Odile Gakire Katese is an actor, director and writer by training but also prefers to describe herself as “a cultural entrepreneur by force and professional dreamer by choice.”
A former deputy director at the University of Rwanda’s Centre for Arts and Drama where Gakire served between 2003 and 2010, she studied theatre in Paris at Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and Le Samovar. Performance credits include Shake Hands with the Devil, a Canadian feature directed by Roger Spottis woode.
“As an actress the first question that I was asked was “what do you want to tell the world” and I didn’t think of that, I just wanted to act. I was taught that when you are given a platform you need to have a message to tell the world. I wanted to tell the world that Rwandan women are strong.”
She is the founder of Ingoma Nshya, Women’s Initiatives in Huye, a project born out of artistic activity and curiosity. The project has turned out to be one of the most successful projects and has had a great impact beyond her initial expectation.
It boasts the enviable title of Rwanda’s first ever women’s drumming troupe. To achieve that status, the group had to break from a long-running social custom that forbade women from playing the drum: hence the name, Ingoma Nshya (new drum).
“Drumming has been very successful because it didn’t cost any money. I also like to be challenged because I am more creative when I have many obstacles and it forces me to think differently.”
“The first time that we touched the drums something magical happened: we were thinking that this is forbidden for women but it was so much fun and we didn’t expect the joy that we had. I was doing other activities like theatre, contemporary dance and writing but had never seen women as motivated as they were for drumming. I also know that women fail and its ok to fail but I wanted us to give this a try,” Gakire recalls
Ingoma Nshya is made of ordinary peasant women who have not gone to school, do not know how to read or write their own names and, as Gakire, better known in theater circles as Kiki later puts it. The only thing they had was plenty of time and for four years they were drumming and having fun.
Their motivation being writing a new chapter in the drumming heritage and being mothers of all the female drummers in this country. Drumming eventually became a full time job and the group started generating income and also touring all over the world.
“I liked this story specifically because I worked with women. I did not want us to fail while we were on stage even though failing is okay. Now we are meeting challenges like any other business project such as market, visibility because we want it to be a sustainable job.”
“Over the years, we have created jobs, empowered women and gender equality is happening in the cultural field. In a country where we don’t have to fight for gender equality but nothing about the culture is changing so we feel like we have achieved this,” she says.
In December 2008, Ingoma Nshya, created the country’s unique national festival, the Rwandan Drum Festival (RDF), in partnership with the University Centre for Arts and Drama of the University of Rwanda. The three-day Rwanda Drum festival gathers local drummers and musicians to showcase the country’s rich drumming heritage.
The initiative, apparently, has raised questions, among cultural bodies, about preserving culture, Gakire believes that the cultural aspects in this country should not leave out women.
“We live in a country that is gender sensitive and we deserve a culturethat adapts to the reality. We are revisiting our heritage because we first learned our Rwandan culture in terms of drumming because we know that at a certain point we also have to bring our touch as women.”
“As contemporary Rwandans we have to feed this heritage with our own music, choreographies, making something competitive and being creative and this is when you start being an artist, you understand the language and tools and begin to be creative and it’s important for me that I leave a trace as a citizen because we are the history of tomorrow and also making Ingoma Nshya sustainable so we can have more drummers,” she explains.
Gakire believes that art is a basic need and the group’s first attempt at self-sustainability was the opening of an ice cream parlor, Inzozi Nziza, in Huye. It was also a way of value addition milk, creating fun and happiness for people, and attracting tourists.
Book of life
The artist came to Rwanda in 1997 at the age of 20, and at the time she barely recognised her country. Distance and absence, however, did not inoculate her from the horrors that visited her country in 1994, neither was she immune to the deadly events and their repercussions.
She read a lot of books, traveled through them, became imaginative and became a passionate writer.
She later committed herself to working on many projects related to the commemoration of the genocide as a quest to feel connected with her people and identity.
“Many Rwandans fail to write because they think they need to be intellectual enough to write and many have low self-esteem as regards to writing. You just have to be creative and writing is a wonderful way to express yourself,” she says.
The book of life, a collection of letters written by the living to the dead, which according to her comes to diversify having one voice and bring back the memories of their lost loved ones.
The book for her, is a way of talking about the victims without killing them but holding onto life. Survivors get to share the good and bad moments and restore their humanity that was stolen during the genocide.
“Lots of things have been archived about 1994 which is a personal quest. Our country’s history is written by a few historians, academicians and politicians. This is something beyond myself but one that reaches out to the community and also I feel like it’s an obligation to give a legacy to my kids”
“I am not going to write whole a book myself because it will cost time and money, which I don’t have but gathering a page or two of letters to make a book and encourage Rwandans to write and create a living memory and transmit them to the next generation,” she says.