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The Book of Life – Edinburgh International Festival

There’s a consistent maturity throughout this show, which is perhaps unsurprising given the experiences of Odile Gakire Katese, or Kiki, as she would like to be known and her contemporaries. Between April and July 1994, members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group in Rwanda, as well as others who were known to hold moderate political stances, were killed by soldiers, police and armed militia. As Kiki told the Edinburgh International Festival, having broken the ice with a brief discussion about the weather (somebody somewhere must have told her that’s a topic of conversation common with the British), the statistics are known, and the records state what they state. And so I won’t bother regurgitating them here. What Kiki would like to explore in this show are the personal stories of those left behind.

The Book of Life - Credit J Shurte.
The Book of Life – Credit J Shurte.

But there’s a significant twist here. She has invited perpetrators to tell their stories. This isn’t restorative justice (it cannot be: their victims are dead) but an attempt at giving voices to people who would otherwise be condemned as barbarians, murderers and rapists who might even suffer the same fate they dealt their victims in certain jurisdictions around the world. Testimonials are written in the first person, which is a no-brainer for us in the West, but where Kiki comes from, first-person narratives are a bit narcissistic. They like to say ‘we’ did this, or ‘we’ said that. “No, no, no,” Kiki told her contributors, with an illuminating smile rather than the sharp tongue of Margaret Thatcher. “You must say, ‘I’” – collectively, yes, the trigger was pulled on lots of people by lots of people, but there’s a need for personal responsibility.

Eight musicians, all women drummers, are on stage with Kiki, and get their moments to shine through a mixture of acapella singing and bold and enthusiastic drumming. Women drummers aren’t exactly unheard of in Britain, but they are still not that many of them out there, and they are even more unusual in Rwanda. Their songs are often thoughtful but never impenetrable, with lyrics about looking out for one another and how children shouldn’t suffer. And, goodness me, such hardy drum beating was just the tonic after hearing so many harrowing accounts of what went on.

There’s also a great amount of respect for people who don’t want to contribute to Kiki’s ‘Book of Life’ – there is nothing wrong, she asserts, with moving on with life by forgetting about the genocide. Frankly, it’s difficult to disagree. Of course, it’s not so easy – quite impossible, in fact – for a lot of people to forget something so severe. In amongst the stories of victims and perpetrators (some people, it turns out, fall into both camps, for instance, because of extended or even immediate family ties, and such was the scale of brutality) is a tale about an animal kingdom that was in perpetual darkness. Without giving too much away, the takeaway message seems to be that nobody is too old, too small, or too insignificant to make a major contribution to the society in which they live.

I don’t care about the truth,” beams Kiki. I don’t recall whether she said that before or after she invited the audience, duly supplied with paper and pencils, to draw a picture of their grandfather – there was an extended session of exuberant drumming whilst the doodles were being done before being collected by the venue’s stewards, as well as Kiki herself, who then summoned assistance from the drummers to choose one to have projected on a large screen for everyone to see. The use of acetate sheets pretty much throughout the show was a bit of a throwback to the days before PowerPoint and everything that came after PowerPoint – there’s old-fashioned but nonetheless innovative creativity in putting one acetate sheet on top of another to add additional characters to a scene or to mimic movement.

As for not caring about the truth, in context, Kiki is more interested in the present and the future as opposed to who said what to whom in 1994. Whatever version of events may or may not be correct isn’t going to bring anyone back. Kiki doesn’t describe herself as an entrepreneur, but alongside her reconciliation work and projects in the performing arts, she even runs an ice cream shop. All things considered, this is an extraordinary performance from an extraordinary personality, providing an enriching and enlightening experience.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

13-16 August 2022, Church Hill Theatre
Part of the Edinburgh International Festival

In a disharmonious world, The Book of Life finds a humane way forward full of hope.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, one million people were killed in 100 days. The unthinkable became commonplace and a country was torn apart.

A quarter of a century later, Rwandan artist and activist Katese asks how it is possible to rebuild a deep understanding of life in the aftermath of such loss. In collaboration with award-winning theatre group Volcano, Canada and her own Woman Cultural Centre, Rwanda, she has crafted an inspirational theatre work exploring resilience, reconciliation and healing.

The Book of Life dwells on life, not loss. It is a contemplation of new families forged in grief, including Ingoma Nshya, the internationally acclaimed Women Drummers of Rwanda, who have shattered the cultural norms that forbade women from taking part in this profoundly joyful art form. They perform on stage against a backdrop of live shadow puppetry, as Katese creates an uplifting show that includes letters from survivors and perpetrators, addressed to those who are gone.

Sat 13 – Tue 16 Aug
Venue: Church Hill Theatre

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