The oral literature of Rwanda (Part 1)

The ancient Kingdom of Rwanda had a considerable body of oral literature. The sages themselves classified the traditional texts in two major categories: the more formal royal documents, which are described as “official tradition” most of which will be found in Monsignor Alexis Kagame’s books, and the non-formal, popular literature that forms the main content of Monsignor Aloys Bigirumwami’s work.

The ancient Kingdom of Rwanda had a considerable body of oral literature. The sages themselves classified the traditional texts in two major categories: the more formal royal documents, which are described as “official tradition” most of which will be found in Monsignor Alexis Kagame’s books, and the non-formal, popular literature that forms the main content of Monsignor Aloys Bigirumwami’s work.

Royal literature refers to that body of knowledge enshrined in a set of documents, the creation and preservation of which was officially regulated and promoted by the Kings of Rwanda.

Responsibility for this heritage was entrusted to specific families, and handed down from one generation to the next, but always under the active supervision of the Kings.

Rwanda Tradition classifies these documents according to the nature of their content and intent, as well as their literary form.

There are four major sets of texts:
Ubucurabwenge - a royal genealogical list
Ibitekerezo - a collection of royal myths
Ibisigo - a collection of royal poetry
Ubwiru - a set of royal rituals.

The term “Ubucurabwenge” may be literally translated as the ‘forging of wisdom’. This document lists the genealogy of the Kings of Rwanda. The list was recited in ascending order, beginning with the reigning King and Queen Mother, and ending with Muntu (Mankind), the first King of Men, whose father was Kigwa, son of Shyerezo Nkuba, the King of Heaven. The list spans forty-three (43) reigns, and gives the names of the King and Queen Mother. It was recited at coronation ceremonies.

The forty-three reigns are grouped in three dynasties:

Ibimanuka: the “Descents”, or the Divine Kings

Abami b’Umushumi: the Kings of the Cord

Abami b’Ibitekerezo: the Kings of Mind

The genealogical list Ubucurabwenge is, as it were, the backbone of the entire Rwanda wisdom literature, around which the other three documents are structured.

The myths tell about the life and work of the kings; the poetry extols their deeds of valor, justice and mercy; the book of rituals prescribes specific cyclic observances patterned on the order of succession as recorded in the Ubucurabwenge.

The Ubucurabwenge lists were recorded and published by the Rwandan scholar Alexis Kagame in his book Inganji Kalinga (Kabgayi, 2nd ed. 1959, Book II, pp. 98-101). The officials charged with the preservation of Ubucurabwenge are known as Abacurabwenge, the “forgers of wisdom”.

The term “Ibitekerezo” means both “thoughts” and “narratives.” In the context of the four royal documents, this implies that the royal myths are an intelligent, thoughtful narration of past events.

The great myths of Rwanda were, therefore, the result of a deliberate effort to make sense of the past, and learn from it.

Rwandan mythology is patterned on the genealogical lists, and just like the poetry ‘Ibisigo’, follows the chronological order given in the royal lists.

…. (To be continued in tomorrow’s issue)

Seth K Buhigiro works with the Civil Aviation Authority

sbuhigiro@caa.gov.rw

 

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