Tracing the evolution of Umuganura

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Attendants sharing the staple food at last year's Umuganura fete.

It was a day of feasting, and thanks giving not only for the good harvest, but also for all the good things in life. This is how national harvest day (Umuganura) was marked back in the day. But the transformation of society and modernity, saw the traditional celebration lose steam. However, last year, government officially recognised Umuganura- the national harvest day which falls on the first Friday of the month of August.

This year’s Umuganura celebrations collided with presidential elections and were pushed to August 27. The day will be celebrated under the theme ‘Umuganura: A source of unity and foundation of self-reliance’.

Umuganura, translated as National Harvest Day is a thanksgiving day that was held at the beginning of each harvest season to celebrate the good harvest. It was started during the time of Gihanga Ngomijana but it came to gain popularity during the reign of King Ruganzu Ndoli in the early years of 1510 to 1543.

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Residents of Nyanza District share maize during umuganura celebrations last year. File photos 

The ceremony was a traditional feast of the first harvest which was used as a platform to assess the harvest for that particular year and find ways of even doubling efforts for the coming year.

Back then, the traditional event brought communities together and with this, they shared their seasonal agricultural harvest, but today, it goes beyond this.

With changing times and the economy not depending on agriculture alone, more aspects are celebrated too, and these include security, infrastructure, and social welfare among others.

Back in the old days, the King (Umwami) presided over the ceremonies at the national level and at the village and family levels; they were led by the village chief and the family head respectively.

How it was in the past

The King would use a cooking stick to symbolically open the celebrations which included preparing a sorghum meal for those who were in attendance. He used to do it while on his knees as a sign of respect for the people he was leading, Francis Wasswa, a traditional poet explains.

During the celebrations, the King received harvests from his people from all corners of the country. On that day, families too celebrated and they were led by the head of the family.

It was an abomination to eat alone, everyone had to share and get a neighbour to visit at least. There were food items that were used in the celebration of Umuganura including sorghum, millet and pumpkin seeds.

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Boiled maize characterised the feast of harvest during last year’s celebration.

“It was a good opportunity for family members to set targets for produce in order to ensure more celebrations in the coming year. It helped the Rwandan society to be united and it promoted hard work, among other things,” Wasswa says.

Modeste Rutangarwamaboko, the founder of Rwanda Cultural Health Centre, explains that Umuganura was one of the biggest festivities in the Rwandan culture.

He says it was a huge pillar that ensured continuity and conservation of the culture.

“Culture is one of the greatest pillars of any society and it encompasses rules that guide a community, ceremonies that celebrate it and taboos,” he says.

Pointing out this particular tradition, Rutangarwamaboko describes it as one of the things that used to unite people.

Rutangarwamaboko says for people to clearly appreciate the essence of this day, they need to not only understand what it means, but also what it stands for.

“We need to focus on what this day instils in people which is unity, a sense of belonging and taking pride in our culture,” Rutangarwamaboko says.

“Because the King was taken to be the intercessor between God and the people, when Rwandans made bumper harvests, they knew it was a blessing from God that’s why they always had to thank Him and they did this by taking the first harvest to the King,” he explains.

“Abatsobe were the clan that led Umuganura, the King initiated the ceremony by preparing flour while kneeling in front of his people. This indicated that the way people respected the King was the same way he respected them,” he says.

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Traditional dancers at a previous umuganura celebration. 

Celebrations included dance, feasting on local food and beer.

“Sharing was the centre of all these celebrations; it was the main aspect of this day. Rwandans say, Inshuti mwasangiye utayita kunzira, meaning that when people share, a bond is created and they become one. It instils in them undividable unity,” Rutangarwamaboko says.

“This day was very special; in fact for Rwandans back then, umuganura was like New Year’s Day. When harvest time came, to them the year was ending and it was then that they welcomed the new one,” Rutangarwamaboko says.

“That day no one ate alone, those who had big harvests shared with those who had less. Rwandans fought selfishness, people used to share with neighbours and the hungry, the rich shared with the poor,” he points out.

Onesphore Ruhumuriza, a history scholar, also points out that this celebration was more of a mark for the beginning of a New Year; one can compare it to what is now termed as New Year’s Day.

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It was a time the King went on his knees and prayed to God to continue blessing his people in terms of childbirth and more years of living, among other blessings, he says.

“People sang and danced, they recited poems about culture, and it was a time to thank God and the ancestors for the things they had achieved. Umuganura was one of the pillars that brought devotedness and unity among Rwandans, it still does,” Ruhumuriza says.

How it is celebrated today

It is said that in 1925, the colonialists banned umuganura because they saw the strength it created in Rwandans in terms of unity but the celebrations were resumed after some years.

Though the current celebrations are not done the way it was in ancient times, the day is still celebrated.

However, Ruhumuriza says that even though this day is being celebrated today, the core of it has reduced, though he applauds the spirit.

“The core meaning of this day is not as it was then but it is good that it is still being celebrated because as people go on with the culture, they will learn a lot and one time I believe it will be as it was before,” he says.

Rutangarwamaboko urges Rwandans to focus on the essential aspects that depict Rwandan culture.

“We should stick to our culture, people are suffering from lack of identity because culture seems to be diminishing. Maintaining such ceremonies is a sure way of getting our beliefs and values back,” he says.

“We should try to celebrate how it was done back then, when people shared, they got to know each other and today, we actually have more to celebrate. Let us feel the thirst of what we have achieved and most importantly, let’s share,” Rutangarwamaboko adds.

Wasswa believes that as it was in the past, it would be wrong for a family to eat the first fruits of their harvest before having their elders taste. This was called kuganuza and he recommends that it should be done today.

Priding in our beliefs and taboos should always be a part of us, he says.

“On that day, leaders shared with those they led and parents with their children. I wish we could do the same or even more, I know this day is celebrated and I applaud the efforts but I wish more could be done. As Rwandans we take so much pride in our culture,” Wasswa says.

Arrangements for this year

Dr Jacques Nzabonimpa, the director of culture at Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture, says that in line with this year’s theme, the clear essence of this day will evidently be depicted.

He says that this year’s celebrations will be special because of the many achievements that the country has attained in different aspects like infrastructure, security and more.

“There will be different festivities to be held prior to the day and more will also be done on the D-day. Celebrations will start as early as the August 19 in Kigali and the final festivities will be held in Nyanza,” he points out.

“People will come together to celebrate the good things they have achieved, festivities will include carnivals, exhibitions on culture, screening of cultural films and many more,” Nzabonimpa adds.

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