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Jean Karemera

Portrait photos of Jean Karemera
© Chris Schwagga for Goethe-Institut Kigali

Jean Karemera, an artist, father and grandfather. Originally from the South, he lived in exile in Burundi, and returned to settle in the East of the country. Dancer, singer, he created more than one cultural troupe until very recently.

When the word family is evoked, he exclaims that this word says it all about life! From the home where you are born to the environment that makes you grow up: the school or cultural troupe to the country, it’s all the same conceptualization, it’s the family. Umunyarwanda conceives life in the family and it does not stop at the parent-child nucleus, it is also a philosophical conception of the country, and of each group to which you belong that makes you grow, helps you to fulfil yourself, to become a man or a woman worthy of staring your own family.

I grew up in a family that contained, protected and made me the man I became. I had to go to another family to ask for the hand of the girl who was to become my wife, the one who enabled me to start my family. Alone, I would never have been able to earn the trust of my in-laws without the support of my family. I’ve met my fiancée, we wanted to get married, but our fate rested in the hands of our families. My family had to consent to my request after having judged my wife’s family as worthy of creating this pact with ours. On my wife’s side, her family had to judge mine to be worthy of the same trust. The family gives you life, respectability, the trust of others, and it’s the family that enables you to build your own family. Life is forged as a family.

I spent a large part of my life with a family that had to go into exile during the first Tutsi massacres at the end of the 1950s. We had to stick together, and I worked a lot in this exile situation. I wanted the assent and respect of my parents. It was the starting point towards my status as a man. One of the things I did for the family I was born into, was to look after the few cows my dad had managed to take with him, many of which had been violently torn off on the run. Then, after having secured the herd, I was eager to expand it, and from the first wave, I gave one cow to my mother and another to my father, a gesture thought out and carried out in order to pay homage to them, and let them know that they had a son who had now become a man.

Later, when I started my own family, I wanted to insert it into my family of origin, so that it would be like a chain that would grow and become stronger. I love and respect my family very much, but I get these values from my family of origin. Mum and Dad helped and respected each other. I put this value within my family, a man and his wife must respect each other, and must consult and advise each other when making decisions concerning their family. The love between both and for their children makes it all simpler and more natural.

I respect and love my country very much. It’s a kind of family and those who lead us have this sense of family too. That’s why, when we came back from exile, they asked us to renounce the goods that our families left behind in Rwanda when they fled. They asked us to renounce ethnic affiliations so that we could get back together as people coming from the same family, Rwanda is our motherland, and that requires from us some renunciations and sacrifices.

In exile in Burundi, we resumed our cultural practices, that is, singing and dancing. When the RPF war started, we mobilised with our songs. However, it is worth noting that we didn’t sing about hatred as we did on the government side. Then, when I arrived in Rwanda, I formed a new dance group in which I integrated the children I found in Rwanda, without worrying too much about their supposed ethnicity or what their parents might have committed as crimes. They were children, and they liked dancing. I taught them to dance, thereby trying not to think about their arms, which might have held machetes or guns against mine. Yes, some sacrifices for a large family to be able to reinvent itself have been necessary, at all levels.

Religion doesn’t take first place with me, but love, love, always love, because Imana is above all love.