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Iriba Centre for Multimedia Heritage, Kigali, Rwanda
Iriba is not a place where one passes like the wind

an open door
Entrance to the Iriba Center in Kigali | © Chris Schwagga and Christian Mbanza, Goethe- Institut

In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, there is a place that tries to learn from the country's history in an exemplary way: The Iriba Centre of Multimedia Heritage maintains an archive with numerous testimonies to the genocide in 1994 and makes the material accessible in a constructive way, especially to the younger generations.

by Louise Mutabazi

Not everybody in Kigali knows how precious this space and its actions are but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t recognise the necessity for such a space after they entered it once.

In 2015, when I first came at Iriba, in the city center of Kigali, I would never have imagined how I will keep coming back to this place throughout the years. Once again, I entered the compound, checked on the travellers palm guarding the door and felt home when I sat with Assumpta Mugiraneza, director of Iriba.

Iriba Centre for Multimedia Heritage was created in 2012 in response to a need for keys to read, understand and when possible unlock the Rwanda’s painful past.

Assumpta Mugiraneza, believes that it is only by looking into Rwandan history, that we can be able to understand what happened in this country. For her, the younger generation and especially those who were born after 1994, are the first in need of such knowledge and keys of understanding. Therefore, Iriba’s missions combine digital archives conservation, pedagogy and education about Rwandan History, analysis and reactivation of archives through cultural research and creative projects.

In 2019, just before the pandemic, Iriba was running a program called « Jeunes artistes dans la cité ». A group of 20 young artists (from Rwanda and Burundi) were coming to Iriba center where they had access to chosen archives from the fonds. They were able to discuss and imagine ways of being active and creative citizens of Rwanda. The aim of this project was to produce different art pieces in various disciplines (cinema, music, dance, writing…) and to have them publicly presented in October 2020.
At Iriba, such projects are implemented for young people to use archives as a tool to explore their country’s History and better own their present and envision their future.

When Rwanda announced the first lockdown, in March 2020, it was hard for Iriba’s team and users to see the brown gate being closed for an undetermined period of time. Assumpta recalls « Some of them told me if there is only one essential space that needs to remain open it is this space ». More than anything, Iriba is a safe space for many, a place where to share questions, concerns, projects, doubts, traumas and growths. Assumpta Mugiraneza’s psychosocial approach creates trust.

After the first chock, it was decided to shift some of the conversations online. The thematic talks happened almost as planned : around women and gender in March, around commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in April… Being unable to gather and share what this month awakes each year in Rwandans’ hearts, having to stay isolated and sit with unbearable feelings and thoughts was a terrible hardship for many. Assumpta and Iriba's team knew it was more than essential to remain connected, show solidarity and keep a space for dialogue, even virtual.

As soon as the situation allowed it, Iriba opened again but the resources were scarce. That’s when Assumpta decided to send an SOS to different funders asking for support.
« I wanted at least to be able to provide for hydro alcoholic gel and masks for the team. »
But if cultural organisations in Rwanda reacted quick and were more than ready to go back to work as soon as allowed, it was not the case for most funding organisations which remained frozen quite longer.

At the end of October 2020, with the Goethe-Institut Kigali’s support and with  the  International Relief Fund, Iriba was able to organise and host 4 days of cultural activities. The artistic projects that started developing before the first lockdown have had time to grow and bloom until then. The program was constituted of theatre and dance performances, music and a special photographic exhibition.
Kigali is a fast paced capital city: it changes quickly and the younger generation can barely remember how different it looked only 10 years ago. For that reason, young participants of the project went for walks in Kigali accompanied by someone older, someone who has stories to tell, an inhabitant of the past versions of this city who remembers how it felt to walk under the shade of acacias here, or how this building used to be the tallest one of the city in 2004. Together they took pictures on their way and confronted today’s landscapes to photographic archives of the city held at Iriba.

Assumpta says that « The experience allowed them not only to reconnect with the places they go through everyday without paying attention but it also sparkled new conversations between generations. Such simple triggers can really help bridging the gap between generations. »
It is by activating archives in such ways that Iriba accomplishes its mission of providing keys for reading a past that has disappeared from the present.

  • two women talking together © Chris Schwagga and Christian Mbanza, Goethe-Institut
    Assumpta Mugiraneza, director of the Iriba Centre talking to a colleague
  • Woman in front of a house © Chris Schwagga and Christian Mbanza, Goethe Institut
    Assumpta Mugiraneza, director of the Iriba Centre
  • Woman and dancing men © Chris Schwagga and Christian Mbanza, Goethe-Institut
    Effective remembrance activities in the Iriba Centre
  • House with garden © Chris Schwagga and Christian Mbanza, Goethe-Institut
    The Iriba Centre for Multimedia Heritage in Kigali
The International Relief Fund helped stabilising the organisation and its equipments. Not only are the operating expenditures and digital facilities improvements supported but the fund was also a great help to the implementation of different activities between October and December 2021.« Once the structure is secured, we feel more free to imagine new ways of action.  »

Iriba is currently preparing an exhibition on war crime trials gathering video archives of 9 trials.The archives presented are related to crimes perpetuated in different countries: Assumpta believes looking at archives from outside of Rwanda can shed another light on Rwandan history. The exhibition is scheduled to last 5 months and a program of conferences, debates and conversations is organised to happen throughout this time to complete and enrich the content.
Once again, it is not the archive alone that is shared at Iriba but also its activation through dialogue and the thinking it induces.

Even if when asked about the future of Iriba, Assumpta says she doesn’t know what is going to happen next, I left her office with the feeling - and the hope - that Iriba never stops looking ahead, imagining new ways of giving life to archives and exploring their power of reflexion and inspiration for the future.