Nyiragasigwa Hens: Belgian-Rwandan actress, community builder, creative co-mother of BeHuman/The Pride of Colour/Rwanda en Zoveel Meer.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, my name is Nyiragasigwa Hens. I am a Rwandan actress, adopted and raised in Turnhout, the Kempen. I have been living in Antwerp for ten years. I'm in the creative sector, within the performing arts. Creating, supporting and facilitating. I'm mainly busy with LGBTQ-plus theme
Can you tell us more about your projects BeHuman, Rwanda en Zoveel Meer and how they started?
Rwanda en Zoveel Meer has been around longer than BeHuman. Ten years ago, I started looking for my family. It was a bizarre journey to track down my family. The adoption agency located in Oud Turnhout, which had brought us to Belgium, also organised the 'roots' trips. This gave us a double feeling. First, the organisation had torn children away from their families - made money from this - and then said: "You know what, you can go back...".
Gradually, I learned other things, documents disappeared and other files were falsified. In short, more and more obscurity and filth came to the surface. As adopted children from Rwanda, we ended up in Belgium mostly with false pretences. The adoption agency refused to give all the information they had about us and even threatened to burn the documents. They told us all kinds of lies. The agency doesn't exist anymore. They lost their license.
“As adopted children from Rwanda, we ended up in Belgium mostly with false pretences.”
After I returned to Belgium, my search gradually expanded. I wanted to offer an alternative to the 'only' place we knew as 'the adoption agency'. And looking for all adopted Rwandans (five hundred) - fairly utopian. It was important to make a connection with these other adopted children. How did they see their journey? How did they experience their journey? We first started a Facebook page and have about three hundred and sixty members, a combination of adopted and non-adopted Rwandans. I think I found a little less than half in total, because not everyone wants to be in touch with their roots.
Vzw BeHuman is the non-profit organisation with which I do creative projects. Jaouad Alloul is my partner in crime at BeHuman. I'm more of a Creative Mother and he's the Founding Father, who also supports the financial side. BeHuman… everything runs so organically. That's very pleasant. I don't feel like I'm working at all. It's mainly an idea I dream of. Namely the development of creative projects from A to Z, in terms of money, making contacts, setting out the lines, executing and finding a creative language to translate my concepts. BeHuman is a non-profit organisation that does a lot of activities. We are very diverse. We organise events such as The Pride of Colour, but also support young artists who have previously chosen performing arts, but have not necessarily attended drama school. Young creators can come up with an idea and BeHuman says: "We can handle that, we'll go all the way with you from A to Z".
Often, I try to find partnerships, such as with prisons or with young people. For two years, we also worked with homeless people. It was a combination of dance therapy, spoken word and theater. BeHuman has also created three children's and youth performances - Mermaid, Nala & Amir and Boom Toudou. I directed the children's performance Mermaid for Jaouad. He performed for about one hundred and twenty to one hundred and thirty schools. It's a story that still lives on today. We are now turning it into a school project. It will be a kind of digital folder that exposes certain taboos and helps themes around religion and homosexuality be discussed better. We also do workshops or events on request. As far as events are concerned, we concentrate more on The Pride Of Colour. Jana Tricot, Jaouad and I do The Pride Of Colour together. I certainly forgot other things, but that's about it.
What is your role in both organisations?
Jaouad and I have joint assignments together, but sometimes we also have our own projects. For example, I'm currently rehearsing with a guy for WipCoop (Work in progress) from Mestizo Arts Festival. I'm doing this by myself. The Mestizo Arts Festival is organised annually for young performing artists. The festival actually serves to network. At the moment, I support this young man by arranging rehearsal rooms, applying for subsidies, set pieces, rehearsing together, or putting him in touch with other people. His piece will be released in November.
In September, we will start with another performance from BeHuman called Phenomenal Woman. It's a piece with only women and will be performed in the Slachthuislaan, where Rooftoptiger is also located.
I want to move more in the direction of location theater, away from the black box. I also want to be more busy with making scenery pieces from recycled material because sometimes it's all a bit too uniform within theater (Hahaha).
With Rwanda en Zoveel Meer I am the driving force, the founder, the one who pulls everyone's ears all the time (hahaha). But I must say, I don't like to lead. It has taken a couple of years before I found myself in this leadership role. I very much want other people to take responsibility for certain departments, but that is very difficult. Rwanda en Zoveel Meer really belongs to all adopted Rwandans. "Those who want to take a place and think, I can do something for them? I would love to!" It started for myself but really we do this for each other.
What do you want to achieve with BeHuman and Rwanda en Zoveel Meer?
With Rwanda en Zoveel Meer it's mainly having more visibility and be able to stand autonomously in relation to the adoption agency. We no longer have to depend on them and have our own contacts in Rwanda. We can organise our own Rwanda trips, have our own files without having to 'first' pass a 'white save your complex' old lady. (Imelda Devolder director Without Borders) That is actually the ultimate dream!
With BeHuman, we want to grow very big (laughing). Our own theater, a kind of meeting place for young people, a mix of people. If I think really big, I would go for a megalomaniac building like Den Bourla (Antwerp).
I would strip that down completely, so that when you came in, you'd say: “Yeah, cool.” It would be a cross-pollination between the neighbourhood and theater. Working together with prostitutes, street kids and people with an addiction.
“It would be a cross-pollination between the neighbourhood and theater. Working together with prostitutes, street kids and people with an addiction.”
You have moved from Turnhout to Antwerp. How long did you live in Antwerp and what kept you there?
I left Turnhout when I was fifteen. First, I went to boarding school in Brussels at De Kunsthumaniora. At that time, it was still in the Moutstraat next to The Rits. After Brussels, I spent one year in Antwerp at Studio Herman Teirlinck. After that, I lived in Ghent for seven years and did the Conservatory. After Ghent, I came back to Antwerp and still live there. Why am I still here? I grew older, live closer to my family and have built a life here in the meantime. When you're younger you still have that elasticity. Let's look here, let's look over there...sometimes I think, oh maybe I should go to Berlin or the Netherlands. But BeHuman is here. It's work that I enjoy and want to continue!
You're an activist. Why is activism so important? What are you standing up for?
I don't think of myself as an activist. But if other people like to call me that, that's ok. It's rather that I see something out of balance, and want to bring it back into balance. In part it is also a natural dynamic, one I carry that out via social themes. For me, that is not activism, but rather necessary and human.
“It's rather that I see something out of balance, and want to bring it back into balance.”
What does the Safe space concept mean to you?
Mmm...Safe space, I don't really know if it exists. Safe haven, I can still find myself in it. You know... that you can land somewhere and feel safe. "Really a Safe space...where you go, where you define and say, this is safe now, I don't believe that at all. Inside safety, there is also insecurity. It's only because of movement that you can keep something safe. Anyway, you always enclose an insecurity, especially when it stagnates.
I think it's a nice word and I've used it many times myself. There is indeed a need for POCs to have a safe environment. I myself also need a community in which I feel good. I didn't know that either, places of which the majority is black. A Safe space is sometimes, only blacks are allowed. That's just necessary. But to call it that? I don't know...
“Really a Safe space...where you go, where you define and say, this is safe now, I don't believe that at all. Inside safety, there is also insecurity.”
What is it like to be a black lesbian woman in 2020?
It's a lot and certainly a big challenge! 2020 has become a year that is an eventful time for people of different color, orientation and gender. Everything is being questioned and many are really looking for equality. On the edge of all those themes are: Black - white/ male - woman/ straight - LGBTQ. I also believe in energetic matters. I think the silence before the storm was already felt for a long time, for people who were energetically open. I don't know what to expect, but I suspect that a lot is still to come. The fight or battle is certainly not over yet. But these are special, exceptional, intense, beautiful, emotional, yet sometimes very hard and confronting times. The playtime is over. Now it has to happen, now we have to talk, now we have to act!
“Now it has to happen, now we have to talk, now we have to act!”
“Now it has to happen, now we have to talk, now we have to act!”
You're also an actress. Where did you study theater and did you experience problems due to the color of your skin during your education or work?
YES! Certainly! I have always played in youth theater. That was called Theater42 where Rudy Meeuws was director. That's where I really discovered my love for theater. I started at De Kunsthumaniora in Brussels, then went to Studio Herman Teirlinck and finally was at The Conservatory in Ghent. If you go to a theater school like Studio Herman Teirlinck - now more than twenty years ago - the reading is just western. It's not that it's less good, but I couldn't identify myself. It is according to their jargon, within their framework. It's not really a problem, but it does cause problems in your own development.
When you graduate there, you are almost a product of the school. There is no openness or possibility at all to bring in your own cultural creativity. In the Conservatory, there was more openness and you could talk about it. I actually never went back to those schools. The roles I got were either prostitute, nurse, masseuse or cleaning lady. The fact that a prostitute or a cleaning lady has to be of color means that this is also an installed fact. "For a prostitute or cleaning lady, you're not going to choose a 'blonde' with 'blue' eyes, surely!” I stopped auditioning, because I didn't feel like doing it anymore. The racism I experienced during my education is worse than 'in your face’ racism. I actually prefer 'in your face - racism', because then you can at least give an answer. In the meantime, I’ve stopped giving replies.
At BeHuman, I can be my own boss, lead my own projects and choose who I work with. The big word they use these days is inclusive. At BeHuman we breathe inclusiveness. We don't even have to tick that box. BeHuman is just inclusive! It took me twenty years to find a place where I could do my theater, but also retain my individuality. That's a quest and it's a good thing to look for. I just hope it will be different for those who come after me, which doesn't mean there is no structural racism anymore... I hope to contribute through BeHuman by having my voice heard, and at the same time just doing what you do and becoming indispensable. By not having to defend and explain yourself all the time, we will create our own island and make ourselves relevant. It also remains a submissive and colonial fact. May I please sit at the table with you? We don't have to do that anymore.
“In the meantime, I’ve stopped giving replies.”
African artists are still in a minority in the art world. How can we change this?
I think everything already exists. Café Congo in Brussels, for example, I think they are doing a great job! It's really in such a great position that can only get bigger. Meeting places create visibility and having your own community also makes the platform bigger. "We're not leaving and we're only getting bigger and bigger. So eat this sh*t!” (Hahaha)
“Having your own community also makes the platform bigger. "We're not leaving and we're only getting bigger and bigger. So eat this sh*t!” (Hahaha)”
BeHuman: BeHuman is an organisation that wants to connect stories with people. http://www.behumanvzw.be/
Rwanda en Zoveel Meer: Was born out of a desire to unite people of Rwandan descent. Organises activities, information days, meetings, parties. https://www.facebook.com/groups/rwandaenzoveelmeer/
The RZM photo exhibition is about how we feel as adopted Rwandans in a white society. Everyone has translated his or her own story into a portrait. This photo expo will travel. The next destination will be the Zomerfabriek.
"Our biggest dream is that the expo will one day be shown in Rwanda."
Nyira Hens is an Antwerp-based actress, community builder, co-creator Behuman and vzw Rwanda en Zoveel Meer.
Text: Naomi Uten
Copywriter: Anouk Fraweel
Photography: Studio Nu
Published on 25.08.2020