Rwandan refugee's soap opera promoting tolerance wins film festival award

News Stories, 10 May 2006

© N. Lucie, Le Matin d'Abidjan
Joseph Mouganga, Rwandan director of a UNHCR-produced film promoting tolerance, won the Audience Award at the FICA festival in Abidjan for short feature films.

ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, May 10 (UNHCR) An episode of a UNHCR-produced soap opera promoting tolerance in Côte d'Ivoire won the Audience Award at the 7th FICA film festival (Festival international du court métrage d'Abidjan) in Abidjan in the short features category.

Directed by young Rwandan refugee Joseph Mouganga, "The Birthday" is one of 12 episodes of a soap opera which UNHCR developed as part of a tolerance campaign launched in 2003 at the height of tensions in Côte d'Ivoire. The audience voted it best film among entries from 20 different African countries.

"I am very happy to have received this prize, which I consider to be the best there is," said an overjoyed Mouganga. "I am convinced that the audience has understood the message. I am a refugee and refugees have won this prize through me. When refugees win such a prize, it means that we are loved by the host population. I want to pay tribute to them."

Mouganga, himself a refugee, left his country in 1994, fleeing genocide and civil war in his homeland, Rwanda. His journey took him through the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. In 1995 he arrived in Côte d'Ivoire.

"I so much wanted to stay at home, to live there and die there, but fate decided otherwise," he said.

He still vividly remembers his arrival in Côte d'Ivoire and his first contacts with UNHCR.

"When you are a refugee, you have no parents nor family.... UNHCR was everything for us," he said. "But in my case, the interviews brought me back to a past which I wanted to forget. I had to tell my story, which I found too painful."

Instead of asking for refugee status, Mouganga decided to fight and make a life for himself, like many other foreigners in the country.

In 1996, he met Kieffolo Benjamin, the technical director of RTI (Ivorian Radio and Television), who trained him in audiovisual techniques, igniting his passion for film work. A year later, he started to work in a local non-governmental organisation where he produced and edited a film, "AIDS in the City." He also met Henri Duparc, one of the biggest Ivorian cineastes. Duparc, who recently died, took Mouganga under his wing and became his biggest source of inspiration.

"He liked what I did," Mouganga said. "I was not considered an employee; he let me do his work because he had faith in me. I was a freelancer."

When UNHCR in 2003 decided to produce a soap opera as part of its campaign, "Your Tolerance Can Make a Difference" (Votre Tolérance Peut Faire La Différence), Mouganga jumped at the chance to be involved. He had the perfect profile and the right experience. The campaign was aimed at fostering co-existence between Ivorians and foreigners, particularly refugees who were often despised and targeted by the local population during the height of the Ivorian conflict.

"I wanted to participate in this project to pass on a message," explained Mouganga. "I adapted the script and added my own testimony, to show the real expectations of a refugee, his life in society, his difficulties, his fears and his hopes. I wanted the film to bring hope to refugees and show that life can actually improve. They can return home or become a part of society, if they wish so."

Mouganga complains bitterly that the wars in Africa never seem to stop.

"After the tragedy in Rwanda, I told myself that no more wars should happen in Africa," he said. "But I quickly understood that that is an illusion."

Ongoing conflict, internal problems and displacement even in his country of refuge have not discouraged the young director.

"No one should ever see refugee status as a handicap ... we should use it as a second chance to start a new life," he says.

Today, married to an Ivorian with a two-year-old child, he is fully integrated in Ivorian society. But Mouganga still hopes to return home to Rwanda one day.

"I miss my hill," he said. "Rwanda will always be my home and I want my children to know it too."

The soap opera series, "Résidence Akwaba," consists of 12 half-hour episodes focusing on the daily life, joy and problems of foreigners and migrants in Côte d'Ivoire and their interaction with the local population. The series will be launched in Abidjan on World Refugee Day, June 20, and will run on RTI throughout the summer.

By Simplice Kpandji in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire