Rwanda: Artist Malaika Uwamahoro on telling triggering topics shunned by the society

January 25, 2022
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Malaika Uwamahoro Kayiteshonga is a renowned US-based Rwandan actress, singer, poetess and social justice activist. She has performed in different plays like ‘Miracle in Rwanda’, ‘Notre Dame du Nil’, movies like ‘Yankee Hustle’, ‘Loveless Generation’, ‘Operation Turquoise’, among others.

She also had poetry performances on different stages like AU Summit 2016, Forbes 2020 Women Summit, Rwanda Day, and other solo performances.

“My messages are mainly about bringing into discussions topics that our societies shy away from but are at the core of issues that we deal with,” she said.

The New Times’ Alice Kagina had an exclusive catch-up with Uwamahoro, in which she shared on different aspects of the creative industry.

Below are excerpts.

Who is Malaika Uwamahoro and how has been your journey down the career path?

I was born in a family of artists, my mother is an interior designer, my grandmother is a tailor, my aunties were performers, my uncles were visual artists, and my siblings are into art as well. I have always been surrounded by artists and that’s definitely contributed to the person I am.

I have also had a lot of training through Mashirika Performing Arts, Spoken Word Rwanda, Ishyo Art Center, in university and different workshops I’ve always participated in and they have really added to my skill set and my interests.

It has been an interesting career path because I’ve learned that I am capable of doing a lot of things in the art world, poetry, theatre, film, music and it’s really fun to express myself in these different ways and also to find opportunities in the workforce.

At times it’s challenging because I have to teach myself new skills.

How do you navigate through your emotions displayed while performing?

Having a background as an actor really helps, that means I can enter into character, depending on the subject, I am able to get those acting skills and deliver the poetry in a way where you think ‘this person is affected by this thing.’

It’s really cool to cross the different skills I have in different fields and be able to use those strengths to better tell a message.

Poetry can be really heavy and being able to carry those emotions and hold them is something I get from my acting skills.

Tell us briefly about your recent pieces

I have a lot of content in music and poetry that is waiting for me to make visual content for it.

One of the lessons I’ve got from my latest projects ‘Black Skin’ and ‘How many times’ is to use what we have. If anybody is out there and wants to make their own content with big ideas, keep that dream but also scale it down to make it possible with what you have.

I wrote ‘Black Skin’ in 2015, recorded it in Abu Dhabi in 2019 and shot it in 2020, it took some time but it’s because it required a huge set. The inspiration behind it draws from the moment when I was in class and my professor told us to take a moment of silence for what was happening in Paris, and it hit me that we never took a moment to recognize the atrocities that black people were facing around the world.

I went home and wrote it. When we were shooting the video I used different elements that represent black people and also Rwanda specifically because I am Rwandan.

I wrote ‘How many times’ in 2018 and the inspiration behind it comes from conversations that have been going on about rape and rape apologists who protect perpetrators instead of victims, they shame them and make them feel crazy for telling their stories.

With ‘How many times’ I wanted to bring the story of rape visually so people can understand that what we are talking about is non-negotiable, this is an atrocity that happens and my hope is the piece pulls people in to be witnesses of what they are denying.

It’s really hard for people in our communities to admit that the people who rape are their fathers, uncles, brothers, and friends, that’s something very hard for people to come to terms with when it is done by someone they know, they automatically want to protect.

It is my hope that that kind of message could come across and that people could take it more seriously and hold rapists, rape apologists accountable for the actions they take in their free will as well as support the victims.

How many times: 

How does one connect back to their inspiration once lost?

There are different techniques that I use as consistently as I can. When I find it hard to write or create, it’s often a sign to take a break and be with family and friends, but to also move in your body by doing some exercises.

Sometimes, you need to completely take a break from creating and watch other people do their arts and allow yourself the time to get inspired from that.

What’s that one thing that a young artiste should hold onto?

Stay true to yourself and work hard to become the person you dream to be. I’ve always wanted to become an artist but along the way I have been discouraged by family, friends saying the pay wasn’t really enough.

It is a hard career path. I am not going to say it’s easy but it’s definitely worth it when you love it and when you know what you are capable of and willing to go through thick and thin to make sure that what you envision for yourself becomes true.

How important is it for an artiste to invest in what they do?

You need to have a work ethic. Even though it’s art, you still have to deliver effectively and on time. Create a work ethic that makes you stand out from people who just consider art as a hobby, make what you love work for you, your career and those around you.

I think when you put yourself out there on different platforms, you are always practicing those talents and gaining more skills by putting yourself in a position where you can learn from other people and add it on what you already have.

Years down in the field, in your perspective, where does the Rwandan creative industry stand?

I think it has come really far. I remember when we moved here, I was almost 12 years old and the only thing that was available at that time was Mashirika Performing Arts.

And now we have so many different art homes that produce different kinds of work; in fashion, music, theatre, among others. We have started seeing our artistes do international collaborations. I definitely think we are going places.

However, as Rwandans, we need to realise that there is more that we can do to contribute to the life of an artiste.

Do you get to a point where you can’t separate the life of a character and your real self?

I did a one-woman show where I had to be 18 characters for one hour, my body had to change from an old man to a young woman, to a baby. I was really nervous when they gave me that task but it showed me how much I was capable of, vocally, acting skills, and my body.

I think this is more of an emotional aspect, that when I have a play to run for a longer period of time, it can be challenging to come out of it completely. Take care of your mental and physical health. I try to do some relaxing activities such as yoga and therapy.

How do you feel when you come back to Rwanda from time to time?

I love it. Rwanda is my home. Chris (Christian Kayiteshonga, her husband) and I hope to make the transition to come here, at some point.

We also have a dream of building an art school here, where you can learn all kinds of arts (performing arts and visual arts). Right now, we are still learning and growing before we finally come to share what we have learned.