TAPAC Theatre, Western Springs, Auckland

15/10/2013 - 02/11/2013

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, The Edge, Auckland

20/10/2011 - 30/10/2011

Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland

20/11/2013 - 23/11/2013

TAPAC Theatre, Western Springs - return season, Auckland

20/11/2013 - 23/11/2013

Production Details

An African Story from New Zealand 

The premiere season of A Thousand Hills, an exploration of the beauty and terror of a life lived in exile, comes to the Herald Theatre from October 20. 

A Thousand Hills is a deeply moving story based on the true life experiences of Francois Byamana, and his gripping account of survival during and after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  It is a story straight from the heart of Africa that has a New Zealand connection; it’s a story of love, identity, survival, hope, dignity and humanity. 

Kilgali… Congo… drums… the darkness of the African night… Red Cross… saints… laughter… feast and famine… love… folk tales… drowning… beauty… waiting… guns… soccer balls made of plastic bags… machetes… friendship… multi-lingualism… death… United Nations… madness… genocide… freedom… music… medicine… preacher man… isolation… New Zealand….

1994 – A dark time in African history. Philippe is a Rwandan fleeing the genocide that is taking place in his homeland. Making his way to a refugee camp Philippe meets Nick; a New Zealand Red Cross aid worker who develops a friendship with Philippe. Quickly the two men become trusted companions in a tale which spans the darkest of Africa through to New Zealand, and a story fuelled by impossible circumstances, loss of identity, terrifying consequences, cultural collisions and ultimately two people who find that they only thing left to trust is each other.

The theatrical piece is almost a cathartic process of Francois Byamana; it’s unfair to say he simply plays “Philippe” in the production. Byamana is Philippe – the story based on his relationship with Bob Askew, the very same New Zealand Red Cross aid worker that “Nick” represents. His plight might be one we see everyday but don’t discover with the multi-cultural population in Auckland, and his mind is full of exploding stories that he yearns to share with everyone. It’s a tale that needs to be told. It’s a tale that writer Mike Hudson has helped translate from memories to theatre.

Under the careful direction of Margaret-Mary Hollins with set design by John Verryt, Byamana’s tale comes to life; alongside a fine array of acting talent including Andrew Grainger (The Lovely Bones, That Face) and Michele Hine (Go Girls, The House of Bernarda Alba), Byamana and the production have also received the full backing of the New Zealand Red Cross in creating this theatrical piece.

This journey bursts with themes of love, identity, survival, hope, dignity and humanity in life and death, love and pain. The story is as vast as the landscape of Africa, drenched in music, memories, traditions and storytelling.

The work has been in development over the past three years as part of Auckland festival’s Watch This Space programme. Proudly supported by Auckland City Council and Creative New Zealand. 

20th – 30th October 2011 
7:30pm (Additional performances Saturday 22nd and 29th at 2pm and Sunday 23rd and 30th at 4pm) 
Thursday 20th October,  Schools performance– 12:30pm; preview 7:30pm  
No performance Monday 24th 
Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, THE EDGE 
Tickets: $28 – $35 (plus service fee).
Bookings at The Edge – 0800 BUY TICKETS or www.buytickets.co.nz  


After its emotionally charged debut in 2011, this epic true story of one man’s survival  of the Rwandan genocide and his escape to New Zealand  finally makes its return, as A Thousand Hills plays Auckland, Wellington and Mangere from October 15th.  

Under the skilful direction of Margaret-Mary Hollins, with set design by John Verryt, Byamana’s tale comes to life; alongside a fine array of acting talent – adding Edwin Wright (Top Of The Lake, Safe House) to a returning cast of Michelle Hine, Bruce Phillips, Karima Mudat, Yaw Boateng, Wanjiku Kiarie-Sanderson and Byamana himself. 


This journey bursts with themes of love, identity, survival, hope, dignity and humanity in life and death, love and pain. The story is as vast as the landscape of Africa, drenched in music, memories, traditions and storytelling. 

A Theatrical Gem” – New Zealand Herald, October 2011. 

A beautifully realised true story that will both break and warm your heart” – Gather and Hunt  2011

AUCKLAND: 15th October – 2nd November
TAPAC, 100 Motions Road, Western Springs, Auckland
Bookings: www.tapac.org.nz or 09 845 0295 ext 2 

WELLINGTON: 8th – 16th November
Downstage Theatre, Hannah Playhouse Building, 12 Cambridge Terrace
Bookings: www.downstage.co.nz 

MANGERE:  20th, 22nd, 23rd November 
Mangere Arts Centre – Nga Tohu o Uenuku, Cnr Bader Drive and Orly Avenue 

Performed by Francois Byamana, Andrew Grainger, Bruce Philips, Michele Hine, Jo Falou, Karima Mudut and Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson 

Producer: Andrew Malmo.
Set Design: John Verryt.
AV Design: Theo Gibson.
Lighting Design: Vera Thomas.
Musical Direction: John Gibson
Percussion: Richard Yaw Boateng  

Multiple narratives effortlessly weave a clear and distinct course

Review by Chris Molloy 25th Nov 2013

Music, vibrations, soul, life, joy, and energy, explodes from the stage…. and the play hasn’t yet begun. A welcome like no other, eight drums, pounded upon by the eight cast: a mix of Pakeha and Africans, playing multiple characters, line the back wall of the stage. From here they enter and exit, never leaving the stage.  

An exceptionally effective, simplistic design (John Verryt) supports the style of the production. Allowing for swift, unencumbered transitions, transporting us in time and space without a hitch, also gifting the exceptional lighting designer (Jane Hakararia) an open canvas to create upon.  

The pulsating majesty of the drums sets a strong platform for this ensemble cast to launch off into a beautifully constructed theatrical experience, set in a time and place that is as far from our Aotearoa as you get.  We are off to a hell of a start! 

Set in Rwanda, 1994, in a Zairian Congolese refugee camp following the genocide, it is based on the real life story of the courageous, Rwanda-born Francois Byamana and and his chance meeting with UN Volunteer Bob Askew a South Island Kiwi.

Although the director, Margaret-Mary Hollins, modestly states that this production is “a collaboration of talents from actors and the creative team…,” It is evident the weight of this rich theatrical experience rests firmly on the capable shoulders of Francois Byamana, writer Mike Hudson and director Hollins. The multiple narratives effortlessly weave a clear and distinct course that have me clued to my seat throughout.  As a writer myself, I appreciate the work that has gone into this. 

The central setting is a Red Cross camp that’s bursting at the seams. Demand on the limited resources is pushing this eclectic team of volunteers over the edge.  Francois Byamana plays the central character, Philippe, who barely escaped the massacre with his life. He is an optimistic, affable ‘hard case’ who is able to bury his own hideous experiences in order to serve others, and is more than happy to help out where ever he can be used. 

Then there is the leader, Rufus, a French Canadian, played with subtle precision and relaxation by Bruce Phillips. Rufus is an experienced aid worker who manages the team along with his second in command, Ana, a no nonsense zealous German workaholic who wears her heart on her sleeve. She is expertly and effortlessly portrayed by Sylvia Rands. 

Supported by a team of aid workers and locals, these two experts are charged with distributing the aid, admirably trying to create order from chaos with a relentless work ethic combined with charm and humour while under enormous pressure. The paramount issue is that the camp is devoid of running water for the thousands of refugees.  Cracks are beginning to appear and all are starting to buckle under the stress. 

But hope finally arrives in the form UN volunteer Nick Halliday, skilfully delivered with emotional dexterity by Paul Barrett, a ‘water consultant’ who has lived a sheltered life in Nelson. Immediately he is overwhelmed by the scale and severity of the human suffering that permeates his senses and every turn. Young Philippe notices Nick’s inability to cope, so goes out of his way to befriend the genial Kiwi.  As the friendship grows, so too does Nick’s strength. This relationship in the backbone of the play. 

The multiple narratives include flashbacks to the days of old; stories that evoke the legends and myths of the ancient peoples: a time when the Gods roamed the earth and sheltered man; a time when man was indistinguishably connected in harmonious union to the physical and spiritual environments. This gives the play a spiritual dimension that I don’t feel is utilised enough in the writing, but is juxtaposed well with the horror of the present setting. 

Then there are flashbacks to a time of innocence before the genocide, before the turmoil, where we get an insight into those closest to Philippe: the local Priest, Mufuma, expertly conceived by the impressive Ahi Karunaharan; Latetia, Philippe’s young love, played by the talented and gorgeous Karima Mudat; and  especially his close bond with his loving mama, a gifted story teller, delicately articulated by Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson.  

The love story is intriguing, but is not developed enough for my liking. I want to know more about her, more about them, more about love. 

As an original staff member at Mangere Arts Centre for three hectic years (and now freelance, specifically working with emerging South Auckland theatre community), I had the privilege to watch South Auckland and Pacifica theatre grow and develop its unique voice. The growth is evident, thanks to the purpose-built Mangere Arts Centre providing a professional performance space for emerging practitioners.

But that is only half of it. The Centre allows the local burgeoning theatre practitioners to experience the best of NZ theatre right in their backyard; productions that sharpen, encourage, inspired and challenge us. A Thousand Hills is a perfect example of that, at the price of a koha what’s more!

I commend the cast and creative team for their vision, strength and perseverance in bringing this story life, and bringing it to South Auckland. Though this run of this fantastic production has ended, the positive repercussions on the development of theatre will be felt for quite some time.

Till the next season of A Thousand Hills, ma te wa.


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“A distillation of love from the crucible of Hell”

Review by Johnny Givins 17th Oct 2013

There is something compelling about African drumming.  A Thousand Hills greets its audience with the cast of eight filling the theatre with African beats and song.  When the drumming stops the silence opens a space for a compelling story.  What a story it is! 

A Thousand Hills is a true epic story of one man’s survival from the Rwandan Genocide and his escape to the land of the long white cloud. It is based on the real life story of Francois Byamana and UN Volunteer Bob Askew from Nelson.  Byamana collaborated with writer Mike Hudson to create this rich theatrical experience. 

The tragic stories of dispossessed men women and children are regular news on TV.  This month it was the Australian boat people, the Lampedusa migrant boat tragedy, and the constant drive for funding for the hungry refugees.  Being so far away in the South Pacific it is as if we observe from a distance but have no real connection.  A Thousand Hills brings the issue straight to our hearts.  It is a story of trauma, brutality, dedication, and love.

Directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins, a cast of eight actors, both African and European, create the 1994 world of a Red Cross refugee camp in Zaire shortly after the Rwandan genocide.  There are flashbacks to the idyllic youth of Philippe (Francois Byamana) with his mama (Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson).  This loving, caring and storytelling mother is beautifully articulated by Wanjiku. Francois’ energetically and emotionally fluid performance is a gem. 

In the Red Cross camp, Philippe, who escaped the massacre, is the go-between, fixer and helper to Rufus (Bruce Phillips), a French experienced aid manager, and Ana (Sylvia Rands), a passionate driven German workaholic.  These two professionals under enormous pressure admirably create order out of chaos with relentless energy, charm, rigour and sensitivity.

A Thousand Hills however is the story of WATER.  The camp has no running water for the 10,000 people.  Nick Halliday (Paul Barrett), a UN volunteer, is a naive Kiwi and expert ‘water consultant’. He arrives and barely copes with the barbaric situations.  It is the development of his relationship with the young Philippe that is the heart of the play.  

Paul Barrett plays this on a knife edge from simpering overwhelm, to articulate expert, to affectionate man.  He represents the best of Kiwi, a man that has frailties, practical skills, lacks the sophistication of the European colleagues and is no hero. He is “shit scared” most of the time.  However in this tragic situation he has to do something to change even one life.  He is the man who brings not only water in the physical sense, he brings a spring of hope to a young man’s life. 

John Verryt has designed the simple but effective set: canvas slung over poles quickly and dramatically creates the camp of tents.  The arrival of the water is truly a celebration.  

A Thousand Hills is an ensemble show with multiple characters played effectively by the rest of the cast. Philippe’s young love is the beautiful and sexy Latetia (Karima Mudat). Priest Mufuma (Ahi Karunaharan), and an aggressive soldier and lead percussionist (Yaw Baoteng), both bring vibrancy to their different characters.

The evil heart of A Thousand Hills, however, is treated in a stylised fashion.  I wanted to be shocked more with the barbaric elements of the story.  One character’s demise with a machete is almost pantomime.  I am sure there are other creative ways to make the fights and deaths more dramatically effective.   

There are moments in the play when the old spirits of the land burst into life to protect and change the lives of the people.  I am not completely convinced with the staging and get distracted by the smell of talc.  Given the power of indigenous spiritual protection we are beginning to understand in this country through the Tangata Whenua, I am surprised this element is not more fully explored. 

A Thousand Hills hits all the emotional high points, love, concern and redemption but could go further into the portrayal of the barbaric world from which the story evolves. 

The production captures the situation and challenges of Philippe’s story where Bob Askew from Nelson arranges for Francois Baymana from the Rwanda, Land of A Thousand Hills, to travel to a new home in The Land of the Long White Cloud.  He is now married with two children. 

This is the second production of this important play.  It will travel to Mt Eden prison for a performance and then to Mangere Arts Centre. [Between those seasons it was to have been hosted by the now non-operative Downstage in Wellington – ed.]  

Go feel the beat of the drum and be absorbed into a compelling story, well told and well acted. 

“A distillation of love from the crucible of Hell” – Bob Askew 


John Smythe October 24th, 2013

A Thousand Hills is an extraordinary theatrical experience – not to be missed! Deceptively simple in its staging, it truly transports us to Rwanda in 1994 with the emphasis on ‘true’. Well supported by production elements – Theo Gibson’s soundscape, Jane Hakaraia’s lighting, John Verryt’s set and Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes – it is the power of the acting through a wide range of states of being that packs the most profound punch.

Francois Byamana – whose story is being told – brings mercurial authenticity to his incarnation as Philippe; Wanjiku Kiare Sanderson plays tragedy and comedy with equal felicity; Karima Mudat is magically real in her roles; Yaw Boateng (whose percussion gives the play its pulse throughout) and Ahi Karunaharan are especially formidable in manifesting the intimidation and violence the wrought such havoc on Rwanda. Paul Barrett shares one hell of an experience as the water reticulation expert from Nelson; Sylvia Rands and Bruce Phillips offer clear insights into the Red Cross Red Crescent experience.

What a tragedy this is no longer travelling to Wellington (thanks to the close down of Downstage). But it’s on at TAPAC until 2 November then at the Mangere Arts Centre 21-23 November.  Go.

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Sensitive play transcends horror of death in Rwanda

Review by Janet McAllister 28th Oct 2011

The thought of a play about the Rwandan genocide may make you uneasy, but don’t let it put you off this excellent, sensitive, unusual production. It involves machetes at brief moments, but the play maintains a poetic, symbolic theatricality throughout.

In particular, Theo Gibson’s great music – African percussion led by Richard Yaw Boateng, strong acapella harmonies and Fela Kuti-style jams – works with Vera Thomas’ dreamworld lighting and John Verryt’s warm wooden set to make the context of atrocity easier to face. A production which trusts its audience to recognise a crisis without screeching violin strings makes a change from all those drawing-room dramas. [More


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The quest for “a home, love and good health”

Review by Sian Robertson 22nd Oct 2011

A Thousand Hills is the visceral and confronting story of Francois Byaman, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the New Zealand Red Cross volunteer, Bob Askew, who helped him escape to New Zealand from a refugee camp in Zaire close to the Rwandan border. However, the story has many heroes. 

Francois Byamana, who has lived in New Zealand ever since he left Africa, plays himself. His character is called ‘Philippe’ in the play, on which he has obviously worked closely with writer Mike Hudson, to bring an authentic telling of his story to the stage. Bob Askew’s character is called ‘Nick Halliday’ in the play and acted by Andrew Grainger.

The play opens with African drumming, lead by Yaw Boateng, and song, which are at once lively and haunting, before Philippe begins his story. 

It is an uncommon privilege to have the real protagonist on stage acting in his own story – and one that is hard to get used to. It is all the more moving to know that he is reliving something traumatic that actually happened to him and is generous enough to share it with us. 

The supporting actors, directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins, are a joy to watch. Karima Mudat plays Philippe’s girlfriend Latetia, and also an aid worker. Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson plays Philippe’s mother, an aid worker and a refugee. Jo Falou plays his father, a soldier and an aid worker. Yaw Boateng plays a soldier. Bruce Philips plays Rufus, a French Red Cross worker. Michele Hine plays Ana, a German aid worker. 

The setting moves back and forth between the refugee camp in Zaire and Philippe’s village in Rwanda, where he grew up and where he was suddenly plunged into the nightmare, during which his loved ones were slaughtered and he barely escaped the ‘devils in the night’. 

As well as humour, music and dance humanise and lighten the dark subject matter, as if to say: life goes on. Theo Gibson has done an excellent job as sound designer, putting together a haunting combination of sound effects and music, assisted by a talented team: composer John Gibson, singing coach Rochelle Bright, percussion director Yaw Boateng, and complemented by African dance sequences choreographed by Chole Davidson. 

The unassuming set by John Verryt is elegantly effective, consisting of plain canvas drops to represent the walls of refugee camp tents, an array of boxes that serve various functions and the use of a fire hose in an emotionally charged scene when the water is finally brought to the camp. The night with Philippe and his mother fishing in the river is beautifully evoked with lighting (designed by Vera Thomas) and a simple piece of watery fabric. 

Several scenes between Nick and Philippe humorously illustrate the cultural gap between them, which they strive to bridge; Nick tries to explain why, though New Zealand is multicultural, he himself doesn’t speak any of the other languages. Philippe also cannot comprehend social welfare. At the same time Nick struggles to come to terms with his violent surroundings – confronted with the daily reality of death, dodging snakes and machete-wielding bandits in the hills and feeling helpless in the face of traumatised, orphaned children. 

When Nick asks Philippe whether he is Tutsi or Hutu, he replies indignantly “I’m Rwandan”. An unlikely friendship develops between the tragedy-stricken Rwandan and the inexperienced English-born Kiwi volunteer – a water sanitation expert who has come to set up a reliable water supply for the camp.  

Philippe explains to his companion the misunderstanding about Rwanda, that “it is not a genocide, it is people brainwashed” into mad, indiscriminate massacring.

Without turning the play into a history lesson (it is more a brave and honest personal account of what these men went through), Philippe touches on the side of the Rwandan tragedy not often talked about: that the racial aspect of the massacres that killed 800,000-1,000,000 Rwandans in just over three months, was not ‘just tribal conflict’ (as it is commonly conveniently portrayed to this day) but was manufactured to political ends. Racial tensions strenuously honed by ‘those bloody Europeans’ (German and then Belgian colonialists), were allowed to explode into a massive human tragedy while the world knowingly stood by and watched. 

This is also the story of the aid workers at the camp in Zaire where Byamana found himself after leaving Rwanda. Rufus (Philips) and Ana (Hine) work tirelessly, with inadequate supplies and equipment, overcrowding and hundreds of people dying each day from cholera. The veteran aid workers soldier on, referring deprecatingly to themselves as ‘humanitarian junkies’, though they are heroes really.

As Philippe quotes Rufus as saying: “All you need in this life is a home, love and good health – all the rest is dust.”


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