The opening stanza of Sammy Asiimwe’s poem perfectly captures the mood of its title, Ode to Motherland.
Cloudburst of bullets
“Millions of innocent quenched machetes
Streams of blood drained our land
Acrid scent covered heavens
Vultures and Reynard fed
The world turned a blind eye
The days were filled with ichor
And nights short to the hunted
They said love is the way and answer
But look how they treated us
Made us believers and we
Slew each other furiously
Brushing aside our brotherhood
What was a family became a ruin”
No wonder Asiimwe was the first poet on stage at this month’s Spoken Word Rwanda event, held at the Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM) in Gisozi on Wednesday night.
Symbolically, the gathering was housed in one of the learning rooms overlooking the outdoor amphitheater at the memorial. The room is named ubutwari (courage).
Dieudonné Nagiriwubuntu, the Publics Relations Officer of the Kigali Genocide Memorial remarked that part of the motivation for hosting such an event was the need to honor the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to save lives and end the genocide, many of who paid the ultimate price.
Spoken Word Rwanda takes place on the last Wednesday of the month at a pop-up venue around Kigali.
This month’s event was dubbed Spoken Word Rwanda Kwibuka23, in memory of those that perished in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. It was the second time the spoken word forum was being staged at the memorial after its debut at the venue last year.
This was one of the more intimate performances as is always the case whenever it’s a special edition. Last year’s forum was also a special edition, a celebration of womanhood in the spirit of International Women’s Day which falls in the month of March.
Asiimwe wrote Ode To Motherland for the 21st genocide commemoration anniversary in 2015. He has since consistently performed it at various spoken word and poetry forums across town.
The 23 year old is a student of Business and Information Technology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, (JKUAT), in Kigali. Like Ode To Motherland, most of his poems tackle weighty moral/societal issues aimed at transforming society;
“We now remember to keep
Alive memories of genocide
To teach our selves
Our children and
Children after them
Not judge each other by
Their ethnicity, height
Or shape of nose”, he further appealed in the poem.
Asiimwe was followed by about a dozen more acts on stage. By the time all were done, we had heard more moving poems about the genocide, and about other human catastrophes; through the poet’s words, we had also traversed the globe, from Rwanda to South Africa to the Garissa University College attack in Kenya, in which armed terrorists linked to the Al-Shabaab terrorist group killed over 150 people in April 2015.
Shasha, a Kenyan poetess revealed that she had lost all her buddies in the attack.
The day’s MCs, Junior and Fiona Kamikazi did a splendid job in encouraging members of the audience to take to the stage if and when inspired. In the end, it was a fair mix of both established poets and performers, and ordinary persons with a story to share.
Candles had been placed on every seat, and at approximately 9:00 pm the MCs asked the audience to each pick up a candle, with which they trekked outdoors and converged at the foot of the commemoration flame, which is lit every April 7th at the beginning of the official commemoration period. The flame then burns continuously for the next 100 days, to symbolize the duration of the genocide.
Here, a minute of silence was observed in honor of victims of the genocide. Soon after, the candles were blown out and people returned to the performance.
Initially it was hard for people to know how to conduct themselves at the event. Ordinarily Spoken Word is a fun gathering that’s characterized by laughter, eating, drinking, and generally socializing.
But with this month’s theme of Kwibuka23, it took the intervention and reassurance of the day’s MCs to get the crowd to loosen up a bit. The two MCs kept reminding us that this wasn’t just about remembering the dead, but also recognizing and celebrating the progress made, twenty three years later.
Fiona Kamikazi actually took time off from her MC-ing role to present a short piece titled ‘Uzaba umugabo,’ which had the effect of encouraging more people from the crowd to hit the stage.
As usual, the event focuses not only on literary but also cultural expression. Poet Tuyisenge Olivier was a good example. He hit the stage clad in traditional Rwandan garb – the umukenyero, flanked by a Kamanzi on a long drum, and another guy on guitar.
Kamanzi would later return to stage, this time for his own solo performance. After clarifying he wasn’t a poet but a drummer and dancer, he presented a short theater piece titled quest to the cure that looked at the genocide through the eyes of a youth.
One of the most moving performances of the night was by Bruce Intwari, who read a lengthy but poignant letter that he penned in memory of the eighty three relatives he lost during the genocide. He followed this with a poem.