Some people have lamented the absence of a lively cultural life in Rwanda. They say whatever little there is is unvaried and unexciting. Where is Rwandan theatre, they ask. Where are the plays, actors and actresses, producers and directors? What about artists and art galleries? And the poets and novelists, where are they?
Valid points, you might say. But only partially. Actually, the creative arts scene in Rwanda is vibrant but gets little attention perhaps because the visibility of the arts is still rather low.
You only have to visit Ishyo Arts Centre in Kacyiru to taste the best in contemporary theatre from Rwanda and beyond.
You have to see the works of Epa Binamungu and fellow painters and sculptors to experience the force of the creative spirit of the nation.
The growing number of Rwandans in fashion and design that will soon be competing with some of the more established fashion houses in the region is further evidence of this growing creative impulse.
And then, of course, there is the better known music and dance, both in their traditional and contemporary forms, and as a blend of both. A very exciting experiment involving the adaptation and mix of other African music and dance movements with Kinyarwanda forms is taking place, and proving to be very entertaining, especially to the young, much to the chagrin of the purists.
Another genre, comedy – stand-up comedy to be precise - is now beginning to take root in Rwanda and demanding attention.
Comedy is not exactly new to Rwanda. Jesters at the king’s court and those of lesser notables were a common feature of life at court. They made people laugh with witty, funny and often irreverent jibes at the powerful, some of whom were present.
The comedians then as now served a number of useful functions.
They provided a rather accurate social and political commentary of the times. Occasionally they warned individuals of impending problems with their peers or superiors.
Life at court was a test in endurance and patience and exacted a heavy toll. The people suffered fatigue and hunger as they waited long to pay tribute to the king or request favours. The comedians’ jokes offered some relief from this testing situation.
In Rwanda the modern variety started with mimicking public figures. People laughed and loved it. But it did not quite catch on. Perhaps Rwanda’s public figures are much too serious to lend themselves easily to comic representation. Or they don’t like it. Or there aren’t many of them to be lampooned. Maybe we are a very reverent people – certainly in public.
Now a new kind of comedy is catching on. It is not simply buffoonery. It is serious business, earning practitioners good money and fame. Admittedly, we are behind our neighbours Uganda and Kenya in stand-up comedy.
For instance, Ugandans have their Anne Kansiime who regales her audiences with heavily Rukiga-accented jokes. Audiences laugh with abandon or unease because they recognise themselves, their neighbours, employers and even partners in her sketches.
Rwanda now has its own stand-up comedian. Arthur Nkusi has been strutting his stuff on stage and leaving his audiences with aching ribs. And he is going places. Watching him perform or doing a TV interview, you can’t help but notice he is talented. He is funny and intelligent. He is supremely confident and serious about what he is doing. And above all he is very entertaining and loves what he does.
He is not alone. There are other comedians like Ronnie Nsengiyumva.
Non-Rwandans sometimes say we are much too serious. We don’t laugh. We don’t go on the streets with stones and break things. We don’t shout insults and obscenities at people we don’t like. In short, we are not very expressive or if we are, severely inhibited by some invisible but ever present force.
It is all a misconception of course. Well, at least Nkusi makes us laugh. Even Kansiime’s Rukiga English jokes do. Rwandans have a sense of humour, but it is more the subtle, refined sort, not the loud or boisterous type. Sometimes you have to be Rwandan to appreciate it fully.
Like all good comedy, Nkusi’s performance is a commentary on our society. He gives us the opportunity to look and laugh at ourselves – at our individual and collective pettiness and other foibles.
He is taking his comedy act outside Rwanda, in the region and beyond. It is an opportunity for others to have a taste of Rwandan humour. It should be a useful cultural export, too, that earns Nkusi money, some of which will end up in the Exchequer, and also good for the image of Rwanda. Not bad. Not bad at all.