Odile Katese: "Rwanda needs art so that it can dream again"

July 2009 -

"My business card should actually say professional dreamer," says Odile Gakrie Katese with a laugh. The Rwandan author, actress and director likes to think big. In the former Catholic refuge church 'Ons Lieve Heer op Solder' in Amsterdam, she talks about her dream: creating a culture of hope and happiness in Rwanda. "People are afraid to be happy in our country," says Katese. "The trauma of the genocide is still palpable everywhere, even after fifteen years. It sometimes seems to me that the living in Rwanda are deader than the dead."


Odile Katese

She wants to teach her fellow countrymen how to reconcile the past and create new collective memories. This will enable the country to pass not only fear and sorrow but also hope and trust on to future generations. Art is the best medium for that purpose, Katese says, because a trauma of that scope can only be symbolically resolved. As assistant director of the University for Arts and Drama in Rwanda's capitol Kigali, she organizes festivals and workshops and initiates theatre, dance and prose projects. With these she hopes to build a bridge between the dead and the living, and sometimes even between the perpetrators and their victims, as she did in The Book of Life, in which both groups address letters to the dead.

According to Katese, there is no right or wrong in art. "It is a free zone. On stage, you can lie, exaggerate and fulminate to your heart's desire. There is room for all, and for all unresolved emotions. You learn to escape, to use your imagination. Making something from nothing gives one hope. Moreover, on an artistic stage you can feel your co-performers energizing you: you feel the need for one another and strengthen one another. That feeling of generosity is important in a society in which people are so mistrustful of one another."

Although art and culture are not high on the list of priorities of most Rwandans, Katese is hopeful for the future. "Before the genocide there was virtually no cultural life. Now we have festivals, a modern dance group and a growing film industry. We must nurture and stimulate these. Art inspires us to ask questions, express doubts and put things in perspective. In doing so, we can reduce the chance that something like the genocide will ever happen again. Am I being naive? That's fine. It is exactly what we need in Rwanda so that we can dream again."

Odile Gakire Katese works for the University Centre for Arts and Drama of the National University of Rwanda, partner of the Prince Claus Fund.