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"A hard act to follow" - Mail & Guardian

Normal people go to Rwanda to see gorillas. Only sweet NGO types, researchers desperate for a PhD thesis topic and the occasional journalist go there because 11% of the nation was murdered in three months 12 years ago. Rwandans are getting a bit tired of these genocide tourists’ tears, their questions and their never-ending workshops.

But then a group of South African actors arrived. They also had tears, also asked questions and also attended workshops. This time the Rwandans felt moved, and started really talking.

Truth in Translation, a play with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as its theme, had its international première in Kigali two weeks ago. There were two performances in the capital and three in the university town of Butare. Most members of the audiences stayed afterwards to interact with the actors, talking animatedly about truth, justice, revenge and reconciliation.

Between shows the cast visited four genocide sites and attended workshops with local school kids, students and adult survivors and even perpetrators. According to some of the organisers, the participating Rwandans had never been so open and frank in their conversations. There is very little open debate about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are seldom uttered in public. President Paul Kagame’s government has declared that there are now only “Rwandese” in Rwanda.

What made this different from other visits and workshops was that this group was from South Africa. The Rwandans were fascinated that black and white South Africans could interact so honestly and yet so intimately, and talk about their country’s own horrible past so easily and frankly. It also helped that the actors have been wrestling with the subject matter of truth and reconciliation during many months of rehearsing the play.

The Rwandans seemed to feel safe with them, seemed to believe that South Africans could understand a little bit of that bizarre, terrible period in Rwanda’s past. The workshop with high school girls, some of whom saw their own parents murdered, ended in a spontaneous session of wild singing and dancing, with Rwandans and South Africans teaching each other favourite songs.

I travelled with the Truth in Translation cast through Rwanda. The actors were deeply traumatised by their visits to schools and churches where mass killings took place, but I also noticed that it brought a new intensity and energy to their work on stage.

Many Rwandans talked to the South Africans about the comparisons between the truth commission and their gacaca system. Because of the large number of known perpetrators, the Rwandans employed this old system of local justice to speed up the process of finding the truth and promoting reconciliation and justice. The gacaca process is still ongoing all over Rwanda. Mass graves and individual human remains are still found every month as killers or their associates confess to the gacaca courts.

The man who conceived Truth in Translation, accomplished New York theatre and film director Michael Lessac, wants to take the play to other international conflict zones like Northern Ireland, Jerusalem/Ramallah, Argentina and Bosnia/Croatia. The South African actors are to interact with locals through audience participation and workshops, and all activities are filmed with the view of producing a documentary film.

The play tells the stories of interpreters at the truth commission who had to translate the testimonies of victims and perpetrators into the 11 official languages. With original music written by Hugh Masekela, Truth in Translation is pushing the boundaries of South African theatre and will most likely be seen as the most important play in recent times.