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Young Rwandans Seek to Reshape Narrative About Their Country

It’s a bright, cool morning and Gloria Iribagiza is working on her laptop to put out another post for her blog. She’s on her couch in a living room where rays of sunlight stream in through large windows. The sounds of cars, school buses and laughter zoom by as the city of Kigali awakens.

Iribagiza is writing a story about Rwandan women pursuing science courses in school and in their professional careers.

“When you go on Google Search, if you’re out of the country, you’ll see just genocide,” she said. “But yet there’s so much development here. The youth are part of a whole generation of vibrant people who are telling stories in different ways. Most of the stories I write are about social change and different ways in which that can impact the lives of people.”

Iribagiza’s efforts are part of a new trend. Young Rwandan content creators are working to re-shape the narrative about their country. They want to move away from stories of the 1994 genocide and its aftermath and toward stories of the new generation in what is now one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.

Gloria Iribagiza lives in Kigali, Rwanda and works as a blogger and writes on development issues. Photo by Chika Oduah.

Leaving 1994 in the past

The 1994 genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people and left scars on Rwanda that last to this day.

“There were so many dead bodies floating in the lake,” Iribagiza recalled.”It was such a depressing time. Then on the news, we would turn on the TV and that was all that was going on.”

But these days, Iribagiza is telling a different story, focusing on development issues and women and girls achieving their goals.

Several times a week, she packs up her camera, grabs her notebook, and heads out to gather stories. She meets people in Kigali. Other times, she goes into the countryside. She says she feels free to report.

Gloria Iribagiza snaps photos in a classroom. (Photo: C. Oduah for VOA)

But rights groups continue to express concern about restrictions to free speech and political dissent in Rwanda. Last year, the U.N. Committee Against Torture released a report citing incidents of torture, forced disappearances, intimidation and extrajudicial executions of petty offenders, opposition party members and journalists.

Human Rights Watch reported some abuses were taking place in secret detention centers where people seen as opposing President Paul Kagame’s administration were being kept, beaten, electrocuted, suffocated, burned with acid, and asphyxiated.

The U.S.-based global media advocacy and watchdog organization, Freedom House, rated Rwanda as “Not Free” in 2017, scoring the east African nation 79 out 100 as “least free.”

The group said journalists work under various restrictions, and may face long jail sentences if convicted.

VOA spoke with local content creators about restrictions on free speech. Even though some of them admitted they felt censored and pressured by society to avoid exploring certain issues, none were willing to go on the record to say so.

But Iribigaza disagrees. She said reports of Kagame being autocratic and censoring free speech are views coming from outside Rwanda. “As someone who lives in Rwanda,” she added, “I don’t see that because I’m involved.I live here. I see what’s going on.”

Raymond Kaliyonga is a 3D animator and collaborates with others to produce colorful, family-friendly content. Photo by Chika Oduah.

She sets out in the evening to meet some colleagues at a trendy café, including broadcast journalist Maggie Mutesi, spoken word artist Victor Kagimba, and Raymond Kaliyonga, a 3-D animator for Afrimation Studios, which often collaborates with others to produce family-friendly content.

“We try to get children who are writing stories and get their stories out there in a moving picture,” Kaliyonga said.

Independent films that explore complex issues like identity and gender are also gaining attention. Cynthia Mutare’s Ishimwa: Bloodshed to Grace follows a young Rwandan male ballet dancer who is coping with the grief he experienced during the genocide.

A collective of Rwandese writers, filmmakers and other content creators meet at a cafe in Kigali. Photo by Chika Oduah

Mutare, a recent returnee, often explores the stories of other Rwandans who had lived abroad.

Samuel Mbabazi, 25, studied filmmaking in Europe and has returned to Rwanda to pursue his dreams. Many of his films are centered on Africans living in Europe.

“What I want to change,” said Mbabzi, “is just to tell our own stories, to show our own complexities, because most of the stuff that we see, especially in cinema or video, there’s no complexity when you’re showing people.”

She said as an African, a Rwandese, her biggest struggle “is to just be able to communicate to the world that I’m another human being because there’s no Rwandese narrative or African narrative. It’s just a personal narrative from every individual.”

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