Notes From Rwanda

by Erik Ehn

in Global Connections

(Video of the Centre x Centre Festival 2011)

By Erik Ehn, Playwright, Head of Playwriting, Brown University TAPS Department and recipient of a Global Connections In the Lab grant

Following are some reflections from the recent trip to Rwanda, where TCG was a huge help in funding our third annual Centre x Centre Festival – featuring international performances with a focus on art for social change.

I’ve been traveling to Rwanda and Uganda for the past nine years (past seven with groups of students, faculty, and artists-in-the-field) to learn from survivors, scholars, politicians, and activists who are doing so much to innovate creative ways forward from genocidal trauma.

Constructed narratives helped foment the serial disasters in the region. It is incumbent on culture workers to construct alternative narratives (this per the language of theater director Roberto Varea, who joined us in Rwanda last summer…)

The notes below are from the Soulographie website; Soulographie is a series of 17 plays I’ve written on genocide, opening at La MaMa in November 2012. East Africa (and the US role in the crises) is a central meditation.

7/26/11: Rwanda

 Back at Centre Christus. It’s no hotel, but that’s the point, I guess – to be thrown back to listening, to needing, in a place where – so much happened, and a place that has so much to give. Flew into the airport where – so much happened (Habyarimana’s plane went down – not the start of the genocide by any stretch – it was decades in preparation; but it was the signal for the start of the genocide); now, the jet banks over new red roofs, new silver roofs, the surge in growth with some of the problems attached to new money; the palpable awareness, soon after landing, of the enormous labor it is taking to squeeze this development into being – the giant tasks ahead, to build a country up from colonialism, knitting with a past that was gruesomely violated over the course of a century. The short drive to Christus (a Jesuit residence) past new construction, the immaculate, swept streets, to the small, dorm-like rooms – next to the memorial for the victims of the first mass killings of the genocide (the plane went down and a score of Hutus, Tutsis, men, women, were rounded up as being enemies of the then-state, packed in a room, and blown apart).

So much happened, so much is happening: the cultural foundry; the persistent, repetitive trauma (AIDS, rape orphans, widows, the appetite of the old for the new, issues of communicating across generational lines; deep, lingering political antipathies).

A time, these first few days for visitors to not be where they think they are, to not have what they think they need, to hear and not understand, to listen harder, to not understand even more – even everything… for me, to the extent I’m a facilitator, to do less, and to do less, well… for me to be unwell in the context of – so much happening, turning to a healing which is not the obliteration but the future of a wound.

Wish you were here.

7/27/11: Rwanda

Amina and Johari (young daughters of Laura Edmonson and Robert Ajwang) are traveling with us again this year; haven’t snooped the precisions of age, but they’re both under ten. Johari lost a tooth today to natural causes… She was wiggling it into a bloody tissue while playing in the gardens adjacent to the mass graves at the Gisozi memorial (over 250,000 buried in seven giant concrete cisterns, and – bodies still being discovered). J + A were with their mother Laura and father Robert, who took shifts supervising, and then ducking into the museum. The girls were playing restaurant - serving up pretend food, taking care of customers visible and invisible. When the tooth popped out, the scenario shifted, and possible magical applications for the tooth and the de-toothing process explored (how much would the tooth fairy love you if you lost four teeth at once?).

A memorial is a way of having pretend meals that both require and offer real care/hospitality. A memorial; magical applications for that which is missing.

Butare tomorrow, ramping to Murambi, which by now I very much wish I were never going to visit again.

7/31/11: Murambi

The dead are dynamic. They must be; when we avoid them by accepting any other reading, they are either invisible and unreal (which we know by direct experience is not the case) or they are cartoons (ideologies). What follows is about cartoons.

A comic cartoon encourages fantasies suitable to the state’s use in perpetuating stupor and obedience (I’m trying to get at Tony Bogues’ definition of state fantasy, and failing). A horror cartoon (a skeleton chasing you, a ghost that won’t stop) teaches obedience to stasis – insisting that what we think has changed is actually the same as it ever was, spinning around one immovable issue.

If we will have more than zombie-memory, then memories must be allowed their natural histories, evolving even in ways that hurt or reject or perplex us.

Nostalgia for disaster is a horror cartoon. I feel strongly that on a national level Rwanda is increasing the efficiency of its genocide narrative, and even though this may disappoint nostalgia (a patently colonial nostalgia for a flies-at-the-eyes client state), the way of the story must morph. Rwanda is undertaking massive changes, including developments in the manner of mourning. A tourist mentality (in me) wants the right to return again and again to a situation that really, really needs me – a need I can address with a donation of my own response (the exchange ending with my consolation – arriving at a feeling I’ve ordered up). I would like a pet disaster – but time slips my sanctimony.

The shape of a skeleton should not become a Rwandan logo.

8/3/11: Murambi

Turning a corner. After immersing in the direct human history of the genocide, we spent days encountering systems that emerged in response (juridical, educational, financial, educational), and are now heading into Centre x Centre. The festival originated with a focus on genocide, and has dialed out to include artists allied in a global conversation on peace and social transformation.

Schedule, below –


10am – 12.45pm

  • Busara Group – Dance
  • Fahamu Pan-African Fellows – Art as a tool for social justice

2.10pm – 4pm

  • Bianca Bagatourian – The Story Onion
  • Dudulani Tselane Tambo – Do you see me as I see me?

6pm – 10pm

  • Teatre Albatross – Mary Kinsley
  • Amizero – Black Tears
  • APFB: Financial Autonomy of a Girl
  • Inshoza – Umurage
  • Renana Gal – In the Name of…
  • Theatre Factory – Comedy Night Lights


10am – 12.45pm

  • ITLP – Drama Workshop
  • Boubacar Boris Diop – From Novel to Play

2.10pm – 4pm

  • Deborah Asiimwe – Cooking Oil

6pm – 10pm

  • Agahozo – We Stood Up
  • Art work – Ink Sky Like Sky
  • Troupe Lampyre – Compilation
  • Gia Marotta – Jack & Josee
  • Theatre Factory – Crazy Storms


10am – 12.45pm

  • Gertrude Fester – 20 Years
  • Abdalla Gushayaya – Rwandan Traditional Dance

2.10pm – 4pm

  • Philip Luswata – Laughter as a spark for civic dialogue
  • Erik Ehn and Deborah Asiimwe – Creative Writing

6pm – 10pm

  • UCAD/Ingoma Nshya – Umurutasate
  • Gertrude Fester – The Spirit Cannot be Caged
  • Robert O. Ajwang’ – Ask For It Now
  • Busara Group – Ngwangu
  • Mashirika – Pambazuka

Countries Represented
Burundi, Congo, Israel/Palestine, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Sweden, Tanzania, Uganda, US.

8/5/11: Murambi
[Notes from a panel presentation: fiction and genocide, with Boris Diop.]

I believe that the vanguard of contemporary performance esthetics is searching out the form of the memorial.

Features of memorial writing (covered in an earlier post, a bit refigured here) – it includes: Mourning, memory, the void and the absolute/absolution.

Mourning: The “ordered incomplete” – testimony and information are put in new arrangements with no pretense at the encyclopedic. The account is admittedly broken. We build, but we build a ruin – a house without a corrupt roof and incomplete walls. (The ceiling of Nyamata retains its shrapnel holes and blood stains.) The shape is difficult to read (what were the exact dimensions? What was this room used for?) and impossible to live in for very long.

Memory: The ruins are navigable. Spectators are given room in space and time to structure their own experiences (Soulographie = 17 plays, some played simultaneously – it is impossible to experience the whole sequence as an uninterrupted event. And play by play, the effort is towards a constellar dramaturgy, where the action revolves around a central way of knowing rather than moving towards the outline of a story).

The void: The navigation is known to be hopeless – progress is indeterminate, looping (the big middle of Lear is a model). In Noh terms, a wide ha; each play spends a lot of time breaking.

The absolute/absolution: One can’t finish but one can leave.

Global Connections is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. To learn more about the Global Connections program, click here.

Centre by Centre Festival 2011

Centre by Centre is an annual performance festival dedicated to a global conversation on Arts and Peace. It is a three-day experience featuring workshops, readings, discussions and performances.

Rwanda 2009 Summer Program Report

This is a report about the summer program 2009 co-organized by The Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies and Cal Arts in partnership with several schools and centers. The mission of the program is to testify, to study the Tutsi genocide through rigorous cross-disciplinary scholarship, and to understand various mechanisms and structures of violence with the goal of preventing genocide and mass violence.

(A report about the summer program 2009 co-organized by The Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies and Cal Arts in partnership with several schools and centers)

 Soulographie Blog

Soulographie is a durational performance event looking at 20th century America from the point of view of genocides in the States (the Tulsa Race Riot), in East Africa (Rwanda, Uganda), and Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador). We aim to create channels of dialogue through art and conversation. The cycle will be performed throughout the nation in 2011 and converge at LaMama in NYC in November 2012.

Global Connections is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. To learn more about the Global Connections program, click here.