knowing his dad. He calls to a dad and family who are not there. Listeners have interpreted the song in different ways.”

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Stromae as a child. (Courtesy)

In the late 80s Miranda came with little Stromae to Rwanda. The cousin says, “They were given a hearty welcome by the family. It was a special get-together, especially with the grandparents. He stayed at the ancestral home for nearly a fortnight in Shyorongi but suffered from malaria which cut the visit short. The place was heavily infested with mosquitoes.”

Later, Rutare got married and had four more children. Ibrahim Cyusa is a singer based in Kigali; Kevin Rutare lives in Luxembourg and is a high jumper at the national level. The two girls, Cynthia Rutare and Ornelle Rutare, are students in Belgium.

His half-brother, Cyusa, a Gakondo singer known for his albums Migabo and Inama y’Igihugu y’Urubyiruko says, “I’m happy for Stromae, as my big brother, it gives me pride and joy to see how far he has come. It is a good thing for the family, it shows we have talent. We used to communicate but due to his busy schedule, we don’t as much. I guess he got overwhelmed.”

Stromae has other cousins who total up to 20 or so.

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Stromae and his mother Miranda. (Courtesy)

The name Van Haver

Many wonder why Stromae doesn’t have a Kinyarwanda name.

According to his uncle, Stromae is Rwandan and having a Flemish name does not change that fact.

His first name, Paul, might have been influenced by his uncle whose demise as earlier mentioned certainly affected Rutare and instigated his move to Belgium.

In Rwanda, it’s also common to name a child after a relative or friend. The family referred to Stromae as “Popol”, which means “little Paul.”

A chip off the old block

There is undeniable likeness between Rutare and Stromae, as seen in photos.

“Stromae was cut from the same cloth as the father, they look alike. In fact, we say Rutare came back in Stromae’s body,” says his uncle.

As earlier mentioned, Rutare would stay up all night, drawing plans for his building projects, on his old-fashioned drawing boards.

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Stromae entertains a crowd at a previous concert. (Internet photo)

The zeal to start from the bottom and make something of themselves shows the similarity in all three, Gasamagera, Rutare and Stromae.

“Gasamagera always encouraged his children to work hard and be self-reliant, and he led by example, it’s the spirit Stromae (his grandson) took.

“Even their dress code has something in common. Rutare used to dress like that too. He would never go out dressed in the same clothes as the ones he went to work with.

“Rutare had a music collection we didn’t know about, the ones that look like CDs and play on a gramophone.

Even when CDs came around he was among the first people to have a collection. They cost an arm and a leg but he had to have them, he really loved them,” his uncle says. However, many were borrowed by friends and never returned.

Among Rutare’s closest paternal cousins is Jean Marie Vianney Rubayiza, father to Miss Rwanda 2015 first runner-up, Vanessa Raissa Uwase.

A Jack of all trades

Rutare was also an avid basketball player, both in secondary school and at university. He even got to the semi-professional level in Belgium which at some point facilitated his stay.

Once back in 1988, he joined Terror Basketball Club (Inkuba), a team sponsored by National Bank of Rwanda (BNR) then.

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Rutare’s B2G Basketball team before a game. (Courtesy)

He later started another club, B2G, named after his company. He was president of the team and it was mainly sponsored by his company.

However, it went into oblivion after Rutare’s death during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The majority of the team members were recruited by Espoir BBC. Some of his colleagues include Fidel Rutagarama who is still very committed to the game and is president at Espoir and Gerard Ntwari, the Rwandan ambassador to Senegal.

A basketball tournament, the Memorial Gisembe, is held every year in which former Espoir player and coach, Emmanuel Gisembe, Rutare, and other basketballers killed during the Genocide are remembered.

Grandpa nicknamed “Locomotive”

Born in 1924, Gasamagera, Stromae’s grandpa, was a native of Bumbogo, Rulindo District in the Northern Province, his ancestral home.

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Stromae’s grandfather Gabriel Gasamagera. (Courtesy)

He had a hand in the construction of key roads in the country in the 1960s, working with Belgian engineers working under the then Ministry of Public Services (Minitrap), now Ministry of Infrastructure (Mininfra).

He was nick-named “Locomotive” because he was a trailblazer and worked tirelessly. His influence—solely because he was Tutsi—worried government officials who made sure he was confined to his home area, not letting him to move around freely for years.

He was one of the wealthy citizens who contributed to the welfare of Shyorongi. Gasamagera was an intensive farmer and employed as many as 300 labourers to work on his farm a day.

Gasamagera, Rutare and many other family members were killed during the Genocide.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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STROMAE’S SONGS

• Papaoutai (2013)
• Alors On Danse (2010)
• Formidable (2013)
• Tous les memes (2013)
• Quand c’est? (2013)
• Carmen (2013)
• Ta Fête (2013
• Ave Cesaria (2013)
• Bâtard (2013)
• Te Quiero (2010)
• Avf (2013)
• Humain à l’eau (2013)
• House’llelujah (2010)
• Moules frites (2013)
• Peace or Violence (2010)
• Merci (2013)
• Sommeil (2013)
• Bienvenue chez moi (2010)
• Rail de musique (2010)
• Je Cours (2010)
• Meltdown (2014)
• Silence (2010)
• Cheese (2010)
• Dodo (2010)
• Summertime (2010)
• Paproutri (2013)
• Enfants de l’An 2000 (2009)
• Up Saw Liz (2009)
• House’Llujah (2010)

 

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