BROOKE GLADSTONE: July 4th is Liberation Day in Rwanda and marks the day 13 years ago when Rwanda's genocidal government was routed from the capital, Kigali. Also 13 years ago Rwandan radio station RTLM went off the air. Its broadcasts helped to orchestrate a campaign of mass murder that left hundreds of thousands dead. As a result, after the Tutsi rebel army took control in Rwanda, it banned private radio stations for over a decade.
Today, that nation's new broadcasters are still trying to overcome the legacy of RTLM. You can hear that effort every Wednesday and Friday night, when Rwanda's airwaves broadcast a different message, one of reconciliation in the form of a radio soap opera. Michael Kavanagh reports from Rwanda. [BACKGROUND HUBBUB/VOICES] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: It's Friday night, and all across Rwanda's hills, people have gathered around their radios, waiting for the first few notes of a song that just about any Rwandan can hum. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: It's the theme to Musekeweya, Rwanda's wildly popular radio soap opera. At a small shop in a crowded Kigali neighborhood, about a dozen people have come by to drink sodas and beers and tune into this week's episode. [RADIO BROADCAST/RWANDA] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Essentially, Musekeweya is like a Rwandan version of Romeo and Juliet. Two young lovers, Shema and Batamuliza, want to get married, but they come from two different villages whose residents are sworn enemies. Each week, Batamuliza and Shema encounter new obstacles to their love - fires, thefts, murders.
Tensions between the two villages are always on the verge of exploding into mass violence, and through it all, Batamuliza and Shema struggle to unify the two sides. [BRIEF RADIO SHOW CLIP] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: According to the organization that broadcasts Musekeweya, almost 80 percent of Rwandans tune into the show. That's about six million people. [RWANDA] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: At the shop, a 12-year-old boy named Eric says he can name every character. There are about 30 of them. He goes through the list while he twirls a pack of cigarettes that he swears he just bought for his older brother. [RWANDA] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Everyone laughs when Eric says his favorite character is Gihayima, Musekeweya's town fool. [RWANDA/LAUGHTER] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Early one morning at Musekeweya's homemade studios in a wealthy Kigali neighborhood, the show's producers run through a sound check. [RWANDA] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: The concept for Musekeweya grew out of theories developed by two American psychologists about the origins of mass violence. By understanding how violence starts, the theory goes, people will understand how to avoid it and can begin the work of reconciling their differences.
Johan Deflander oversees the production of Musekeweya for the Dutch organization that funds it, La Benevolencija. JOHAN DEFLANDER: We're not talking about getting people a psychology degree. Not at all. It's just like what are the basic things you could do to help people out in your own community, which is extremely important, because if there is something that people lost during and after the genocide in this country, it's trust, of course, among people. MICHAEL KAVANAGH: To make their point, the show's writers, all Rwandan, decided to create a scenario that was similar to the situation leading up to the genocide but not so similar that it got them into trouble. Charles Rukundo is Musekeweya's head writer. THROUGH INTERPRETER: You have to think if we're going to say something related to the genocide, how are people going to react? So we try to give doses of our medicine bit by bit, but we have to do it slowly. MICHAEL KAVANAGH: The Tutsi-led government of Rwanda values stability over freedom of speech. Journalists and politicians who've challenged the government's interpretation of the genocide or who've suggested that Hutus lack a voice in Rwanda's one-party state have routinely been jailed or exiled.
This makes writing a show like Musekeweya particularly delicate. In fact, the writers never use the words Hutu or Tutsi or even the word genocide, but the symbolism in Musekeweya is clear. ERIC SEBAHUNGU: If you compare the two villages, you will compare Muhumuro as Hutus and Bumanzi as Tutsis. MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Eric Sebahungu is one of Musekeweya's stars. He plays the role of Samvura, the peacemaker. He himself is a genocide survivor. ERIC SABUHUNGU: I lost my father and my sister in the genocide. I think of them always, you know? I'm very sad that I'm an actor now, but my father is not there to see that. But [SIGHS] I feel proud, and I know that if my father sees me, he'll encourage me. [TALKING AND SINGING IN BACKGROUND] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Later in the morning, inside the recording booth, the cast shuffles through their scripts and rehearses a song for an upcoming episode. They are a mix of Hutu and Tutsi, young and old. Almost all of them lost family and friends during the genocide or in the wars that followed. [TALKING AND SINGING] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Monique Wingabia, the woman who plays Batamuliza, leads the singing. The verse goes, "We're asking God to give us insight to overcome hatred and let peace prevail among all people." It's kind of like a Rwandan version of We Shall Overcome. [TALKING AND SINGING UP AND UNDER] In this episode, one village is preparing for an attack on the other village. When a group of youth from both villages finds out, they organize a peace march, but the local security forces interrupt their singing and chanting with volleys of smoke grenades and arrests. [EXPLOSION AND SHOUTING] It's a lesson in courage in the face of authorities who use violence and fear to manipulate their citizens. [SHOUTING/BACKGROUND HUBBUB] How successful can Musekeweya be at teaching these lessons? It is, after all, only a radio show. But, as all Rwandans know, the power of radio is greater than most people could imagine. Again, Musekeweya's head writer, Charles Rukundo. [CHARLES RUKUNDO SPEAKING FRENCH] RUKUNDO, THROUGH INTERPRETER: RTLM was a radio station that was used to destroy, and now we're using radio to rebuild. And I think the show is a success because we're doing this in a neutral way. No one says, oh, Musekeweya is for Tutsis or Hutus. It's for everyone, and everyone likes it. [RWANDA] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Back at the store in Kigali, this week's episode comes to an end. As the theme music plays, one man says that he's impatient for Shema, who represents a Tutsi man, to finally marry Batamuliza, the Hutu love interest.
As the people head home, they'll walk along the streets of what has become one of the safest countries in Africa, but there's still deep distrust between Tutsis and Hutus. And as long as the government muzzles the press and exiles any opposition, it's left to fictional dramas, like Musekeweya, to let Rwandans talk about the distrust that still divides them, without directly talking about it. [SINGING/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Michael Kavanagh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]