Although well-travelled across the African continent, Herve Kimenyi’s first encounter with Europe came in November last year, when he was cast in different plays in the cities of Munich and Berlin alongside fellow comedian Michael Sengazi.
And the comedian/actor still holds mixed sentiments about that particular tour: “On one hand, we were going in for something new: experimental theatre, which I’d watched before, but I never saw myself doing it,” he says, adding: “Germany has a very rich theatre culture. In Berlin alone, there is a performance on every block at any time. There is always someone somewhere doing a live performance.”
Much as the trip was a learning experience in that regard, there were other bitter lessons that awaited the comedian, and here he spares no kind words for the strains that come with international travel: “It (travelling abroad) is always the same experience. The first humiliating thing is the visa part; the fact that you have to ask for one to travel to Europe.”
“To get a European Visa, you pay 60 Euros just for your file to be read, and this fee is non-refundable. In fact, travelling is not a human right. Foreign immigration officials have the right to deny you entry to your destination.
You need an invitation letter, insurance policy, physical address of where you will be staying, and to prove that you can spend at least 60 Euros a day. They also ask for your banking history for the past three months, flight reservations, and a letter from the person that invited you.”
Then, in hind sight he says: “Actually it’s not people who are acting like that. It’s systems!”
“When you get a Visa, they tell you congratulations, as if you’re graduating from university! In Europe, I found people who didn’t know where Rwanda is, people who can’t place most African countries on the map. So as a people, we get wrong information about each other. For the first time in my life I was a minority, and it was not nice. People were looking at me as an African first and foremost.”
A brief chat with the rail-thin comedian quickly reveals a man endowed with a critical, questioning, and somewhat stubborn mind. He is a man who speaks his mind and he has strong opinions on almost everything.
Unknown to many of his fans, Herve is a law school drop-out –although by choice.
“I did very well in my A-Levels, and got a scholarship at the National University of Rwanda. I had applied for journalism but I didn’t qualify,” he says.
Left with three options (ICT, Law, and Medical School), he settled for Law.
“I chose a university faculty because of a trial movie I watched. It was called Philadelphia, a 1998 movie that featured Denzel Washington, Tom Hunks, and Antonio Banderas. I thought I would learn to be a criminal lawyer right away, but God, it (Law School) was so boring! I spent only a year in Law School,” Kimenyi adds.
Abhors formal education
He has no kind words for the formal education set up: “My understanding is that the work of a university is to train people, not package them. Under our education system, people think creativity is a luxury. It’s not. We become artistes because we have understood everything else. Every time we force our children to be doctors, lawyers and engineers, we are killing great future artistes.”
“One of my favourite quotes says educating a child is like lighting a fire, not filling a bucket. Knowledge is not property. It’s a vibe. It’s not static. It is dynamic and changes every time. What you knew yesterday is not what you know today or will know tomorrow.”
After quitting Law School, Kimenyi worked briefly as a mobile DJ, and later at Contact FM on an afternoon music slot.
“Then this project came up at Ishyo Arts Centre, where we would go with a moving library full of books to schools and perform for students. At day, we would be in schools, and at night we would go in bars to perform for parents.”
A stint in insurance business
“At a time when the project was having financial challenges, I met a Belgian guy who told me he was into the insurance business. He was looking for a regional director for a local call centre, and offered me the job. We were selling Belgian insurance policies to people in Belgium from our regional offices in Kigali. I managed a team of call centre client hunters who called potential clients in Belgium for insurance cover,” Kimenyi said.
“I told my boss that his business of client hunting was like theatre in that he had a script for it. As actors we convince people by looking and sounding convincing. I offered to give the agents basic theatre training, voice projection, how to sound comforting, stress management, and improvisation.”
After one year, Kimenyi was bored and resigned the job. “I didn’t like the fact that I was lying to people everyday.
The comedian life
Kimenyi describes his brand of comedy as observational; “to pin point, laugh, but eventually learn something. My biggest fantasy is to kind of put people together so they can talk. The magic of theater is that you see or hear something and want to run and share it with other people. When I crack a joke in Kinyarwanda, there’s the first phase of laughter, then people start explaining and sharing the joke, then the second and third wave of laughing follows. That kind of thing,” Kimethi explains.
He believes the work of a comedian is to “say things outside an institution, because our institutions are too formal. The work of a comedian is to demystify so called realities and unchangeable facts. Nothing stays the way it is. The people who get others stuck are those who say: “as it was in the beginning so shall it be in the end.”
What 2014 holds:
“Comedy Knights will have a tour of Kampala and Burundi in April, while in May, Sengazi and I will be back in Berlin and five other German cities for casting of “Black Thought Now”. In May, we have s show in Brussels for Comedy Knights,” he concludes.