We are losing Rwandan literary legacy – author

Dorcy Rugamba is an author, actor and playwright better known for his role in the 1999 movie, Rwanda ‘94, an emotionally charged six-hour documentary about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that he co-authored, and in which he casts in different roles. 
Dorcy Rugamba
Dorcy Rugamba

Dorcy Rugamba is an author, actor and playwright better known for his role in the 1999 movie, Rwanda ‘94, an emotionally charged six-hour documentary about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that he co-authored, and in which he casts in different roles. 

Rugamba was recently in the country for the just-concluded Rwanda Book Caravan 2013 (“Caravane du Livre”), the first such event in the country. The book caravan is designed to promote cultural diversity and a national reading culture. The five-day event brought together writers, poets, and illustrators to share their experiences with the public through a series of book fares, poetry sessions, professional workshops and debates in Butare, Muhanga, and Kigali.


Moses Opobo caught up with him.


In a nutshell, who is Dorcy Rugamba?


Professionally speaking, I would use these three words: author, actor, and playwright. Otherwise, I am Rwandan, primarily a theatre artist, more specifically in drama. In terms of writing, I am a playwright but also do other forms of literature.

Why did you honor an invitation to the Book Caravan? 

I was invited by SEMBURA, an association that brings together writers from the Great Lakes region. I thought it was a great idea to participate in this very first “Caravane du livre”, organised by SEMBURA, (Burundi), and Ishyo Arts Centre, (Rwanda), in collaboration with Savoir Plus Faire Plus and Ikirezi Bookstores (Burundi and Rwanda respectively).

Also, my standpoint is that we neither write nor read enough in Rwanda, and belief is that initiatives like these allow culture and reading to be put into a layman’s terms, especially in schools and among the youth. Bringing together writers in this region is a good thing that leads to having more readers and sharing cultural experiences on both sides of the border.

Trace your journey into the arts 

I cannot give you an exact date but believe that it has always been a dream of mine since I was very young. So like many Rwandans, I started with dance, by joining a dance group and remember the very first strong emotion I felt when I was perhaps six years old. I saw a dancer called Sebugegera and thought that he really became a whole new person once he was on stage, almost God-like. I always had that desire in me so I founded my first association that included theatre, dance, and a conference office when I enrolled in university in 1992. 

In 1994 I found myself overseas. At the end of my studies I met several artists, mostly from theatre, and this happened at the same time that I also wanted to start writing. I started writing from that point on and decided I wanted to make a living out of it.

What was your experience at the Book Caravan? 

This was a first for me, but also for the organisers from this region. For me, this was a real eye-opening experience with beautiful surprises. The caravan started in Burundi, a country I do not know, as well as Rwanda. We met a number of people in Bujumbura and Gitega, mostly young people. Burundians and Rwandans share similar topics and throughout history have had people write about the same themes. 

I was therefore able to read during this Caravan the first novel written by a Burundian author, which is very interesting. I also discovered that I knew absolutely nothing about what was being written on the other side of the border. It is as if there is a virtual wall that we cannot explain. How is it that we do not know about, or do not read about what is happening in a country that is so close to us?

Similarly, every person I met in Burundi did not know Rwandan writers or about literary movements from our side of the border. This is where we see the fundamental importance of the caravan.

Secondly, even though it is publicly recognised that people do not read enough in our countries, there is an interest, a real one on the part of the youth, and people in general. I took part in two weekly ‘Cafés Littéraires’ in Bujumbura, and those were filled with people of different ages and social backgrounds, who discussed literature and those were genuine, intellectually exciting moments. 

In Rwanda, we also met a similarly young population in schools, and again noticed that they also are not aware of the work we do but also what is happening in Burundi. I also greatly appreciated having present with us, the Congolese (DRC) writer Dominique Mwankumi, and admired his ability and talent of speaking to children. Overall, it is a really positive experience that I hope will happen several times while bringing together more writers from this region and other places. 

What do you find inspiring about the Rwandan literary scene? What ought to change?

Rwanda is a country with a very long background in literature, especially if one considers what was also not written, as I tend to think of poets living before the colonial period as writers as well. Thankfully, we have proof of what was created through the work of Alexis Kagame, who transcribed it on paper so we can see what was done before us. However, we notice that we are losing the memory of that literature because people do not read. We cannot find in our libraries, in people’s homes, or in bookstores the books of the early Rwandan writers that gave our country its literary legacy. 

It would be beneficial to gain back that memory by sharing our legacy, then find ways to respond to the expectations of our contemporary writers. Of course there are great experiences like the one of Scholastique Mukasonga who won the prestigious literary prize ‘Renaudot’, and whose writing brings a new light onto the Rwandan paradigms, the way we see ourselves and our lives. This is also what we have to share: acknowledge that there are writers and find ways to put information in layman’s terms, in schools, newspapers, etc. The other wish is to have a publishing house for adult readers.

Any projects you are working on at the moment? 

My next project is writing a medical TV show since I’ve wanted to work on something lighter for a while now. There is also the direction, in English, of my own play Gamblers, which talks about the oil industry. Starting in March, I will be acting in a play at the National Theatre. I will also be in a movie, led by two Belgian female directors, which will begin shooting in June. 

What are some of the books/literary works that have impacted your life the most?

To me it is mostly about writers, for example, Aimé Césaire’, that I have read several times and always leaves me seeing things differently. In terms of Rwandans, there is Alexis Kagame whose body of work is impressive, and Rugamba, my father. For the rest of Africa, there is Yambo Ouologuem who, in my eyes, wrote the most amazing book I have ever read, Bound to violence (original title, Le devoir de violence), but for some reasons never wrote anything else again.

There are also conscious writers, like Frantz Fanon. In theatre, there is Shakespeare that everyone loves. For women writers, I would say Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras.


Who is Dorcy Rugamba?

Born in 1969 to a family of artistes, Dorcy Rugamba is an author, actor and playwright better known for his role in the 1999 movie, Rwanda ‘94, an emotionally charged, six-hour documentary about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi that he co-authored, and in which he casts in different roles.

Rwanda ’94’s 40-member cast was to go on and tour extensively for the next four years (France, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Canada, and the Caribbean), winning a string of awards in its wake. In 2004, the entire cast of Rwanda 94 returned home for the film’s first local premiere. 

His father, Cyprien Rugamba was a prominent writer, choreographer, composer, and founder and artistic director of the Amasimbi n'Amakombe Ballet Company. Rugamba Snr’s artistic reign lasted till April 1994, when he was brutally murdered alongside his wife and six children at the onset of the Genocide against Tutsi.

Fleeing from Rwanda during the Genocide, he ended up in Paris, France, and eventually Brussels, where he attended the Department of Dramatic Arts at the Conservatoire Royal du Musique de Liege. The school would soon turn out to be his new family, for a boy that had grown up in his late father’s performing arts company. 

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