Recently, I was having tea with a friend, talking about Rwanda’s fledgling theatre and arts industry, and then I realized that we have no national theatre.
Washington D.C is refreshingly lovely without those sun-obstructing structures. Besides, construction of such buildings didn’t happen overnight but over decades to dot the major cities they are in today.
However, it is another thing to not have a national theatre. One can arguably state that this is akin to having a well organized, efficiently-humming city without a park. Or making a tea-kettle without a handle, as my sister thinks.
Or forgetting to put in the monkey bars in a kindergarten play ground. And trust me, all kindergartens need monkey bars.
So, how come we have no national theatre? I know for sure it isn’t because of a lack of performance actors and artists, or the lack of demand for such events. On the contrary, the few artistic initiatives peppered across the country show that there is need for artistic and literary self-expression and edutainment.
I put it down to two possible reasons. The first is having more pressing issues other than the arts and theatre. Completely devastated by the events of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, Rwandan leaders had to respond to priorities that involved security, health, food, unity and reconciliation, education, infrastructure and a hundred more issues – all with the same level of urgency. Today, this is a feat the world is still astounded by.
How a tiny African nation recovered from one of the worst human catastrophes in less than two decades is, well… astounding. In those seventeen years, we’ve had time to develop areas necessary for the transformation we see today.
Seventeen years later, I think it’s time we started seriously thinking about the construction of a national theatre – a place where all Rwandans can tell their stories and be encouraged to share and tell their stories from.
National theatres are like landmarks; national landmarks that act as a platform for national self-expression, healing, humour and importantly, the exploration of talent. Undoubtedly, they are also a sign of national development.
The second reason, and I stand to be corrected, is a weak culture of writing and reading. For plays to be acted, there need to be written scripts. For poems to exist, they must be written, or the author inspired by other poems read. The very foundation on which the arts and theatre industry rests, is on a culture of reading and writing.
Unlike other societies, Rwanda has relied on oral traditional literature longer than other African countries, which took up written literature before we did. Simply look at West Africa, a region that had its first prolific writers early in the 20th Century with writers such as David Mandessi Diop, Leopold Senghor and Wole Soyinka among others.
Today, there is a growing promotion of a reading and writing culture country-wide. I like to think that the long-term effect of this will be a burst of writers and actors who will definitely need a platform that brings together their work – a platform in the form of a national theatre.
Or perhaps the construction of a national theatre will promote the very culture that forms it in the first place. Almost like the chicken and egg question, isn’t it?
There are numerous reasons as to why Rwanda doesn’t have a national theatre. The important question is whether Rwandans can come together – government, individuals who are lovers of the arts and theatre and civil society, to change this landscape.
Our intricate history shows us that we have hundreds of stories to tell, and it is only fitting that a national theatre exists to facilitate this.