How do you put a human face on an atrocity like the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the deaths of one million people across 100 days? How does an individual, let alone a country, move forward with something so awful at the forefront of their mind? Most importantly, can there be hope for a better future? Utilising letters written by both victims and perpetrators of the genocide, as well as storytelling and music, an answer to that final question is exactly what writer and activist Kiki Katese hopes to achieve in The Book of Life.
Sitting on stage in a reading nook as the audience enters Church Hill Theatre, Katese tries to write but finds herself lost for words, quickly becoming surrounded by failed drafts. Slowly, she is joined by members of Ingoma Nshya: The Women Drummers of Rwanda, who trickle in gossiping and joking with one another. Together they help Katese find the words she is looking for and weave a story of hopefulness that leaves an undeniable mark on those in attendance.
Katese’s charismatic personality and heartfelt words are filled with humour and warmth as she welcomes us to the performance, shares her personal history, and jokes about the current heat in Edinburgh being equivalent to Rwanda. She notes the tendency of many Rwandans to say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, a protective move ingrained in society to provide denial and avoid ownership of one’s actions. She shares stories of families torn apart, friends who turned against each other, and of secrets kept from children. While there’s an undeniable sadness to what she speaks, Katese does so with such hopefulness, choosing to celebrate and archive life, because to do otherwise is equivalent to killing the victims all over again. It’s impossible to not be inspired by her ambition.
All of this is interspersed with a beautifully told rendition of Geri Keams’ Grandmother Spider brings the sun, as well as drumming, dance, and traditional Rwandan songs – translated by way of overhead projector to allow the audience to better understand their significance. The projection here also allows for Kristine White’s shadow puppetry to beautifully complement the storytelling as an ID card is stripped away and transformed into a family portrait or Katese’s family tree is built up layer by layer.
Although it’s clear that some in the audience expected more drumming, it is used sparingly enough to feel like the celebration of life that it is when Ingoma Nysha are allowed a full musical interlude and to close out the show. The real focus is the storytelling and the forging of friendship and family in the wake of tragedy, which Katese achieves wonderfully with everything coalescing into a beautiful story of learning to escape darkness by embracing the light.