How 'Intsinzi' came to life in Yohana’s kitchen

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Mariya Yohana (C) blessed the concert with her hit intsinzi. / Nadege Imbabazi

Every Rwandan has either hummed, danced or just simply heard the song ‘Intsinzi’. Regarded by most as the country’s victory song, this year, ‘Intsinzi’ makes 25 years since it was composed.

Its composer; 74 year old Maria Yohana Mukankuranga looks back at the iconic song with a twinkle in her eye.

“Don’t laugh,” she playfully warns when I ask where exactly the idea to write the song was conceived.

“The idea of ‘Intsinzi’ was conceived in the most unlikely place; the kitchen. I remember the day like it was yesterday because in that kitchen, it was just my daughter, Angelique Umulisa, my little grandson and their grandmother and as we cooked, the idea grew and by the time we were done cooking, we were halfway with the song,” she laughs. 

Mukankuranga says that ‘Intsinzi’ crossed her mind as a result of the absence of her two sons who had joined the liberation army. 

“My sons had gone to fight in the liberation war and all we had was just scanty information about how they were and if they had the morale that they needed to continue with the war. This song was supposed to boost the soldiers’ morale,” she said.

She says that once the idea came to them, there was a slight challenge when it came to getting a fitting opening line and that’s how she came up with the idea of, “Ndatera Inzuzi, Ndaraguza Umutwe” (I can imagine, I can foresee victory).

The song talks about the singer’s aspirations for the country and how she believes that victory is imminent.

The rest as they say is history.

Mukankuranga, who had in 1961 fled to Nshungerezi Refugee Camp in Uganda says that since there were no studios  in the camp, the song was only sang with no sound other than the traditional clapping and ululation.

“There were no studios for us and it wasn’t until a year later in 1993 when we travelled to Kampala to record the song, but otherwise, there were no beats; just a group of enthusiastic people with a common goal,” she remembers.

Looking back, she says that the song has always had a place in society.

“I remember sometime in 1993 in Mulindi, Byumba when we sang that song for the very first time. Everyone was excited, hugging, happy, crying but at the end, we were asked to keep it till the time was right and eventually that time did come and it has been played over and over, home and away,” she says.

The song gained its popularity immediately after the RPF-Inkotanyi captured Kigali in July 1994 and has since taken up space on the country’s top list of victory songs.

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Maria Yohana performs during a past commemoration event at Murambi Genocide memorial.

Bittersweet celebration

As ‘Intsinzi’ turns 25, Mukankuranga looks back with lots of nostalgia, remembering that her daughter who sang it with her passed away in 1996, two years after the end of the liberation war. Her two sons did not make it too.    

“I can’t believe it has been 25 years. It reminds me of many things. The liberation journey, my daughter, my sons but besides everything else, I am happy and it remains my favourite and it achieved what we hoped it would which was to bring everyone together. Looking at Rwanda today, the song is very appropriate because the country is exactly as I saw or sang about it back then,” she says.

Does she believe that the song is iconic?

“I can’t be the judge of that, I will leave that decision to the fans,” she says. “Very many love the song and they sing it whenever they are happy but I perhaps attach a lot to the song so I only sing it when it’s a very important occasion,” she says.

After performing the song with many other artistes, is there a remix in the works perhaps.

“Never”, she declares. “I have only sang it with many male music artistes to add bass but the song itself will never ever be remixed because I regard it as a historical piece and history cannot be altered or changed,” she says.

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WHO IS MARIYA YOHANA?

Born on December 5th, 1943 in the current Ngoma District (formerly Kibungo District), Eastern Province, Mariya Yohana attended Ecole Primaire Zaza Parish and later Zaza Ecole Menagere Post Primaire (EMPP).

When she completed her 4-year teachers’ course, she started teaching at Ecole Primaire Rwamagana and later moved to Ecole Primaire Kibungo where she taught Kinyarwanda in P3 and P4.

She was forced into exile in Uganda 1961 when she had just gotten married and a mother to an eight days old baby.

In 1971, Maria Yohana attained a teaching job at Rwamurunga Primary School where she taught subjects like Kinyarwanda, Math and English. She did this until 1994.