At 33 years of age, Celestin Ntawirema is a proud juggler of many talents and passions; he is a singer and dancer, a poet, painter, an events organiser, photographer and filmmaker, cultural tourism and fashion entrepreneur, to mention but a few.
But of all these callings, none appeals to his sentimental side than singing and dancing. To him, this is the best way to express and explore his cultural side. As a dancer, he specializes in the Itorero and Intore traditional dance forms.
Today, he is actually a member of Urukerereza, the Rwanda national ballet, which he joined in 2004. His first assignment was that years FESPAD festival of music and dance in Kigali. However, that first time he did not dance because there were very many dancers and he ended up singing instead.
Started on the street
The reason Ntawirema is so passionate about music and dance has got everything to do with a particularly dark phase in his life.
He was just ten years old and in primary four when the Genocide occurred in 1994, having relocated to Kigali two years earlier.
He describes that year as “a very hard moment for Rwandans and for myself”.
“I had a Tusti mother and a Hutu father so I saw first-hand the challenges at that time much as I was a very young boy. At school there was segregation and all sorts of punishment against Tutsi children. I lost both my parents in the Genocide.”
All of a sudden he was left alone in the world, with just one sibling, his elder sister.
Two years after the Genocide against the Tutsi, Ntawirema found himself on the streets, alone and frightened:
“Street life is when you sleep on the street, eat from the street, meet friends on the street, steal, sometimes we would even hurt people to get something to eat.” He explains:
“That time the country was a mess because there were many refugees pouring into the country and most of them had nowhere to call home.That time street kids were very dangerous because first of all there was the history from the genocide, so it was all about finding survival.”
He spent four years on the streets of Kigali, a most challenging phase in his life.
“On the streets you can die anytime because of a number of reasons; you have no security when you’re sleeping on the street but also your health security is at risk. You can eat poison or acid anytime and die because once you’re hungry you will look for anything in the dustbin to eat. Nobody cares for you. When you’re on the street you are the mum, the dad, sister, brother, teacher, advisor, doctor … you are everything for yourself,” he says.
Getting off the street
While on the streets, he was lucky to meet Danie Roberson, a volunteer from Switzerland.
In 1998, Roberson founded the Centre Presbytérien d’Amour des Jeunes (CPAJ) (Presbyterian Center of Love for the Youth) through the Rwanda Presbyterian Church (EPR).
With the help of UNICEF and the Rwandan Government, he was admitted into the center in 1999 and moved out of the streets. It is in this center that he started gaining back his lost hope.
“I am a former street child who received a hand up and I am now ready to share my story to inspire others,” he says with determination.
After acquiring some on-job training, he was hired by a Canadian NGO in Kigali as their arts coordinator.
Still, he reveals that getting off the streets was no easy affair.
“The former mayor of Kigali Rosa Kabuye did a big operation in which all the street kids were rounded off the streets of Kigali.
They took us to Nyamirambo regional stadium. That time there were people who were beginning to build street kids centers. We were told that we would be released on condition that we would enroll in street kids centers. They gave us a long list of them from which to choose.”
Four months after joining the street kids center Ntawirema was offered an opportunity to resume school together with other street kids:
“I grabbed that opportunity immediately and enrolled in primary five at Nyanza Primary School.
I was a very bright student and eager to learn. The first term I was second in class, the second and third terms I was the first and up to P6 I was always the first in class.
He completed his A-Levels from Lycée Kicukiro de Apade, where he studied Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Geography.
After high school he didn’t go to university because of financial challenges, settling instead for different courses and workshops.
“I attended a six months filmmaking and photography course at the Kwetu Film Institute which I must add was a very special course but also expensive because you are supposed to set aside between Rw f 2-5m to finish that course.”
It is while at the street kids center that a young Ntawirema’s musical horizons would be opened:
“When I moved from the street to the street kids center, to change our minds and give us entertainment they brought us traditional dancers from the Batwa community to teach us to sing and dance.
That is how I was introduced to Rwandan folk music and dance. I remember I used to ask my sister if there is anybody in our family who was a great musician because I just loved music so much. To pay for my high school I actually got the money through dancing and singing Intore and Itorero.
Founding IRIS PRO Films
In 2012, he founded his own film production company, IRIS PRO Films, with the express objective of doing photography and documentary films, as opposed to cinematic films.
“Six months later I realized that in order to improve my photography skills I needed to venture into modeling photography and it was a success. After a short while I had an extensive portfolio of runway models to work with, but then I asked myself, what next after photographing these models?”
That question gave rise to the idea for the Rwanda Cultural Fashion Show, also his brainchild.
“The idea was to engage the models I was already working with by opening more avenues for them to showcase their talents and beauty. It’s a forum for local and international cultural fashion designers to showcase their designs. It’s unique in that it features designs from a cross-section of cultures from across the globe.
Since its inception in 2013, the Rwanda Cultural Fashion Show has worked with designers from Uganda, the DRC, Kenya, Ghana, India, US, Tanzania, and Burundi, among others.
The first edition took place at Sports View Hotel in Remera, and the following year, 2014, it moved to Petit Stade, while last year the event was staged at the Hotel des Mille Collines.
This year’s event is slated for September 24th, at a yet undisclosed venue.
As a fashion entrepreneur and broker, Ntawirema has invested time, energy and effort in honing his skills:
“I’ve attended different workshops on fashion all over the world. I attended the Hong Kong Fashion Week and Singapore Fashion Weeks last year, and the Dubai Fashion Week in 2014. At the Singapore Fashion Week I also did an internship on event management and how to manage fashion events.
Currently he is organizing an event called the Cultural Tourism Week to coincide with this year’s gorilla naming ceremony slated for September 1st at Red Rocks Intercultural Exchange Center in Musanze.
There will be a Cultural Fashion Show featuring strictly Rwandan cultural styles.