In 2003, Jean Paul Samputu (1) won the Kora Award, the most prestigious music award in Africa. Reviewers praised what they called "musical yells" or "growly voices" to describe the new timbre Jean Paul had introduced to the traditional music of Rwanda. In 2004 I learned that Jean Paul was in Kigali and I contacted him. He accepted to meet for coffee. Unfortunately, he did not have time for a long interview. We rescheduled. Finally we reconnected last year when he moved to the UK. I went to Manchester during late spring to interview him; I joined him again in London during the summer; then in Brighton as he moved there to work on his most recent album; and the last interview took place last autumn when he was visiting Sweden. All this time, I had a lot of questions about Rwanda’s traditional music. But Jean Paul wanted to tell his story of forgiveness. Music will be for another day. Now is time for a story of a man who finds ways to escape hatred, fear, and revange, "to live his own life", in the wake of the destruction of his kin. It is a story of "thinking nonviolently" (2) .


Rafiki Ubaldo, Knivsta, Sweden, January 17, 2016


...music, prison, exile, and war...

Jean Paul Samputu and Vincent Ntakirutimana are childhood friends. Also, Vincent had great respect for Jean Paul's father, a retired civil servant and a respected elder. And Jean Paul's father admired Vincent for being an exemplary schoolteacher. A strong friendship existed between the three of them. But Vincent killed the old man during the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda. Years later, during a gacaca court session in the summer of 2007, Jean Paul forgave Vincent. All this happened outside Butare town in the south of Rwanda. Jean Paul and Vincent went on to celebrate their reconciliation. They took a table at a well-known restaurant in the area. A friend of Jean Paul stepped up from another table, approached him and said: “You may forgive him. But coming here to celebrate your so-called reconciliation in front of us? Can’t you find some hidden pubs where you can go and celebrate your victory?” But it was too late for complaints. News was spreading like fire. Jean Paul Samputu, an internationally acclaimed singer songwriter, has forgiven his father’s killers. And he forgave them in public. It was the first time such a thing happened in post-genocide Rwanda. Jean Paul went on to start a global campaign of forgiveness. He now travels the world giving lectures, talking at conferences, and using his music to attract attention to his story of forgiveness and love. He likes to repeat Martin Luther King’s saying, “Forgiveness should be a permanent attitude.” But Jean Paul’s own attitude has not always been forgiving. It took him years to get where he is today.


On October 4, 1990, the Rwandan government arrested Jean Paul and sent him to the infamous prison of Gitarama, in the center of the country. He was accused of being an accomplice of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). This was a rebel group of Rwandan exiles that had attacked the country three days earlier, on October 1, 1990. “There was a credible suspicion, but it was all a mistake, I am just a simple artist” says Jean Paul. He could not convince the government that he did not know the whereabouts of Valens Kajeguhakwa, a wealthy businessman and a sponsor of his music band. For years, Valens Kajeguhakwa had been close to Juvénal Habyarimana, the then President of Rwanda. But now Valens Kajeguhakwa was unhappy with the fate of Rwandan refugees who were being denied the right to return home to Rwanda. So, months before the RPF attack, he fled the country to join the RPF leadership in Uganda.


Jean Paul spent six months in prison. “It was six months of hell and I spent that time thinking that if I ever get out I will leave the country immediately” recalls Jean Paul. After serving his jail sentence he was forced to go back to his hometown in the south of Rwanda. His father took him out for a beer. “It was the first time I shared a beer with my father. He took me to Triangle d’Or, a popular place in the neighborhood and he bought me a beer. I felt I was officially allowed to drink. I can’t forget that moment!”


The father urged him to leave the country as soon as possible. Jean Paul arranged a trip to Kigali to meet a friend who lived there. He needed help to sell his car before leaving the country. After complex arrangements, it was agreed that the friend would collect the money secretly, and send it to Jean Paul in exile. He then returned to his hometown and stayed there for a couple of days. As soon as he was sure the authorities believed he was settled, he left. Family and friends smuggled him across the border. He went to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Members of his band followed him soon after. They joined out of solidarity and friendship. They wanted music to transcend war and ethnic divisions.


Once in Bujumbura, the band started to play again. Jean Paul recalls that at one occasion their concert was so well attended that when he and his colleagues came to sing, they could not get to the stage because the place was full of people. They were lifted, went from hands to hands in the air, until they reached the stage. Later, Jean Paul decided to join the RPF and use his music to mobilize and fundraise for the war against the Rwandan government. He moved to Uganda. He also toured Europe on behalf of the RPF.


After his European tour, Jean Paul went back to the Rwandan territory controlled by the RPF. His band became popular among RPF soldiers and commanders, including Paul Kagame, then a rebel leader, now President of Rwanda. “We were at the hill of Bungwe in the north of Rwanda sometime in 1991. We had just finished playing for them, and Kagame asked me and my colleague De Gaulle to play two particular songs one more time. One song is about the injustices Rwandan refugees were facing at the time. The other song is about the military strengths of the RPF fighters. Kagame listened to the lyrics of both songs attentively. He kept nodding and when we finished singing he approached us and told us that our music is important to the struggle. He then asked the soldiers to sing and dance for us as a way to thank us.”

Jean Paul Samputu with Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, some time in 2007 (courtesy, Stephen Paletta).

Copyright @ Rafiki Ubaldo