MY STORY

Cynthia-Butare-868_edited.jpg

Apart from Lion King, the only set in Africa movie I remember watching as a kid is The Gods Must Be Crazy. I do not remember much besides a Coke bottle coming from the sky, the Whites being dressed out and the Africans dressed in animal skin garb. Sadly, the film medium is powerful in having imagery stuck in your mind as well as perpetuating misconceptions and contributing directly to internalised stigma. But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said: “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise.”

 

To counterbalance this, our part is easy. We can simply share the breezy, joyful and casual, and we are already bringing something missing in this whole narrative that sticks to people’s minds. The content can be as soulful, as passionate, or intellectual as you want it to be. Whatever the case may be, whatever you choose to tell is going to be informed by real experiences and more nuanced than what is out there. Whatever you create will be different from the constant wars, autocratic politics, deadly diseases, and cultural backwardness that mainstream media sums up our being to be. But it is our responsibility to collectively offer new perspectives and counter the stereotypes and perceptions about Africa that persist to this day. There is no excuse. We have all of the platforms at our fingertips to manifest our passion and aliveness in the world.

 

And we all have the power to do that. We all have creative potential within us. We all have some little germ of something inside of us that we need to get out. There’s some little thing eating at us that we need to express and get out into the open. It starts by asking ourselves what our purpose is because the answer to that question has all of the answers that we are looking for to make our contribution.

 

By defining our purpose for ourselves, we get to make it a powerful force used to our advantage to create. Being a storyteller at heart, an avid blogger, a self-taught filmmaker, a documentary photographer and a content producer, I’ve learnt to tap into my inner knowing and figure out how to gain self-knowledge to create materials that have resonance.

 

It’s been a long journey. But in view of this, I moved in 2014 to Kigali. As our quest for identity and meaning grows as our creativity evolves, I thought by relocating to my country of heritage that I would get to truly understand this place, its resonance for Rwandans, but also my place in it. Hence making the move has been a powerful way of stimulating my ideas further and reorienting my intuition to produce materials that have depth and nuance. Though identity comprises a wide range of facets, the heritage component is a significant one.  Perhaps even the very starting point, the very core and the soul to make our contribution.

Through this experience, I learnt that by reaching the core of who we are, we get in touch with the deepest parts of ourselves to tell stories that go beyond the surface. As a result, we step into true vulnerability, making our experiences relatable to a whole new degree to sometimes audiences with whom we would not have imagined having the same sensibilities. Hence the stories we tell have the power to make audiences connect on the same wavelength as ours and transcend boundaries of all kinds.

Before the internet came along, I never realised that we could, one day, individually build up audiences and share our truth. At the age of 15, when blogging was reaching the mainstream, I launched my own platform. To my biggest surprise, my stories of being a teenager from African descent brought up in Switzerland quickly found an audience and relevance within the youth that could relate to the third culture experience of cultural mixing. Even though I deleted it three years later, this experience was the first seed planted in me that led me to think that the World Wide Web is the perfect key enabler for such stories to gain exponential visibility and a springboard to change the narrative. 

 

 

My first attempt at documentary filmmaking was in 2012, while I was studying in the UK, with KICKIN’ IT WITH THE KINKS. a film that I made with my friend Mundia Situmbeko on natural hair amongst black women and on the harmful effects of chemically straightening. I had no experience in the field. But our keen interest in the subject and the relationships we forged with our protagonists enabled us to develop a reflection, to scrutinise all angles and different perceptions. And so, having been able to offer perspectives that go far beyond the opinions we had before starting this project, it struck a chord and awakened familiar echoes in a very engaged audience. The enthusiasm that the documentary had sparked was unparalleled because it touched upon subjects that are part of a large group’s concerns and daily actions but little represented in the traditional media. So the audience welcomed the documentary as a mirror of their everyday conversations and a reflection of their reality.

 

Thus, when it hits the chord of the right audience, the fate of a project can be surprisingly beyond what you might have expected. The sneak peeks were propelled by Internet users who wanted to see it. Then they were relayed by influencers, which created word of mouth, which allowed the film to go through a series of screenings for the following two years in the UK, US, Canada, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Nigeria, Zambia, Namibia and Rwanda.

 

I then relaunched a blog at the age of 24 to combine with video content and explore shorter pieces of content to keep exploring topics of blackness. The platform received the Best Blog of The Year award from the BEFFTA (Black Entertainment, Fashion, Film, Television and Arts) in October 2013. Around the same time, I started my masters in documentary-making at Brunel, where I gained so much access from the equipment, networking opportunities, to screenings in class where we would all discuss movies collectively. My biggest takeaway and the most challenging lesson has been learning how to pitch. It started with the idea that got me the worst mark of my class for this specific exercise forcing me to give up on my notion of doing a documentary on the emergence of web series in the UK amongst the black community to instead do a documentary about returnees in Rwanda. Talking about the racial discrimination faced by black directors in the industry made my lecturers so uncomfortable that I had decided when I pitched again to identify one positive story, which wouldn’t bring up racism but yet allow me to still do content about Black people.

 

Hence this is how Coming (back) Home came about. The plan was to film for two months, thinking it would be enough to immerse me in the daily lives of Rwandans who took the leap. I thought it was enough for me to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be back home and play our part without the need of making a move myself. But getting to know people on a personal level takes more than two months. I went back to London for four months and came back to finish it, and six years later, I am not even done. This project took me to places about which I would not have thought. It made me realise that I believed I was comfortable with who I was to recognise that I was comfortable with who I was in the spheres I used to be acquainted with. I thought I knew how to navigate the duality of my identity but relocated to Rwanda; it felt like I had to start from scratch. In Rwanda, it was not the feeling of not being acknowledged or the feeling that I had to justify my presence or demonstrate that I contribute as much as anyone else but rather being in an environment that I didn’t know. Yet, that was supposed to be mine, dealing with the newness and the unfamiliar every day and yet feeling at ease at the time as it was home, nevertheless.

 

Now aged 33, armed with six years of living in Rwanda, I am back at blogging. Now that I am more comfortable and found out where I fit, I feel a sense of renewed energy and a compulsion to create. Rather than a blog, it is a platform intermingling all of my interests,  from writing, photography to videography, into one fully-fledged portal. That being so, I write, I photograph, I film, I edit, and I create, which I all consider as integral parts of my creative nurturing process to tell nuanced and multilayered stories.

 

Hence this platform is rooted in my purpose, as elusive and unending it is. It is a reflection of what I stand for and believe in. Obviously, what used to animate me at the age of 15 is very different from what energises me today. But somewhat, the purpose remains the same. Representations still matter to me as much, and my purpose has been a centre that I have always unconsciously snapped back to. It kept that spark in me alive, and it is what has driven me to move to Rwanda in the first place.