Processing Histories Through Art

23rd November 2020


An interview with ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ Actress Malaika Uwamahoro by Sharon Thomas for Africa in Motion's Notes Unbound

Last week I had the honour of reaching out to Malaika Uwamahoro, a multi-faceted artist from Rwanda, who stars as Immaculée in the magnificent and highly thought-provoking film Our Lady of the Nile, directed by Atiq Rahimi. We started off the conversation with how Uwamahoro first got involved in the making of the originally French titled Notre-Dame du Nil.

MU: I was scrolling on Instagram when I came across a picture of Hope Azeda (Creative Director of Mashirika Performing Arts and Casting Director of NDDN) had posted. There was an audition to take place in Kigali - of a Film entitled Notre Dame Du Nil. I was not on the continent at the time and felt this wonderful opportunity would be one of those that I would have to let pass me by. 

A month later, a work opportunity flew me to Kigali. As soon as I was done with my engagement, as I usually do, I went to visit Mashirika Performing Arts, only to find out that there was still ONE key role from the film that both Atiq and Hope had not yet settled on. The role of Immaculée. I immediately asked Hope if I could audition and she set it up with Atiq. 

What was the casting process like and when did you receive the good news?

MU: All the key actors of the film had been selected and were undergoing workshops when I walked in a month later. Already far behind, I had to quickly school myself up on the book the movie was based on - I did. Then, I had my first filmed audition with Hope Azeda. I chose a powerful monologue from a play called "Africa's Hope" and delivered it looking straight into the camera. 

I can only assume Hope showed the recording to Atiq because two days later, I was auditioning intense filmed scenarios with [him]. Atiq then had a really deep conversation with me about the role of Immaculée, what she stood for in the film, her importance and my thoughts on the role and the project. After a day or so, Atiq had made his final decision and I was plugged into the workshops with the other actors. For me the good news was that there was an opportunity for me to audition in the first place. The whole thing felt like fate coming together. 

In a way, I believe that we all carry our histories within us, whether our family's, culture's, or country's. However, I can imagine that stepping into such a role would require you to actively engage with the subject in an entirely new way. How did you prepare for the role? And in what ways can you perhaps see the histories you carry within you manifest themselves in everyday life?

MU: I was born in Rwanda in 1990. By November 1990, my mother and I had fled the political instability in Rwanda for Uganda, where I would live for the next seven years, with the rest of her family that had fled Rwanda in 1959 and were now settled in the capital city, Kampala. By the time I could make sense of things, I knew what Genocide was, what pain was, what running away from home was and what being a refugee meant. Between the laughter that my lovely and lively family produced around the house, were long moments of deep sadness, helplessness and anger. As a child, I knew that, I felt that. 

To make ends meet my mother was a flight attendant, but at heart she was an interior designer. Her two brothers were visual artists, her two sisters performing artists, my grandmother a tailor. At a young age I was surrounded by art. It was a loud and lively household and I was drawn to the cheekiness my aunties had - I too, one day... would be a cheeky performing school girl! And I was. By the time I was 17, I was in boarding school in Kigali, at Lycée de Kigali and by 19, I had all the most unnecessary high school drama you need to graduate successfully in a bi-lingual High School majoring in math and physics. During my Sophomore year at Fordham University in New York, I was cast as a Rwandan School girl in an Off-Broadway Show by Katori Hall called "Our Lady of Kibeho", a story of Rwandan Schoolgirls who were visited by Mother Mary in Kibeho, predicting the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. 

As an actor, there are technical ways to prepare for a role, but it was the understanding of my family and country's history as well as the unique opportunities that had presented themselves to me in the past that really helped inform my character, Immaculée. 

Without giving too much away, I think one of the many scenes that brought up a lot of emotions for me was the shot of the girls dancing outside in the rain at night, shortly after the death of a fellow student. It is exceptionally captivating and emotive. Now that a couple of years have passed since filming, what is a scene or an on-set experience that you can still remember quite vividly or that stands out to you?

MU: Immaculée in many ways was a rebel. She did not partake in the popular yet hateful ideology that was wildly spreading in her school. In class, she was daydreaming about gorillas, and when she wasn't teasing her best friend Frida for being married to a Congolese Diplomat, she was writing letters to her very own sweetheart. 

The scene that sticks out the most to me still, is when Immaculée was writing a letter to her lover and one of the girls in the dorm snatches it from her hands and begins reading it aloud. In shock Immaculée runs to get her letter back, but it is already in someone else's hands being read aloud, this scene turns into a pillow fight, and feathers escape from the pillows flying into the girls, laughing, running around in the snow falling feathers. This scene was super fun to shoot - challenging too, we could only do two takes because of how wild the feathers were, but most importantly, it's what this scene represented that continues to strike me even today. The innocence that was in each of our hearts, the playfulness, the sisterhood. At that moment, there were no Hutu, Tutsi or Twa, there were only girls playing. 

What I greatly admire about Our Lady of the Nile is how many social issues it manages to capture and highlight within the time span of a single feature. Aside from the historical focus of events taking place in the lead up to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, during which many Tutsi lost their lives, the film, for example, touches on the broader after-effects of colonialism, European complicity, forms of bias in curriculums, women's lack of agency over their own bodies, the oppression of local language, and the gross portrayal of the exotification of black people - particularly women of colour. Issues that are currently still being fought against and rights that are still being fought for. Having worked in productions across the globe, I am sure you have gained an incredibly broad perspective on some issues and can speak to a variety of lived experiences. Are there any issues raised within the film that you feel most confronted with in contemporary life? 

MU: I think I am always confronted with Colonialism and Racism. How these issues manage to gain a level of entitlement to exotisize, objectify, enslave, degrade and disregard the damage done on the Black and Brown race. How reparations are looked at as handouts or absurd. Or how little has been done over the years and how much more work needs to be done. As a child, I thought that by the time I was an adult, things would be better for us. It's a hard reality to accept that they are not. 

In the above, I quickly mentioned that you have previously worked in different countries, but I believe you are now based in New York?

MU: I am now based in Portland, Maine USA. I love to think I still live in Kigali, Rwanda but the reality of it is that I spend most of the time in the USA working on different art projects. I write and perform my own poetry, I act in film and theatre and I make music as well.

So much has happened on a global scale this year, but the United States, in particular, has been faced with a lot of political and social challenges - or opportunities one could say as well. Our Lady of the Nile inherently exhibits that colonialist backgrounds and systems built on social injustice give rise to contemporary issues - gaining independence or abolishing certain laws does not automatically absolve the past, as it continues to influence the present and future. You have been quite vocal about important issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent presidential election within the States as well. What is something that you believe carries hope within these moments? And do you think that there is a growing universal awareness and willingness to unpack these systemic issues?

MU: I think to solve a problem, the first thing to do is acknowledge it for what it is. It remains very clear that there are many people who are still racist in 2020 consciously and unconsciously. I think part of what is happening now, is people are being forced to look at the damage racism has done, continues to do, forced to look at its ugliness, forced to change - forced to know what is happening, forced to know what happened - forced to see the truth. I think there is hope in that. 

Another thing I see hope in,  is the work that Black and Brown people are doing for themselves. Living in a racist nation/world, it takes a lot of strength to strive to not make this be their whole story. To find our own stories to tell in this very biased script, and to thrive from it. I often tell my friends that one way we can all rebel 24/7 is to show up as we are - fully! To be Black fully, is to rebel. When we take time for ourselves to heal, to connect, to take care of our hearts, minds and bodies, we are empowering ourselves. The enemy does not want us to do that - so we must do it by all means necessary! 

2020 has been quite the tumultuous year for the creative industries as well. How do you approach creative projects these days? Has this year changed your perspective on the kind of work that you see yourself doing in the future?

MU: 2020 has been very challenging and as an artist I have had to be creative. COVID-19 may have taken away my opportunities to be on the world tour for Notre Dame Du Nil and A USA Cartography (a theatre play) tour this year and 2021, but it never took away my ability to create. I have been working on a screenplay as well as music, I still interact with my fans via social media and have found ways to perform via Zoom. I have kept myself busy in all of this stillness and I choose to remain grateful and optimistic. 

For any potential viewers who decide to join in on AiM's screening of Our Lady of the Nile on September 26th or 27th, what is one key takeaway that you would like them to leave the viewing experience with? 

MU: This happened, this is not just a film. 

And to end on a more personal note, what does the film mean to you as a whole?

MU: It's an African Classic - like how The Sound of Music never left our minds, this film will also remain in our hearts and minds forever. It tastefully brings to the surface very complex issues that we are forced to consider as humans moving forward. There are lessons in every scene and I am so proud I could be a part of such a powerful story. I am forever thankful to Mukasonga Scholastique who had the courage to beautifully pen her story, providing a role for a Rwandan Actor. Forever thankful for Hope Azeda and Atiq Rahimi for their trust and direction. 

To stay up to date on Malaika Uwamahoro, her upcoming projects, current creations, and activism follow her on Instagram at @uwa_mahoro and Twitter @MalaikaWamahoro.

Sharon Thomas is a recently graduated, Swiss-American, Glasgow-based Film Curation Postgrad with a passion for all things film, TV, and theatre. Involved in programming, event planning, and marketing, she has worked and volunteered for an array of screen-related organisations and festivals such as Africa in Motion, Take One Action, the Edinburgh International TV Festival, and Screen Queensland. Growing up in a variety of countries and cultures has shaped her interests in many ways, and she continues to strive to help create a more inclusive future within the Arts - a place where people from all different backgrounds can come together, learn, and grow.