For The People

Healing power of dance

“The 17th of April 1994 was the worst day. Early in the week, international soldiers came to rescue the foreigners who were in the building. We tried to stop and plead with them but with no success all non-nationals we evacuated from the hospital. That is when the bombs and grenades started to make their way into the building, eventually it collapsed and we were forced out of the construction. They made us lay on floor on our bellies, and started shooting at people as they lay on the floor. A young soldier boy who was about my age started to kick, hit and prick me on my back with a gun that had a knife attached to it. Another older military soldier started to walk towards me, I started to feel relieved as I thought he was coming to kill me. It was better for me to die with by the bullets than to feel pain with machetes and knives, but instead he commanded the young boy to stop, called me by my name and asked where my family was. We all stood up and he hurriedly asked two people from the militia to take us away from the area where people were being killed. He saved our lives. I wish I knew who or where he was”. These are the words of Prince Umãna Niwenshuti (mostly known as Totto or Théogène) as he recalls the massacre that took place in his country.

The ordeal did not end there for Totto and his family. With nowhere to go and their house completely destroyed, they had to spend several more days fighting for their survival. Through a friend of his mom who was in the military, the female soldier made it possible for them to get onto a bus that was taking soldier’s families to refugee camps under the impression that Totto and his family were her family. This is another dynamic that shows that not all Hutu or were taking part in the injustices that were taking place. A trip that usually took two hours took two days, as there were many road blocks. “It was a horrible experience because my mother would constantly be harassed, searched and interrogated” says the survivor. The family eventually made to the North where Totto’s mother was born and they got mixed up with other refugees. His father had died in the hospital and they were later to find out that he did not leave with them in order to protect them.

Rwanda experienced terrible killing massacres which took place from April to July 1994, sexual violence took place, and people were hunted and killed in their homes, churches by fellow individuals who lived among them. The military murdered people with guns and machetes. “I don’t eat meat anymore, after seeing the militia cutting cows’ meat using the same blood stained knifes that they used to slaughter people and I am not the only one”, recalled Totto.

Almost a million people were killed which were predominantly the Tutsi group of people. What was the cause of the genocide? Let us start from the beginning. Rwanda is made up of a mix of people who are classified as either Hutus, Tutsis or Twa and ironically they all speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. What would make people of the same ethnicity, same culture and religion to be so divided? It has been reported the cause of the genocide was due to the shooting of an aeroplane that carried President Juvénal Habyarimana, then president of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira who was the Hutu President of Burundi. Everyone in the plane was killed. This therefore caused some Hutu leaders whom occupied top political positions in government to organise and instigate this massacre but when a deeper analysis is done into the history of Rwanda and its colonisation by Belgium and Germany it is seen how the divisions were perpetuated by the colonial regimes. Since 1920’s Rwanda people were required to carry identification passes stating their ethnicities while the Tutsi were given more jobs and education opportunities, the Hutus eventually became ruled in government. Like in many other colonized countries, a study of eugenics took place in Rwanda as well where some groups were deemed more superior than others according to the well-known racist-sexist classifications of the time.

In the aftermath of the genocide, Totto, the survivor, drowned himself in music, dance, sports and poetry, which were key to his healing aspects from the traumatic experience. Realising the power of art in healing, Totto established a group while in High School to help other children and elders in his community to deal with the trauma, suffering and consequences of the violence they had endured. This led him to study Communications studies (BA), specialising in social psychology and arts as a communication tool for wellbeing and development. He came to South Africa to train in the Community Art Counselling and Applied Drama and Theatre. The survivor has gained tremendous experience in art, he has given workshop, performances and lectures across Africa and Europe. He has won numerous awards in recognition of his academic and leadership roles he plays in society, recently he received an award titled The Next Generation Scholars in Africa Award in Ghana.

Totto is a multidisciplinary artist, scholar, peace activist, international speaker, facilitator and a coach. He was one of the people who contributed to the book ‘Africa, Land of Talents and the future, which was prefaced by Nobel Peace Prize Emeritus Reverend Desmond Tutu. As a scholar, he is currently doing his PhD in Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. As part of his research he came to Kimberley. As an activist, he is passionate about bringing change, healing, building communities crating awareness about violence and genocide, and conflict resolution through arts, culture and performances. He has established and facilitated several programmes which include, “Moving Experience” he currently offers classes at SPU and in the community. According to some participants, Moving Experience sessions have helped them deal with stress, anxiety, depression, body pains amongst many other things.

It is a safe creative expression which is very much needed. It is open to everyone. He plans to expand the programme to more schools and communities in the Province and hopes to bring healing and joyfulness to the people of Kimberley. Totto was invited to facilitate similar sessions about health, art, healing and wellbeing in a Parliament in UK, in Ireland, Denmark, Benin, Ghana, at the Constitutional Court of South Africa, many schools, museums and universities including Sol Plaatje University, University of the Free State, UCT, Rhodes University, Beaulieu College, Wits University, Olivenhuis Museum, William Humphreys Art Gallery, and many other places.

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