Professor Taban Lo Liyong, the South Sudanese writer and academic, lamented many years ago that East Africa (to which Rwanda now belongs) was a literary desert. Since he made the provocative remark, there have been many attempts to prove him wrong. Perhaps that was his intention in the first place – to get people sufficiently angry to irrigate the region with their anger.
And indeed great literature has since come out of East Africa, admittedly not in the same prodigious quantity as in West Africa. But then West Africans always seem to do things – good and bad – in excess.
Lo Liyong made his famous lament half a century ago. But it remains partly true for Rwanda – not so much a cultural barrenness as an unwillingness to cultivate the artistic landscape. Think of all the landmarks that speak of the culture and history of a place – cultural centre, national theatre, cinema, art gallery or historical monuments. They are remarkably absent in Rwanda. It would appear we are a people without culture or history.
Yet everyone knows that we have a rich cultural heritage. The absence of the places for its expression and symbols of its existence roughly coincide with the time Taban Lo Liyong made his lament – the immediate post-colonial period. Which is a strong indictment against managers of the post-colonial state in Rwanda. They were a bunch of philistines.
Now two young Rwandans and their friends want to fill this apparent cultural void created by people with a Neanderthal mentality. Ms Betty Tushabe, a lawyer specialising in corporate and financial services law and Ms Diana Mpyisi, a communications and creative writing expert, recently came up with a novel idea of holding a weekly recitation and performance of poetry and other spoken art forms at which people can enjoy the spoken word.
Now Rwandans love the spoken word. It comes as no surprise that Tushabe and Mpyisi should start their project, dubbed Spokenword – Rwanda, with the most oral of literary genres – poetry.
Spokenword-Rwanda takes place in a delightfully informal and relaxed setting. Every Wednesday from eight to nine in the evening, poetry enthusiasts meet at Club Shooters in Kacyiru and listen to recitations and performances in the cosy atmosphere of the club.
And here is the special attraction. The crowd at Shooters is not your usual literary sort filled with a sense of their own self-importance who meet to read and criticise (often savagely) one another’s creations. They are ordinary folk, not necessarily schooled in the craft of poetry, but who are brought together by the love of listening to the music of the spoken word.
Judging from the debut performance last Wednesday, there is enormous talent in Rwanda – both poetic and dramatic. Equally evident was the existence of an audience that has been starved of such literary entertainment.
That is part of the aim of the pair behind Spokenword- Rwanda. They say they want to bring out the talent that obviously exists but remains largely out of view.
They also have a more ambitious aim – to contribute to the reawakening of literary and cultural life in Rwanda. This is not to suggest that there is no cultural life in Rwanda. There is and there is creativity, but it is often occasional or event-specific.
And so experience of a cultural activity is always not voluntary. You experience it because you are at an event, invariably a wedding or some national celebration. At either occasion, a cultural dance troupe will be brought out to repeat the same song and dance they have performed countless times before they can actually do it in their sleep. A fellow with an obvious creative talent will be commissioned to compose and recite a poem to mark the occasion. The poem will, of course, be promptly forgotten. At national events, a quaint regional accent used to be hugely popular. That is no longer in vogue. Maybe we have become aware of regional sensitivities or grown tired of the same lilting tone.
It is different with Spokenword-Rwanda. You enjoy it by choice. You enjoy the performance because you want to be there. You go there voluntarily in search of pleasurable literary experience.
There is another reason for starting Spokenword-Rwanda, according to Betty Tushabe and Diana Mpyisi. We need to know that there is life away from ICT, that in addition to math and engineering, you need a little poetry, too. Literary creativity must also have its place in the sun. Also, we are in danger of turning into creatures that communicate in sms or twitter language. Before long we might start speaking in grunts like pigs.
Here is therefore another frontline to save human communication, especially the creative part, from extinction. You may argue that there is a sort of creativity in chopping up words and crafting unspeakable abbreviations. But this is rather destructive and in any case meant for visual purposes.
The emergence of Spokenword-Rwanda must be pleasing to our policy makers. It is evidence that their policies are working, that Rwandans are enjoying some measure of affluence. When people begin to show taste for the finer arts, that is a sign that they have gone beyond the mere satisfaction of physical needs and want more spiritual fulfilment.
Is it time to talk about a cultural renaissance? Perhaps.