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Hope thrives in Rwanda

Hope Azeda and her Mashirika Company are using contemporary performance to help change perceptions o

The Tutsi Genocide of 1994 was a comprehensive event. It saw global complicity. But internally, uniquely Rwandan principles of organisation pulled together, though politics, economics, religion, historical preparation, pedagogy - every aspect of culture - to a whole and wicked purpose.

Likewise, evolution beyond the genocide is deeply and enthrallingly Rwandan. The recovery (I was advised by one economist on a recent trip that "one cannot say we're rebuilding; we're building") involves world co-operation and invites wide wonder. Its soul is original and particular to the needs and gifts of the country.

In theatre, several impulses are operating in unison. There is a longstanding tradition of dance, drumming and story-telling. History was so aggressively ethnically identified, divided, and repressed by the colonial and post-colonial process, that the work of rehabilitating and reanimating the traditions is complex and labour-intensive.

As with so much else though, this process is underway, and traditional performance is being integrated into the contemporary discourse, open to modern influence and frequently employed in commemoration and healing.

Exiles and immigrants are bringing in the latest experiments in dance and script based dramas. These are often works about Rwanda, with reference to lore; to the genocide; sometimes linking the two. Frequently gorgeous and intense, Odile Katese's Des Espoirs is an example of work that bridges the local and the European. Isoko's production of The Monument, directed by Jennifer Capraru represents depth of a similar kind.

But perhaps most exciting is the growth of an eclectic, home-grown practice: cross-disciplinary, image based, both practical and impossible. This work is embodied by Hope Azeda, the guiding spirit behind the Mashirika Company. She is everywhere at once – full of energy and in perpetual motion, boosting the profile of contemporary Rwandan performance as she travels the world.

Her projects will often be designed to a purpose – to anchor a memorial or reconciliation event, to keynote a performance, to carry a public health message into the schools. Concrete objectives serve as (more than) excuse for artistic experimentation.

But each of her many projects is distinguished by an abundance of delight. It would not be possible to convey information, or to advertise mindful memory, without employing such abundant and novel imagery. I recently saw a piece she was preparing for a meeting of finance ministers. It featured a surreal loaf of bread and topical comedy based on inflation rates - played out through dancing, singing and acting. The children in her rehearsal were treated with the same respect as seasoned performers.

Hope is gifted as a director, teacher, performer, writer, not to mention casting agent - a role which means she seems to know every actor in Rwanda and Uganda. She grew up in exile in Uganda, training at Makerere University in Kampala. She is absolutely representative of the new Rwanda.

There are few proper stages in Kigali, although this seems to be changing, slowly. There is much work to do in terms of building physical infrastructure, building the economy, improving public health, and advancing towards a civil, free and self-directed country. Some might fear that works of art functioning at the subtler edges of activism might be put into resigned deferral. But Hope and her peers will not be deferred.

Erik is an American playwright and the Dean of Theatre at the California Institute of Arts. He has traveled extensively through Africa and is the author of Maria Kitzito, an award winning piece about the Rwandan genocide.

Mashirika tour the UK this autumn in conjunction with The Aegis Trust and Ethiopian Airlines. For more details, please see Aegis Trust.