Can Art Heal a Broken Society?

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“Where do we go from here?” In Rwanda, this question seemed unanswerable after the genocide against the Tutsi minority in 1994. The massacre of more than 1 million Rwandans, by Rwandans, shocked the world, and inflated fear and deep mistrust between friends and neighbors. After 1994, we needed to rebuild the country from ashes—a task that seemed not only arduous, but impossible.

More progress has been made in my country than anyone could have imagined. Healing is an ongoing process, but the remarkable achievements in the past two decades hinge on our restored humanity. Reconciliation is the only way to move beyond our past. But in the face of genocide, conventional dialogue is an inadequate tool. Instead, we turned to our shared culture.

What a difference a few decades have made. This July, I watched as hundreds of individuals from all backgrounds gathered in Kigali, Rwanda to experience performances by artists from 17 countries. Themed “Art and the Path to Resilience,” performers explored tactics to exercise fortitude in the face of tragic events. These emotionally charged and educative performances equip the audience with practical lessons that are cross-culturally relevant.

I am the curator and founder of Ubumuntu Arts Festival, a platform for global artistry and civic dialogue. Since its inception in 2015, our mission has extended far beyond culture. Talented artists are invited from around the world to collaborate on pieces that reflect our shared humanity. Thousands of attendees watch performances filled with messages of healing, human morality, and peace-building. If our audience leaves empowered to take initiative—however small—and champion the right thing where they live, we have succeeded.

One of the larger productions we stage is Africa’s Hope, a Rwandan story of survival and hope that depicts the genocide as seen through the eyes of a child. The production is inspired by the testimonies and dreams of young survivors, and the reflections of Fergal Keane, a BBC journalist who reported on the slaughter of the Tutsi. In a 1997 article for The Sunday Times he wrote, “I found myself endlessly questioning: how could this have happened? How could people butcher children? What kind of man can kill a child?” When hate is enthroned, cruelty becomes the new normal. Our play speaks to the beast that lives inside of everyone and questions the circumstances that trigger its release.

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