New Contribution Script Text

In Search of Gilbert and Idrissa: African Students in the USSR 

Sandra Muteteri Heremans


In Search of Gilbert and Idrissa: African Students in the USSR. Artistic Research through the Development of Fictional Characters

From 1917, during the Russian revolution, all the way through to the late 1980s, the Soviet ideology that advocated Marxist ideals of color-blind internationalism and solidarity among the “oppressed of the world” resonated throughout the globe—including in the colonies, where social and racial inequality were an inseparable part of society. Intellectuals from different parts of the world—on the African continent, the Caribbean, as well as the Americas—saw the Soviet Union as a meeting point and thus a cradle for many communist-inspired revolutionary ideas.  For the Soviets the 1950s was characterized by a growing interest in the development of long-term relationships with several countries on the African continent. This happened through Joseph Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev. These stimulating interactions between the Soviet Union and the expanding independence movements on the African continent culminated in the symbolic organization of the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1957, where several delegations of African students were welcomed to Moscow. The festival attracted 34,000 people from 130 countries. Subsequently, on 5 February 1960, the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University), was established in Moscow. Soon the university was renamed after the murdered Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba and the official name became Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University. Students from Asia, Africa, and South America were given the opportunity to become specialists in various fields, in order to contribute to the construction of their newly independent countries.  

In 1961, the urgency for education was confirmed during the Conference of African States in Addis Ababa which was dedicated to this issue. Due to a shortage of cadres in the aftermath of the independences, the number of African students in the Soviet Union increased drastically to over 5,000 by the end of the 1960s. Up until the mid-1970s, the Soviets had developed relationships with radical strands of the independence movements in Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, some of whom fought for their independence with the support of Soviet militias. By 1990, on the eve of Soviet collapse, the number of African students had risen to 30,000, or 24 percent of the total body of foreign students. The reason why students chose to study in the Soviet Union varied from them simply looking for an educational opportunity, to them being attracted by the socialist experiment and looking for an anti-imperialist experience. 

My interest in the geopolitical and artistic relations between the Soviet Union and the African continent—as well as the experience of African students in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War—was triggered by coming across a letter from Moscow in my family archives, sent by a family friend, who was a Rwandan studying near Moscow during that time. Both the period and this geographic encounter had also previously caught my attention, as several renowned filmmakers from the African continent had studied in the Soviet Union and carried home the renowned form of Soviet montage in their films—filmmakers Ousmane Sembene, Sarah Maldoror, and Abderrahmane Sissako, for example.  

I started my research by exploring both the political and artistic interrelations in all the “layeredness” of the 1960s and 1970s, trying to gain an insight into the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War, and their entanglements with the politics on the African continent after its many independences—taking  particular interest in what the experience of individuals studying in the Soviet Union through a scholarship would be like. This research not only challenged my perceptions about that period in time—myself being of the generation that was raised after the fall of the Berlin Wall—but started to give me a deeper comprehension of this turbulent but also insightful period of society.  

Little is known about the personal experiences of the African students, their personal lives, personal positioning, and negotiation with the communist ideology, nor their trajectories after their return to their homelands. Using a screenplay as a research method allows entry to this unknown space. Through the figures of Gilbert and Idrissa, the story’s protagonists, I want to explore the historical potentiality of two intersecting narratives: postcolonial and East European, as a refuge from a geopolitically constructed western reading of history. Being born in Rwanda, mostly raised in the west—in Belgium—has framed my perception of history, and by extension, my imagination and understanding around the Cold War and Eastern Europe. The experience of being perceived as a migrant enabled me to question and acknowledge the geopolitical ingredients in the imposed notions of history and, particularly, which histories are told. Therefore, I used counternarratives coming from more informal archives in the development of my research, such as oral histories and family archives.  

My research resulted in the performance of a written screenplay, surrounded by a mapping of historical images in my studio during my residency at Wiels, Centre for Contemporary Art, Brussels. The performance—and its projections and the misunderstandings that unfolded in the collage of historical images and personal dialogues—was an experimentation in rehearsing ways of engaging with oral knowledge beyond reproducing the violence inherent as much in the Cold War era as in the present world.[1]

Sandra Muteteri Heremans, wall drawing as part of research for the film, The Administrative Surroundings of Gilbert Basebya, on studio wall during WIELS, residency, June, 2021.
Screenwriting as Artistic Research  

Int. General Assembly United Nation. End of the afternoon. 

12 October 1960 

A Soviet man, small in stature, about 50 years old, walks up the steps nervously. He sits down in front of the microphone, looks at the assembly. His posture is straight. His arms are up. There is a silence. He looks down at his notes he took on a little paper. He sits down in front of the microphone, looks at the assembly with a confident air, opens his mouth and speaks. 


Nikita Khrushchev 

 (with a tone of commitment) 


I am glad to have this opportunity, 

on behalf of the Soviet people,  

to welcome the young independent  

African states 

which have recently  

joined the United Nations  

and to wish them prosperity  

and success. 


Our century is the century  

for the struggle of freedom,  

the century in which 

nations are freeing themselves 

from foreign domination. 


The peoples aspire to a  

dignified life  

and are fighting for it. 


Victory has already been  

wining many countries and lands.  

But we cannot rest on our laurels, 

for we know that tens of millions  

of human beings are still languishing  

in colonial slavery and  

suffer serious hardships.  


The body of Nikita Khrushchnev becomes stiffer each word he utters. The tone in his voice is hard to define, it seems like something between anger and passion. Every word’s value is recognized by a very expressive and precise articulation. 


We are in a period that we call 

that of the great and promising  

scientific discoveries. 


We have designed the atomic bomb[2] 

and we are penetrating  

the mysteries of the  

structure of proteins. 


The extent of our knowledge  

is a source of astonishment  

even to ourselves. 


Nikita Krushchev stops bends down, and disappears from our view. Restlessness in the company. Whispers occurs in a nervous tone. It’s like he vanished. He reappears with one of his shoes in his hand. The noise of his shoe gives a rhythm to the continuation of his speech.  



(Almost yelling) 



“This life, itself,  

depends on the effective 

power of the Pacific States, 

and the support 

of the overwhelming  

majority of humanity. 

Life cannot be reduced  

to simple geometric rules,” [3]


“If, instead of plundering  

and exploiting,  

the metropolitan states. 


If, instead of plundering  

and exploiting,  

the metropolitan states 

had been truly guided 

by the interests of the colonial people,  

if they had really given  

them the help they needed,  

the people of the  

colonies and metropolitan countries  

would have developed uniformly. 


Instead of presenting such striking 

differences in the development 

yes, in the development of   

their economy, their culture and  

their national prosperity.” 


Nikita Krushchev looks at the assembly with an inquisitive gaze. 


Look at what is happening  

in the colonies. 

Africa is bubbling and  

bubbling like a volcano. 


His voice replicates the voice of a bubbling volcano. 


No one can dispute the fact that  

the Soviet Union has spared no effort  

to ensure the continuation  

of this happy trend in the development  

of international relations. 


Nikita Krushchev looks at the assembly and takes a deep breath to continue his speech.  



Int., Oval office, Washington D.C, United States, Night.  

5 September 1961 

A rather handsome white man of about 40 years old with brown-ish-blond hair, is sitting at his desk. He seems tired. The dark circles under his eyes are marked. He sips in a rhythmic manner from his whiskey. He takes the first from the stack of letters in the corner of his desk.  


On the letter, written in elegance. ‘Letter to President John F. Kennedy from the Non-Aligned Movement’. 

John F. Kennedy whispers out loud: 

“We, the Heads of State and Government of our respective countries participating in the Conference of Non-Aligned Countries held in Belgrade from September 1 to 5, 1961, take the liberty of addressing Your Excellency on a matter of vital and immediate importance to all of us and to the whole world. We do so not only in our own name, but at the unanimous request of the conference and of our peoples.” 

“We are distressed and deeply concerned at the deterioration of the international situation and at the prospect of war which now threatens mankind. Your Excellency has often emphasized the terrible nature of modern warfare and the use of nuclear weapons, which may well destroy humanity, and has pleaded for the maintenance of world peace.” 

“… we urge the opening of direct negotiations between Your Excellency and the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, who represent the two most powerful nations today and, in whose hands, lies the key to peace and war. We are convinced that, devoted as you both are to world peace, your efforts, through persistent negotiations, will lead to a breakthrough in the present impasse and will enable the world and humanity to work and live-in prosperity and peace.  

We send this identical letter to Mr. Nikita Khrushchev, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. “ 


The phone rings. Kennedy takes another prolonged sip from his glass of whiskey. 


John F. Kennedy 


Yes, Yes … 


I am coming… 

Keep some food 

for me 



J.F. Kennedy 

  (exhaustedly exhales) 


Yes, Yes, of course 


I was finishing something 

Yes of course, I am coming 


Kennedy hangs up the phone. He takes a notebook and carefully notes the names of the officials who had signed the letter. While writing the names down, he reads them out loud and practices the pronunciation of their names. 


Cyrille Adoula, Prime Minister of Congo and Minister of National Defense 

Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia 

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, President of the Republic of Ghana 

Aden Abdulle Osman, President of the Republic of Somalia 

El-Farik Ibrahim Abboud, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Prime Minister of the Republic of Sudan 


He closes the notebook. He caresses with his forefinger on the title of the book, which reads ‘African Statesmen,’ written on the cover with a red marker.  




Ext., Square in front of a University, Voronej, Soviet Union. afternoon. 

11 September 1972 

A large, sleek building. White with yellow tones. The type of building that exudes authority and work ethic. In front of it, a snow-covered grassy plaza. Sound of steps crunching in the snow. A group of boys step up to the building. The first in the group has to use force to open the door. 




Int., Eating Room in Dorm, Voronej, Soviet Union. Evening.  

11 September 1972

The walls are decorated in two colors, red and white. The room looks empty and is filled with dinner tables. Two groups of  students are sitting in both corners, at both ends of the room.  In one corner sits sitting a group of Russian students and in the other corner sit two Black African students. One of the  students eats with large spoons, the other looks at his plate somewhat doubtfully. The radio is on, a voice seems to read the latest news in Russian.  



Idrissa! What’s the matter? 

You have such a strange look 

  on your face.  



It’s only the food that manages  

to warm me up. It’s so cold.  

Aren’t you cold? 



What a joy, this snow! 

It is so beautiful! 

So white…  

but so cold. 

I’ve never seen  

anything like it. 



Winter has barely begun 

and it is already -15°C. 



You’ll get used to it! 






By the way, What are your first 

Impressions of the Soviets? 



They’re all drunks… 

and very funny!   

they told me about it  

I heard about the soviet humor. 

but this… haha 

had to laugh so hard  

last night! 



Ha ha!  

I have a good impression. 

I feel like they are nice. 

Especially to foreigners. 



The women by the way 

some of them are a bit cold  

and others are really interested  

in the clothes that I wear,  

the music I listen too  

even the watch, I am wearing. 

Like really obsessed  

With everything that comes 

from the outside. 



You have to understand:  

on the radio, on TV 

In the newspapers,  

they only talk about 

The Soviet Union and  

the socialist states… 

It’s normal, isn’t it? 

Wouldn’t you be interested what  

comes from outside? 

besides, there are some surprises, no? 



 Like what? 



 Well, contrary to what  

 I was told home.  

 There is freedom of worship here.  

 In theory, everyone practices as they wish.  



 Oh yes, didn’t you go  

  to church the other day? 



  But yes, when I talk to  

the Soviets I see that  

they have an atheist 

  upbringing from  

a very young age. 

But the contradiction: 

the old people,  

on the other hand, believe 

in God and they even  

attend church a lot. 

When I was there,  

they were all old people!  





Gilbert Basebya:
Gilbert is born in 1952 in Rwanda. He’s the first born of a family of 6 children. He was 10 years old, when the Rwandan Independence was announced. Thanks to a family friend, he could attend the prestigious seminary school, a school owned by Belgian priests. All the scholarships to the United States where already given to students that were friends with the government. That was initially his choice. He passed by the Russian embassy, as they were known to give scholarships easily. It would be his way, to study abroad and come back with a degree, maybe pass by the West. If possible. 



Int. Dining room. Dormitory. Voronezh. Soviet Union.Afternoon. 

5 February 1973 




Ah Gilbert! Happy New Year! 

Tell me how  

the new year party was. 




Aha, all the Rwandans were  

together with some friends. 

It’s a good thing to study abroad:  

This opportunity to meet students  

from Vietnam, from D.R.A.,  

Latin America, and Asia. 



How was it?  



We get to talk, for a long time.  

And you know Idrissa, actually,  

I’ve noticed that their problems  

are not different from ours.  

You realize that there are more 

than 25 countries represented 

in this university? 



Yes, I met yesterday 

For the first time 

different Malagasy  

and Nigerians. 

By the way,  

did the exams go well? 



I am so proud of my fellow students: 

They all passed their exams well. 

We did not disappoint them! 

They always have  

a good impression of us! 



I sense a real fear among 

my Russian friends of losing  

their scholarships. 



The Soviets rate all the works  

on 5 points, 5 = YB, 4=B, 3=AB, 2=M. 

The Russian students normally 

have a scholarship of 40 rubles, 

when a student receives 5 points 

during a year the scholarship 

is increased to 100 rubles. 

When a student receives 4, 

he passes but his scholarship  

is not increased. 

If a student receives 3 points,  

he passes, but does not receive  

a scholarship and is kicked  

out of the university residences. 



  Oh really?   

This is intense, right? 



  So, all the Russian students  

  work a lot for fear  

  that their scholarship will be cut.  

  But I have to admit, 

I think that such a system  

can stimulate  

  the students’ work.  


  Here, everything is provided for  

  the students to study well.  

  Books cost almost nothing.  

   Books that cost 2000 francs at home  

   do not cost even one ruble here.  

  And every night there is a teacher  

  available for students.  



Yeah, I see your point of view. 

Let’s discuss this with other students, 

And see what they think about it.  






Idrissa Kamara: 
Idrissa was born in 1950 in Guinea-Bissau. When Idrissa arrived in the Soviet Union, Guinea-Bissau was still fighting for its independence from Portugal. That would last from 1963 to 1974. Guinea-Bissau in its independence war was, among others, backed by Cuba, the Soviet Union, Romania, and Yugoslavia.  Idrissa ended up studying in the Soviet Union, due to a family friend. The family friend was a member of the communist party of Guinea Bissau, he could fix a scholarship to study abroad, in Russia, in the Soviet Union. Idrissa saw it as an opportunity to study abroad. 


Int. Sleeping room. Dormitory. Voronezh. Soviet Union.Afternoon. 

20 March 1973 

Gilbert lies in bed, dressed and staring at the wall. Right in front of him, Idrissa, is sitting in a chair. They talk seriously. 





Idrissa, you’ve hardly  

eaten at all. 

What’s going on? 



(in a cold tone) 

Do you know who  

Amìlcar Cabral is?  



Yes, yes,  

He wrote about  

Marxism, didn’t he?  

Such an interesting  

and fascinating man.  

I remember a quote from him, 

which I liked,  

I think it was: 

“Christians go to the Vatican, 

Muslims to Mecca 

and the revolutionaries  

to Algiers.” 



I have some bad news: 

I received a letter  

from my mother 

this morning. 


She told me that  

Amìlcar Cabral is dead. 

He was killed. I don’t have 

any more details, yet. 


A silence of a few minutes, pain and anxiety are suddenly strongly felt in the room. 



(in a serious tone) 

This brings me back  

to all the murders 

following the independences: 

Patrice Lumumba,  

with his unpredicted speech, 

Louis Rwagasore,  

the immense bright mind, 

and for Rwanda,  

the king, Mwami Mutara III, 

who mysteriously died, 

in a hospital in Burundi,  

after he started confronting  

the Belgians. 

This is exactly 

why I didn’t want to study in Belgium. 



You know Gilbert… 

never forget… 

that those powers that try  

to “modernize” us, 

or who supposedly  

have the authority of “morality”, 

are the ones who  

created an atomic bomb. [4] 

Can you imagine that  

they used it? 

So that’s when you realize. 

When they talk about sauvages. 

They actually talk about 




It’s so scary, 

All that. 



You know, the fear of 

a lot of my friends,  

a lot of students,  

was to be sent  

to the Soviet Union. 



Why is that? 



First, they thought that in this country  

the studies were too “easy”  

and especially those who come back from here 

were not looked at with the same  

admiration as those who came back from  

France, for instance. 

The communist ideology, is and  

was fashionable in the discussions,  

but it ended up revolting some of us, 

and we did not wish to go  

to the country, which in our eyes,  

had replaced the former colonial powers.  

You know, that our leaders were 

inspired by Soviet governance? 

To the point of maintaining  

the cult of personality typical of the USSR? 

You know, Gilbert.  

I think a lot about: what comes after this?  

Going back.  

I remember an uncle coming back with 

a degree of the Patrice Lumumba University.  

But you know, a degree from the 

Sorbonne is way more respected. 




I think about it a lot, too. 

About my life after this… 

Hope it was all worth it! 


5 Years Later  

Int., Sleeping room, Odessa, Ukranian USSR. Evening.  

5 May 1977 

Gilbert is sitting at his desk, pencil in hand, drawing a plan of action on a blank sheet of paper. Idrissa knocks on the door and enters in the room. Gilbert ignores him and keeps on writing. 



What the hell are you doing? 



We, the Rwandan students, 

are preparing a big strike. 



But, why? Are you sure? 

This can be dangerous. 



We have been asking  

a long time for 

the Rwandan government  

to grant us 

holidays back home, 

but so far,  

the government  

has been silent… 

I don’t know  

if you understand,  

how we live in  

difficult situations. 

Spending six years in the USSR 

without returning home! 

Can you imagine? 



But it’s difficult  

for everyone? 

Your compatriots?  

What do they think? 



But everyone agrees! 

It’s very difficult to handle,  

and many people 

 become mentally deranged. 



But what are you going to do? 



We are thinking of going  

on a general strike 

until our demands are met. 



But how are you organizing this? 



Across the whole territory of the USSR 

Rwandan students have held 

meetings to study 

how the strike would be conducted. 



But the Soviet authorities, 

how will they react? 



I don’t know. We’ll see



Int. Dining room. Odessa, Ukranian USSR. Evening. 

25 April 1977 

Idrissa and Gilbert are sitting silently in the corner of the dining room. They both look a little stressed. They have trouble eating the food on their plates. They speak very silently. The conversation is hard to understand.  



(in a nervous tone) 

I have to tell you something, Gilbert.  

I’ve been talking about your strike plans 

with a good friend of mine.  



I asked you to be discrete 

about this! 


I mentioned it to James,  

that Ghanaian student. 

You know him, 

he’s trustworthy! 

He said something 

That might interest you 



What did he say? 



That about 15 years ago, a group of  

Ghanaian students went on strike to address  

the mysterious death of one  

of their fellow students. 

He was found dead in the snow 

some weeks before his wedding  

to a Russian girl. 



What a horrible story! 

How did the Soviet react to this strike?  



That’s what I wanted to speak to you about 

At that moment it was Krushchev,  

the head of state. 

He reacted really vividly. 

He declared that Africans could dance on  

their heads at home, but that  

they would not allow demonstrations again 

in the USSR 

Can you imagine? 

He then offered exit visas to those students 

who didn’t like the treatment 

they are receiving here. 

Just, be careful  


Is this worth it? 




Thank you for letting me know this. 

But I can’t let fear run my life anymore. 



Int. At a party in a bar, Odessa, Ukranian USSR. Night. 

15 June 1977 

A pub with sparse lighting, very quiet classical music in the background. The sound of bottles on the tables make the music almost inaudible. Several groups of men are in the pub. Idrissa and Gilbert are sitting in a dark corner. A half empty bottle is between them on the table. 



So how did it go 

with your ideas to invade 

the Rwandan embassy? 



Look, our plans were aborted. 

The authorities noticed 

the uneasiness which reigned among us, 

and to stop any enterprise  

of the students 

against the embassy of Rwanda, 

armed militiamen were placed. 

It became impossible to do anything  

  against the embassy and in our plans, 

the last measure was to invade the embassy 

and drive out the ambassador. 



But what did you do? 



We decided to take the legal route, 

and asked the Soviet  

Ministry of Public Education 

permission to send a  

delegation to the embassy. 

The delegation was received by  

the ambassador, who answered that  

he had not received any order from Kigali and that our requests were still under consideration. 

The delegation returned unsatisfied  

And we started the strike. 

The Rwandan students refused 

to attend classes until  

their demands were met. 



But how did the Soviets react? 



They threatened to expel  

all the leaders of our organization 

if we didn’t calm down. 

So, on the request of  

the central committee, 

we stopped the strike. 

But this story is not over, 


We decided to start it again  

if the Rwandan government  

continues to keep silent. 

Idrissa and Gilbert order one last drink for the road. 



[1] would like to thank Anna Smolak, independent curator, for giving me the opportunity to perform this screenplay as part of the program Lectures on the Weather in Snagov, Romania, and through conversations helping me to find the words to explain what the experiment was about.  

[2] The performers pronounce the word together. 

[3] This is a term that was suggested by an automatic translation. Although this may seem like an incorrect translation, I chose to keep this term. As it is an interesting lapsus for what is actually meant. 

[4] The performers pronounce the word together. 



Julie Hessler, ”Death of an African Student in Moscow”, Cahiers du monde russe 24, no. 1–2 (2006).  

Constantin Katsakioris, “Transgresser les frontières de la Guerre froide. Militants, intellectuels et étudiants africains en Union soviétique, 1956-1991,” Présence Africaine, Nouvelle série, 175/176/177, (2007/2008). 

Mark Nash, Red Africa: Affective Communities and the Cold War, (London: Black Dog Press, 2016).  

Jean-José Maboungou, “Voyage en Brejnevie: Vie ‘Rêvée’ des étudiants du Tiers-monde en Russie soviétique ,” Cahiers d’études africaines 226, (2017). 

Maxim Matusevich, “Journeys of Hope: African Diaspora and the Soviet Society,” The African Diaspora 1 (2008), pp. 53–85. 

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