The oral literature of Rwanda (Part 2)

The term “Ibisigo” was translated by Monsignor Alexis Kagame to mean “what is left, or bequeathed to posterity”. This document recounts, in poetic form, the deeds of the Kings, mostly following their chronological order, though there are a number of stand-alone poems.

The term “Ibisigo” was translated by Monsignor Alexis Kagame to mean “what is left, or bequeathed to posterity”. This document recounts, in poetic form, the deeds of the Kings, mostly following their chronological order, though there are a number of stand-alone poems.

Alexis Kagame, who considered the Ibisigo as a major source of historical information, collected some 176 poems, some of which are unfortunately fragmentary. He published French translations of some of these poems in his various books and articles, including La Poésie dynastique au Rwanda (1951), and Introduction aux Grands Genres lyriques de l’ancien Rwanda(1969).

As a literary genre, the symbolic poetry Ibisigo is said to have existed from ancient times, but it was restructured and further developed by Nyiraruganzu Nyirarumaga, Queen Mother of the great Saviour-King Ruganzu Ndori.

According to tradition, this great lady, who is one of the greatest contributors to traditional knowledge, established a royal institution named “Intebe y’Abasizi” (the Seat of Poets), whose role was to promote and preserve the art of Ibisigo.

The Queen Mother herself, along with her great son, the King, composed a number of poems.

The etymology of the term “Ubwiru” is not obvious. According to Alexis Kagame, Ubwiru means “inviolable secret”, but this is only a reference to the fact that the priests ‘Abiru’ were held to the strictest secrecy about the royal rituals.

This term may be related to “ubwire” (dusk), which suggest that “ubwiru” may mean “Hidden Things”, or things hidden behind a dusky veil.

The texts of the Ubwiru rituals, called “Inzira” (ways, or paths), were dictated to Alexis Kagame in 1945, and later edited and translated into French by M. d’Hertefelt and André Coupez, and published in a bilingual edition (MRAC, Tervuren, 1972).

The published version contains 17 sets of ritual texts, while Kagame had announced having collected 18 sets.

The missing ritual is “Inzira y’Amapfizi”, or ‘the way of the bulls’, a ritual involving the sacred bulls, which were living emblems of royalty. As highlighted before, key documents on this will be found in Alexis Kagame’s Archives.

Besides these four official documents, Rwanda has an equally impressive array of the more popular types of oral literature. As explained above, the distinction between official and popular literature was based on whether the content were officially controlled or not.

It entails no judgment as regards to the value of the contents.

Some Rwanda experts have contrasted learned literature (littérature savante) with popular literature (literature populaire), which implies that the non-controlled material is of a lesser literary quality.

This is not the case, as Pierre Smith has demonstrated in his collection of popular narratives (in Le Récit populaire au Rwanda, 1975), which includes some of the most precious treasures of Rwandan literature.

The following are some of the popular literary genres:
-Amateka y’Imiryango: histories of the major families of Rwanda

- Ibyivugo: Self-praises and heroic poetry
- Indirimbo z’Ingabo: heroic hymns and army music
- Amazina y’inka (“Cow Names”): pastoral poetry
- Imyasiro: hunting poetry
-Imigani: proverbs and sayings
- Ibisakuzo: riddles and enigmas
- Inanga: songs by inanga musicians (Inanga is a traditional string instrument)
- Songs: lullabies, love and praise songs, group work songs, etc.

Rwanda’s popular literature has received little attention from academic research. Alexis Kagame, who is the undisputed leader in Rwandan Studies, made the official genres and aristocratic literature his main concern, although he did produce much work in the other genres as well.

Other researchers have generally followed the trend set by Kagame, so that much the incredibly rich and varied stock of Rwanda literature is still largely unexplored.

Seth K Buhigiro works with the Civil Aviation Authority

sbuhigiro@caa.gov.rw

 

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