When Francois Byamana says acting saved his life, he's not exaggerating. A split-second decision to pretend to be from somewhere else, and affect a Zairian accent, very likely kept him alive when, in 1994, his native Rwanda exploded into a bloody genocide.

Then aged 20 and preparing to study journalism at university, Byamana, who speaks five languages, used his linguistic skills to talk his way out of Rwanda into the refugee camps of Zaire.

Able to act as an interpreter, he became a valued assistant to a number of aid workers, including New Zealand's Bob Askew. Working for the Red Cross in two crowded camps, Askew, an environmental health officer, was charged with the near-impossible task of getting fresh water supplies to the thousands fleeing the genocide and seeking safety in the camps.

After years spent moving around refugee camps, often in grave danger, Byamana was able, through Askew and other Kiwi contacts, to obtain refugee status and settle in New Zealand. He's been here for 12 years now and is a "Kiwi Rwandan".


Having lived to tell his tale, it will now be heard when A Thousand Hills opens in Auckland on Thursday. It's a compelling true-life story which pays tribute to the hundreds of thousands killed in Rwanda, but it also celebrates hope, humanity and the opportunity for new beginnings.

The cast includes established local names Joe Folau, Andrew Grainger, Michele Hine and Bruce Phillips as well as African artists Richard Yaw Boateng (Ghana), Karima Madut (Sudan) and Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson (Kenya) alongside Byamana.

Sitting in a rehearsal room at the Auckland Performing Arts Centre (Tapac) surrounded by an assortment of African drums and instruments, Byamana hopes A Thousand Hills will challenge the stereotypes people have about Africa and encourage understanding.

The play has been years in the making, carefully crafted by writer Mike Hudson, director Margaret-Mary Hollins and Byamana himself. The trio met through Mixit, an arts programme at Tapac designed to help people from refugee backgrounds learn more about New Zealand, update their skills and establish new networks.

At the time, Hollins was working on 500 Letters, Pauline Grogan's one-woman play about her friendship with the country's longest hospital in-patient, James Lynch, who spent 44 years in Tauranga Hospital following an accident as a teenager. Grogan interwove Lynch's tale with her own astonishing life story.

Initially, the plan was to stage a similar show with Byamana talking about his life and his journey to this country. However, Hudson says after detailed discussions, and talking to Bob Askew, he knew there was a bigger story to be told.

"I just followed the heart of the story and it kept evolving. The more research I did, the more I realised it was a big story with big issues and every one of the characters who have ended up in it seemed to be vital."

He became acutely interested in the politics and business of aid work; the mass of contradictions in trying to do the right thing in situations where ethics and morality are challenged on a daily basis.


As the story and characters grew, Auckland Theatre Company's Literary Unit manager Philippa Campbell was brought in to assist with its shaping. Hollins says Campbell's advice was invaluable and led to the story being set in a refugee camp and focused on Byamana and Askew's efforts to get water into the camps.

Scenes where the two men go exploring caves searching for underground streams are gripping. It takes just minutes to convey the myriad obstacles they face.

But A Thousand Hills also looks at Byamana's early life. Discussing his happy childhood and highlighting his dreams helps dispel the images of famine and war commonly associated with Africa.

Boateng, a teacher and musician from Ghana in West Africa, makes a telling comment when he says he was just as interested as the European cast members to learn more about Rwanda because it's a world away from his homeland experiences.

He points out there are 54 countries in Africa, all with a variety of people, languages and cultural traditions, with only a small number at war. While life might be hard in many places, he says it's often happy with a strong social and cultural heart.

Folau says he got a shock early when Karima Madut who, at 19, has lived in NZ for 11 years, spoke to him in a strong local accent and confessed she was concerned about her ability to put on an African one.

But there have been more serious discussions about what binds us and, alternatively, can turn neighbour against neighbour almost overnight. Folau says comprehending the scale of the killing and the motivations behind it has been a challenge.

"It's hard to find those kinds of emotions but Francois explained how when something happens on that scale, everything is turned upside down and you can become desensitised so killing becomes like cutting a blade of grass."

Grainger, who plays Nick, an aid worker modelled on Bob Askew, says there is a tendency to dismiss what happens in far-off places as sad and unfortunate but nothing to do with us.

"We tend to think, 'oh, it's terrible' but because it's happening 'over there' we just dismiss it and forget about it. This humanises the story."

Byamana says it was important to take the time to perfect the production and combine traditional Western theatre with African performing arts.

Music is often used to divide up dramatic stories, giving the audience a chance to pause, consider what they've seen and ready themselves for the next scenes.

African drumming, led by Boateng, and songs feature prominently while the design, by John Verryt, uses natural elements such as wood and rope to reflect the environment of the refugee camps.

Naturally, Byamana is nervous about sharing his highly personal story but says it is something he has wanted to do for a long time.

"From the beginning, I had faith in Margaret-Mary and Mike and I am pleased we have taken our time. We have created an atmosphere of trust and I know it will happen the way I want. I feel there are hands around me supporting me.

"We have created a village and we are all together. The diversity of the cast truly adds to the production."

What: A Thousand Hills

Where & When: Herald Theatre, October 20-30