Activist dances from horror of Rwandan genocide to healing
Using dance, poetry, music, drama and storytelling, a Rwandan artist has made it his life’s quest to give the trauma and pain of inhumanity a voice.
"I didn’t choose to be born in this period of genocide, but I was born and I was there and I lived through it," says scholar and activist Théogène Niwenshuti.
"I can choose to be silent or I can choose to do something. To be silent would be a betrayal of the memory of the people who lost their lives — parents, friends, neighbours, my whole nation and the whole of Africa.
"Some of these people lost their lives protecting me so I could stay alive. My father Elie, neighbours and friends like Fideli, Gakwavu, Muzehe, Coleta, Gahire, unknown soldiers and many ordinary people saved my life in various circumstances during genocide … I owe them more than I can repay. I have to tell their stories, honour and remember them," he says.
Niwenshuti was a teenager in April 1994 when his family sought refuge at the Caraes Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital near their home in Kigali. He and his parents, brothers and sisters spent 10 days there hiding from the militia.
For reasons he cannot explain, a soldier ordered that his life be spared and instructed militia to protect him. "I was among the few survivors from that hospital building on April 17 1994," says Niwenshuti.
Today he tries to shed some light on what happened and to help heal the pain.
"Doing this work for healing and peace is a tribute to those who lost their lives and it is a choice I made — to live in a way that is transformative, peaceful and healing for myself and others to ensure that such atrocities and conditions never happen again anywhere in the world."
While he had dreams of being a space scientist or a medical doctor, he always knew that whatever path he chose, it would include the arts. Between 1998 and 1999, he created a youth association called Rugari Universal Family in Rwanda to allow young people to express themselves through the arts and cultural activities.
In an article entitled Über(w)unden — Art in Troubled Times, Niwenshuti writes: "Rugari showed me how art-and culture-based interventions can inspire change in a post-conflict situation. The concept and approach … was very participatory, expressive and based on interpersonal, group communication and performance."
Niwenshuti became fascinated with the concept of inter-generational trauma and voraciously studied the works of psychologists, scholars and practitioners such as Laurie Anne Pearlman, Jean Damascène Ndayambaje, Faustin Rutembesa, Martha Cabrera, Ervin Staub and others.
"Their insights frightened me," he says. "I discovered that psychological trauma is one of the factors that might fuel other atrocities and probably lead to further genocides."
He says thousands of children were badly affected by the genocide, and although the Gacaca courts (a village version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) allowed some truth to come out, sometimes the pain was too much to bear for those affected.
"Some people were made by the militia to kill their own family members, brothers, sisters … and then they were also killed. But some people still managed to run or survive by other unexplainable miracles. How do you deal with that afterwards?"
In the late 2000s he began to work with a mixed dance group comprising the children of perpetrators and survivors. He says dance appeared to liberate and energise the youth.
After discussions with teachers and relatives, Niwenshuti says "we realised this creative environment helped them cope with the difficult emotions that had resulted from the traumatic space in which they had been living".
Most of the children were born after the genocide but seemed as affected as their older relatives. "Dance energised their bodies and provided a release from negative tensions. They seemed to feel less fear, had gained confidence, and had experienced increased self-esteem, trust and a sense that they could be useful to each other and society," he says.
Niwenshuti first came to SA in 2010 to attend a conference hosted by Drama for Life at Wits University and returned in 2011 to study further.
He has played a role in activities and events including his research, cultural groups, seminars, workshops, performances and conferences in Africa and abroad. These include the Great Lakes peace campaign, his interventions at a Health and Dance Seminar in Ireland, and at the Conference on Memory Studies in December 2017 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Niwenshuti is completing a PhD researching memory, trauma, healing and histories of violence and genocide.
He is regularly invited to speak, lecture, perform and host workshops that focus on healing and conflict resolution.
He says while it is all well and good to promote science, technology and business to young people, this cannot be done at the expense of the arts and social sciences.
"We communicate our pain through the arts; we use performance and movement to share these deep stories — we need this kind of communication to share these kinds of experiences, most of which we cannot share in words. But our bodies, our dances, our songs and poetry can help us make sense of senseless stuff," he says.
"By trying to make sense of those ‘non-sense’ things, we can move through them and pass them. I think that is our charge, our burden as young people — can we make better choices than our parents did?"
Creativity connects him to his own humaneness.
"The kind of humanity that is beyond colour of skin, beyond hate, beyond status, beyond class, beyond all regional and geographic borders — I would like to believe in that kind of light in each one of us.