Madeleine Mukamabano: Out of Africa

Radio journalist Madeleine Mukamabano(Photo: RFI).

Rwandan radio journalist Madeleine Mukamabano likes the idea of “existing only through her voice.” In her weekly program on Radio France Internationale (RFI), she provides a unique glimpse into Africa.

Mukamabano, 55, is an early riser. “My days are never the same. I organize as I go; I improvise,” she says. But her improvisations have one consistent goal: to host RFI’s “Le débat africain,” as she has done every Sunday since 1990. Her sharp and uncompromising interviews with Africa’s political movers and shakers and her sonorous voice have gained her a solid reputation among her listeners. “She is the only person who manages to get African prime ministers and their opponents together on the air,” writes Paris’ Le Monde. “Only she can wake up political dinosaurs.” Each week, “La Dame de RFI,” as she is approvingly called, seeks out strikingly different points of view, avoiding, as she emphasizes in Jeune Afrique-L’Intelligent, “that horrible stereotyped language so common in debates.”

But when the debate dies down, she dreams of the other face of Africa, “the face of the ordinary people.” Originally from Rwanda, she studied in Uganda and worked in Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ethiopia before arriving in France in 1973 to pursue studies in social sciences at Paris’ Sorbonne.

With “one foot in France and the other in Africa” (Le Monde), she thinks of herself as a farmer at heart. “I was born in the country and dropped into the city by accident. I experience a very particular kind of joy as I listen to the peasants talking about the rain, the growing cycles, the seasons that pass. Even though I’m quite independent in my job, I still do not have the real freedom that only the country can provide.”

She was the winner of the 2000 Bayeux Award for war reporting for her program “Rwanda 1999” on the radio station France Culture, and her collection of interviews, “Rwanda: “Extinct Stars,” published September 1999 in the international literary magazine Autodafe, were praised for their “horrifying simplicity and frankness” by Margaret Drabble in a review in London’s The Guardian. Mukamabano’s haunting stories are also deeply personal: She has heard of countless atrocities firsthand, has spoken to many survivors. But she refuses to talk about herself. “All those wounds have helped me appreciate life,” is all she says. And yes, she is quite optimistic about Africa’s future.

“[My] pleasure is in walking around with a mask on,” says Mukamabano of her radio persona. “That’s the whole magic of radio. It is a lonely profession.”