Some call it universe, I call it theatre | Carole Umulinga Karemera

It is 5.20 am.
This is the time I usually wake up, even on Sundays.
I get out of bed, put on my sports clothes and get out quietly, to avoid waking up anyone.
I walk towards the rising sun and start to run towards it.
I wait until the day reveals itself and the tone or the colour of the day is given to me…

It’s a ritual, I love rituals. From my earliest childhood on. Since the traditional evenings, the artists’ shows in the refugee camps…

That summer, I was at my grandmother’s and my friend’s in Kigali. More precisely in Remera.
The neighbourhood is calm and warm. People are nice, and whatever mood you get up in the morning, your smile catches up with you, because so many greetings, good day wishes and other pleasantries are sown along your path before arriving at the top of the hill.

That morning, the smell of the surrounding kitchen is so strong that it stops me from running.
I’m looking for the scent of the gaze, which is absurd, you will agree, and I realise that it emanates from the neighbouring house.

Internally, I vociferated against the housewife who dares to prepare red beans and cassava leaves so early in the morning.

I come back home quite mad, I take a shower and swallow my fruit with no real appetite.

The next day, the same scent greets me out of the house.
I choose not to let my morning peace be disturbed and head for the next house.

I push the gate and from a distance I see the silhouette of Suzanne, our neighbour.
I know that she lives alone now, that her husband and children have been killed during the genocide.

At the sight of the large pots placed on the fire made of makara, she prepares at least three or four dishes.
It is Tuesday. What special event would justify cooking for several days and so early in the morning?

I try a “Mwaramutse?” (Literally: Did you survive the night?) She turns to me and smiles at me: “Yego” (Yes), she says to me.
“Ufite abashyitsi?” (Do you have guests?)
“Oya” (No), she answers me.
“Who are you cooking for then?” I retorted.
“For the prisoner…”
And there, I tried to contain myself. I was trying to remember the circumstances of the death of her children and her husband, the story about the trial that was told to me by almost all the neighbours, the sentence…

Who could she be referring to?

“Ninde?” (Who?)
“The one who took my children’s lives.”
Without a look or an ounce of emotion in her voice.
I sat on the small wall of the house, the strength to run after what or whoever had just left me…

I laugh nervously and whisper, “Are you going to poison him?”
“No, this boy is alone. He is lost. He needs someone to take care of him. ” “And do you really think this person is you?”
“ Yes. Well, I believe…”
She stands up, gently wipes her hands on her loincloth and says: “I refuse to allow my love for my children to die with them. And I think the one who needs it the most is him.”

I don’t remember if I told her or if I only thought it very loudly: she lost her mind!

When I got home, I told my grandmother about my adventures.
She didn’t even wink.
She did not judge or admire her.
“Leave it,” she said to me, “this is beyond what we can understand.”
This woman’s actions and all the questions I’ve raised around me created a mess in the neighbourhood.
Everyone was against her but all for different reasons.
At some point, the young prisoner got seriously ill. Suzanne was immediately imprisoned, suspected of having attempted to take his life.
Released because of his reclaimed health, the young prisoner washed Suzanne of all suspicion after which she was able to return home.

Two weeks later, an ambulance arrived in front of Suzanne’s house. It was the young prisoner. He begged her to welcome him, offered her to be her hands, shoulders and arms to help her cultivate and do whatever she would need him to do.
She welcomed him.
She welcomed him.

24 years later, I still don’t understand her act.
24 years later, I think she did it for all of us, more than for herself or even her own children.
24 years later, I’m still looking for ways to recompose this fragmented humanity, brutalised for centuries.

How to challenge this shared experience and memory deeply buried within each of us?
How to echo, in the elusive and real experience that theatre is, our little stories strongly intertwined with history?
How to heal our wounds by taking a step towards each other every day, to tell in words, in music or in movement: I am sorry, I feel you, I understand you, because you are my sister or my brother in humanity.

As a theatre artist, bear with me, I can never bring myself to a deaf, silent world. Not only where words will have ceased to be told or heard, but where souls will have ceased to echo from each other.
I truly believe that, without the breath of the other, one cannot breathe or move. I believe that each and every one of the living beings that compose our planet is a piece of a whole which misses the others enormously. And to fill this void, we need a very strong energy, which would push one towards the other so that we can feel temporarily less alone and more complete. This energy, some people called it the universe, God, love…
For me, I find it in this incredible art form that some call: theatre.

For me theatre is a promise to take you on my back, when the fatigue or grief will be too heavy. Theatre is a promise to scream your pain and your desire to exist as any free being. Theatre is a promise to remain silent to escape from the dissonance and cacophony of this world. Theatre is a promise to those who will be born after us, that we have tried everything to make this world more habitable.

Carole Umulinga Karemera is a Rwandan musician, actress, director and cultural policy expert. In 2007, she founded the Ishyo Arts Centre together with eight other women, with the main objective to make culture available for everyone. Currently she is the executive and artistic director.