When you walk with Gratien Niyitegeka, 39, commonly known as Seburikoko, on the streets of Kigali, heads turn constantly. You cannot have an uninterrupted conversation as fans stop to say hello while others simply stare and whisper in groups.
Worse still, some drivers will cause unwarranted traffic jam and get away with it if no police officers are in sight. All this side of his fame was, to some extent, a bearable distraction recently as I had a chat with the down-to-earth comedian while escorting him from The New Times’ offices.
The half hour walk and chat revealed much more about the man than the 50-minute recorded interview back in the newsroom.
The budding actor’s most well-known stage name comes from Seburikoko, a local comedy TV series.
In 2002, Niyitegeka enrolled at the then Kigali Institute of Education (KIE) to study biology, geography and education and graduated in 2007. He later taught Biology, Geography and Chemistry at FAWE Girls’ School in Kigali before a brief break to pursue a stint in the journalism and acting. He resumed teaching in 2010 at Collège Saint-Ignace de Mugina in Kamonyi District.
By then, however, he continued doing a radio cultural show as well as informal training in music and acting.
Today, the man is an actor, writer (script designing), singer, and film producer in his own right and is determined to accomplish something despite all odds.
The man known as Seburikoko, Sekaganda or Ngiga – his other stage names – is the son of Tharcisse Ngarukiye and Bernadetta Mukarusharaza [RIP]. His mother passed on earlier this month. He was born in Rulindo District in Ntarabana Sector on November 25, 1978.
His performing talent first manifested in 1995 when as a primary six pupil he participated in a poetry contest and was awarded for “best short poem”.
“I was encouraged but it was not until I went to secondary school that I started composing short plays”.
At the time, he was an underprivileged day scholar. He would trek four hours to and from school every day because his poor parents could not afford to pay for boarding tuition. But because of his artistic genius the school offered him a place in the boarding school.
“It was a huge relief as I used to walk for about 20 kilometers every day,” he said, calling to mind memories of his rural home in Kiyanza village and the winding paths he moved through in the tin-rich Rutongo mining region.
Later on, while at Groupe Scolaire Rilima, a secondary school in Bugesera District where he studied biology and chemistry, his creativity and talent blossomed more. He got more active in the school club and focused on his one man act, improved his singing and traditional warrior poetry [ibyivugo].
Niyitegeka recalls that his “initial big breakthrough came in 1998” thorough his first play titled “Isi irikoreye,” a play he performed for the national unity and reconciliation event. He was then a senior four student.
A difficult career journey
Those who don’t really know him and what his career journey entails think he is a very rich guy but he says it is a tough journey and not as rosy as people think.
“What I have right now is not encouraging to fans. There are no financial backers. The problem for us artistes from humble backgrounds is that even those people who are needed to support you in any role are going to ask you for transport facilitation.
“When I have a show, for my parents to come I am the one to facilitate their transport. Even my colleagues will ask for transport. A journalist who has promoted me in one way or another will ask for a free ticket for his girlfriend. This is a serious issue. You stage a professional show hoping that two thirds of the audience will pay for entry but it just doesn’t work and it all fails”.
Those who don’t know might also think he benefitted from specialized coaching but that is not the case.
“It all comes from my passion and informal education by imitation, observation, reading, research on YouTube and other forms of informal education. Then later, there were a few short workshops but I never went to any formal acting school,” he explained.
Last year, he started work with the Public Broadcaster on a children’s programme called Itetero aimed at designing plays for children.
Around 2003, he started participating in national acting competitions including regional inter-university events.
In 2004, his poem was chosen for staging during commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. In 2005, he was a winner with his one hour one-man act. At the time, his numerous Kinyarwanda poems were also quickly gaining fame.
In 2009, he joined the cinema realm. His first short series was ‘Zirara zishya’ where he stars as Sekaganda.
His next short film was ‘Inshuti’ (friends) in 2013. Seburikoko started in 2015 and Niyitegeka explained that the series was created by Wilson Misago Nelly, who was a co-actor in ‘Inshuti’.
“The film was to be based on all aspects of rural life and I fit in because I have toiled and lived it all. After piloting the first few episodes, the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) approved that we could work together.”
Goodbye to teaching
At the time, he was a fulltime teacher at Groupe Scolaire Kimironko in Kigali. But he was “forced to make a tough decision” because his acting role in the new film would not be combined with fulltime teaching job.
“I was compelled to officially say goodbye to teaching and go act fully in Seburikoko. I had also become an actor in the radio drama, ‘Indamutsa’, at Radio Rwanda as well as another play, ‘Impano n’impamba’, a serial drama involving the UNFPA. I thought that whatever the case, I would not fail to earn a living”.
With a take home teacher’s salary of about Rwf118, 000, he worried about what would happen if his acting career failed. But he risked it anyway. At the time, a teacher with a university degree earned a salary of Rwf135,000.
His acting roles as well as emceeing at weddings, he hoped, would help make ends meet.
“If all went well, I earned around Rwf200,000 a month from acting and emceeing alone. But let’s be careful here; a teacher had medical insurance and the right to a bank loan plus the recognition and other things which an actor is not guaranteed. That is why moving on scared me,” said the actor.
Today, on a good month, he earns at least Rwf800,000 from acting. It is not enough as he has to re-invest in his challenging line of business but he is optimistic.
A humble celebrity
Asked if he arrived for the interview at The New Times’ offices driving his own car, Niyitegeka looked taken aback. The question, apparently, was unanticipated.
But his quick, thorough and emphatic responses were very revealing about his personality.
“I did not. If I wanted a car I could have one. But I don’t need one now,” he answered, adding:
“I don’t own a car. And I will tell you why; in my life and in my philosophy, I want and strive to become a star but one that lives a simple life. The problem with Rwandan artistes is that we live beyond our means and in perpetual debt. That is not the life I want.
I will say it again. I want to be a simple star that lives a good life; a star that is not an embarrassment in society, does not end up begging, and continues growing and improving. How do I benefit from this way of life? It means I won’t live a solitary life because my work necessitates interacting with people. It is how, for example, I get ideas for my oral poetry,” he said.
His point was that famous people tend to build a fence around them and thus cut normal interactions with common folk. This, he argues, would not allow him to stay in touch with real life society issues that he needs to highlight in his acting and poetry.
Another thing, he said, living beyond his means would be a foolish move as he is not really earning big.
“In other countries when you produce a song and it hits, radios and televisions pay you but that’s not the case here. You gain fame but earn nothing. This is the case with so many artistes in our film sector who are known but have no money and no artistic creativity”.
Today, most of every penny he earns is “reinvested in new creative works” so that, hopefully, in future he gains the right momentum and earns fittingly.
His newest web drama series called ‘Papa Sava’ launched on July 21 is also gaining traction.
“I don’t regret that my earnings go into new creations but my wish is that people out there would at least start thinking that if they like our work, they understand that it should be paid for”.
His YouTube channel, called Niyitegeka Gratien Sebo, presently has nearly 2,000 subscribers.
“For an artist to be paid by YouTube, he or she must have at least 1,000 subscribers, be viewed at least 4,000 hours and be online for a year.”
“Once you fulfill all these and the product is genuinely yours, you can be monetized. I am now working hard to add very good content. If viewers like it and watch from my channel without downloading, which is piracy and a loss, I will start earning”.
His channel which started in April had just about 1,800 hours of viewership during the initial interview last month. Today, it has more than 6,600 subscribers and he is earning from his hard work, thanks to his growing fan base.