In just 100 days, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people were slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The Rwandan Civil War had been taking place since October 1990, but with the signing of peace accords in August 1993, it was hoped that the bloodshed would be brought to an end. Then, on April 6, 1994, an aircraft carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down with surface-to-air missiles as it prepared to land in the nation’s capital.
Within hours, the country’s dominant Hutu ethnic group began slaughtering the Tutsi minority, as well as some moderate Hutus who opposed the violence. The West did little to intervene. As the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front took power, some 2 million refugees fled to encampments in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo and other neighboring countries. Paul Kagame, the Rwandese Patriotic Front’s leader, remains the country’s president to this day.
Odile “Kiki” Gakire Katese, a Rwandan born in exile in Congo, isn’t interested in reliving this violence; she wants to commemorate how the victims lived.
In her show “The Book of Life,” which comes to the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts on Saturday, Katese uses letters and the backing of music performed by the Women Drummers of Rwanda to celebrate life in the aftermath of incalculable loss.
“‘The Book of Life’ is an attempt to archive life,” explains Katese, reached by phone last week. “It’s made of letters written by the living to the dead in an attempt to capture some of their lives before they vanish.”
Born in exile, Katese says the letters came about as a way for her to forge her own connection with Rwanda and the trauma it experienced beyond the hundreds of formal and informal memorial sites around the country.
“When I came back, I was 20 years old. It was 1996, and I felt that I was more Congolese than Rwandan, and I didn’t necessarily like this country that was broken,” she says. “I didn’t necessarily like what I was finding in the memorial sites, because I was feeling that we failed as human beings.”
The letters explore different viewpoints of the conflict.
“Through the letters, the perpetrators had the chance to ask for forgiveness directly to the victims, the people they killed,” she says. “The widows and orphans, they got the chance to say goodbye, to say ‘I love you.’”
Originally, Katese wanted to publish the letters as a book, but eventually created a theatrical show in collaboration between her own Rwanda-based Woman Cultural Centre and Toronto-based Volcano Theatre. In the show, the Women Drummers of Rwanda perform songs written by Rwandan artists in the spirit of the letters.
Instead of pointing fingers, “The Book of Life” aims for healing and empathy through recounting the lives of the dead.
“The duty of memory is keeping them alive, and the soul will somehow find a balance between their death and their lives,” she says. “I understand the need to talk about how they died, to talk about the genocide so that it doesn’t happen again, but I think that we are not necessarily doing them justice if we’re only doing that.”
The show was first presented in Rwanda and Toronto in 2019 before the pandemic hit. Since then, it has been performed at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta before coming to Virginia.
Asked how audiences in Rwanda received the show, Katese says it served as a way for new generations to relate to their country’s past.
“They left the show realizing that, in fact, they don’t know much about their families, because it’s a difficult subject that has become taboo,” she says. “Parents or family [members] who went through the genocide, they don’t necessarily talk about it, because it’s painful, and there is trauma there.”
Volcano Theatre’s “The Book of Life,” will be performed on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts, 453 Westhampton Way, 23173. For more information, visit modlin.richmond.edu or call (804) 289-8980.