Meet Ngirabagenga, a visually impaired traditional music instrument player

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Jean Marie Ngirabagenga plays the umuduri for a living. Photos by Elias Hakizimana

I first met Jean Marie Vianney Ngirabagenga in Nyabugogo on Christmas day where he was playing traditional songs with a choir that happens to be his own children. They reminded me of a traditional Von Trapp Family from the movie The Sound of Music.

What makes Ngirabagenga extraordinary isn’t just that he plays a local instrument well; it is the fact that he plays it even with his visual impairment.

He plays the umuduri, a Rwandan stringed instrument. It is a musical bow consisting of a string supported by a flexible wooden string bearer or bow that is 125–135 cm in length. The children sing while he plays.

Many people with disabilities like Ngirabagenga try to get their daily bread by begging in public places and mostly depend on what people give them. But Ngirabagenga thought of other ways to survive. And his skill with the umuduri has not only made him popular in his area, it also gives him decent maintenance for his family.

His story

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Ngirabagenga and his children performing for onlookers. 

Born in 1952 in Gicumbi District, Rutare sector, the father of seven became blind at the age of 13 after a measles attack. He lost both his parents around the same time and that is when he started playing the instrument. He now lives in Gasabo District, Gatsata sector.

Ngirabagenga’s first wife passed away, leaving him with two children, the eldest, 22, and the second, 19, who became street children after their mother died.

His second wife bore five children but abandoned him and the kids, leaving him to fend for them unaided.

Life became hard, not with his impairment and having to care for five children alone. So, he took a third wife who is now assisting him with the children.

“I love her because she promised to help take care of these children and we will have more of our own when these ones grow up,” he notes.

Ngirabagenga does a little farming on the side when he is not performing.

Ngirabagenga says he is trying to achieve a lot in life and never gets tired of playing his traditional instrument for people to earn some money.

“It has been rough but we have survived and are doing okay,” he says.

In 1986, Ngirabagenga started singing, together with other traditional singers in that period.

He says he was givenRwf60,000 as an award for his performance by National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD).

Ngirabagenga was also in a group of 30 people called Itorero of which he was the leader in 2003, helping them to compose and sing traditional songs.

“I did not have the opportunity to study but I can advise people on good working strategies to survive,” Ngirabagenga says happily.

Achievements

Ngirabangenga says he did not have any inheritance but bought a piece of land in 1996 with his earnings from playing the instrument back in the day. The land cost him Rwf700,000 at the time. “My land is now worth Rwf 5 million,” he says.

“We were born 10 children and our father had two wives. My brothers had enough land but I had no one to support me so, I managed to save money gradually from my songs and bought my own land,” he says.

He currently earns about Rwf25,000 per day from his performances. His children have wallets in which they put the money given by the public; they then collect the entire amount and place it in their father’s wallet at the end of the day.

Ngirabagenga has a couple of songs under his belt, like Wari Mwiza Mukarukundo, Musanabera andIjuru Ni Iry’abemera, a gospel song, among others.

He is also a poet with several Kinyarwanda poems and poetry idolizing the beauty of cows. He sometimes coaches other people in poetry.

“If it wasn’t for my talent, I don’t think I would’ve been able to survive with all these children,” he says.

Ngirabagenga did not acquire writing skills like some other people with vision impairment, so he writes his songs with the help of his daughter. 

Training the children to sing

Ngirabagenga does not perform alone, he is always with his children and they sing together for the public. As he plays the instrument, the children sing and so does he.

He says he tries to encourage each child to be passionate about traditional music.

“It is always a thrill watching him sing with his children, even the little ones who could be only three years old sing like an angel,” says an onlooker.

The artiste plays his instrument for work and for pleasure.

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