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Eva Vögtli

Conveying history through storytelling

Interview with Carole Karemera

«In the region of the Great Lakes, the rumour has spread like wildfire: During one dark night, all the lakes have emptied, the rivers no longer flow. What happened? Why has water deserted land and forests?» – Rwanda, along with Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo DRC, is part of the region of the Great Lakes that «Children of Amazi», a play for children, is about. The following conversation took place via Email.

EVA VÖGTLI: You were born in Brussels as the daughter of Rwandan exiles. Later on, you acted in several plays and films that dealt with the genocide in Rwanda, for example in «Rwanda 94» by Marie-France Collard or in Raoul Peck’s film «Sometimes in April». Would you call Rwanda your home?

CAROLA KAREMERA: Today, I can call definitely Rwanda my home. Not only because it is the country of my ancestors, but moreover because it is where my family lives, where I do feel useful and challenged as well. Rwanda is a real laboratory, everything is changing all the time, the cities, the people, and I think as a former refugee I’m quite conformable with the impermanence of things.

Is «Children of Amazi» more about coming to terms with history or about current conflicts?

I think both, and not just for the Great Lakes region. Current events show us that issues around natural resources are at the root of most conflicts: who gets their hands on these resources will ensure their economic growth and even more their power over others. While in the balance, the management and preservation of natural resources has far greater consequences for the future of our humanity. It seems difficult for most humans to make the connection between the two.

The people who live in the region of the Great Lakes are intertwined by language, culture, trade, and family ties. However, because of the conflict-ridden past that destroyed the social and political fabric and led to violent conflict and immeasurable suffering for the people, the region remains divided. Despite peace agreements and elections, it has not yet been possible to consolidate peace and end the hostilities. Does the play also address this issue – the division of society, families and neighbors?

Indeed, we share all this and our future too. The reality is that we cannot survive without each other. Division is not what people really want. That was proven in times of crises like Ebola, Covid or the volcanic eruption: people and authorities show solidarity. We welcome each other, we draw power lines on both sides of the border, we make room in schools, hospitals… The geopolitical situation of the Great Lakes precedes us, and has its origins in the colonial era. Until a thorough historical work is done to know where the roots of these conflicts are which still affect us today, it will be difficult for the generations to come to find a positive way out of this conflict. And beyond the neighborhood, there is also the interference of the political and economic community which regularly links things together instead of participating in their resolution.

How much of your personal history is in the piece – and how important was the exchange with the theater group or with people who may have experienced the same or similar?

I’m made of it, indeed. My grandparents fled Rwanda in 1959 and settled like tens of thousands of Rwandans who found refuge in Burundi. Others fled to the DRC, where other family members lived, like my brother who grew up there. My sisters and my father lived in Rwanda until 1994. This family pattern is unfortunately found in many Great Lakes families.

I come from a family of intellectuals who share a deep love and respect for culture. My parents are both Pan-Africanists and have both always been very politically engaged in their own way, which gave me a taste for wanting to understand politics in Africa and also internationally.

What is certain is that during the work, I met the new generations of Burundians, Congolese and Rwandans and that we discussed a lot about their reality and their daily life, and the new challenges they face. They are unfortunately quite similar and the sad thing is that the youth is sometimes more demoralized than we were before. The good thing is that thanks to this project, new links and networks have been created.

In «Children of Amazi» not only adults are addressed, but also children from the age of 6. Can the play be understood as a political appeal that wants to sensitize the young generation to the issue in order to bring about a change in the future?

Above all, the play is a way to relate the Great Lakes region to the world. It is aimed at everyone, because in our country we do not separate the audience as much as in Europe. For this reason, everyone is happy to participate.

The play «Children of Amazi» is the result of a larger project called «Small Citizens». Over the past five years, we have begun to reflect more deeply on the development and future of arts for young audiences in Rwanda and the sub-region. What kind of works should be created, in what form and with what meaning for future generations? Creating and opening a dialogue with the youngest through art is for me a political act, in general and especially at this time.

The power of imagination is the strongest there is. Having the ability to understand one’s present and envision the future is fundamental and something that no young person anywhere in the world should ever be deprived of.

But the history of the Great Lakes region is complex and tragic. Is it particularly important to find a narrative language that everyone understands, and how do you do that?

It is important to convey history through storytelling because children see what is happening around them and experience the consequences directly. It’s important to put certain realities into words and share the emotions they evoke. I also believe that keeping the youngest ones empathetic towards their fellow human beings is as important as giving them milk or bread. And hope is also an important element to convey.

Should adults more often try to look at issues through the eyes of a child?

Yes, I think adults should create more spaces for dialogue with young people, there is so much to learn. A child’s view of nature, his neighborhood, his city is so rich and a source of so much new knowledge. We can only gain by looking at tomorrow’s world through the eyes of those who will be its main protagonists.

Carole Umulinga Karemera (born 1975) is a Rwandan actress, dancer, saxophone player, playwright and Artistic Director of the Ishyo Arts Centre (Rwanda). «The Children of Amazi» is the result of the initiative «Small Citizens», a co­production of Ishyo Arts Centre in Rwanda and Théâtre du Papyrus in Belgium. The initiative aims to reinvent and implement youthful theatre in East Africa on an intercultural level. «The Children of Amazi» focuses on joint management of crises and the continuing environmental emergency in the African Great Lakes region.