It is a beautiful morning and hundreds of people are gathered at Nyanza Stadium while others still flock to the venue, where the 2017 edition of Umuganura is taking place.
This is in Nyanza town in Southern Province, a place renowned for its unique ancient historical features. It is here that the old royal palace of the Rwandan kingdom is located as well as the Rwesero Art Museum, Rwanda’s most prestigious art museum.
Umuganura, a Rwandan cultural version of Thanksgiving Day, is a national harvest day celebrated annually on national level and brings together community members to celebrate what has been achieved within the harvest season.
This year, the celebration was even bigger as more activities took place prior to the official celebration. There was a showcase of cultural and traditional activities, carnivals were held and cultural films were screened.
The day was celebrated under the theme, “Umuganura: A source of unity and foundation of self-reliance.”
According to Dr James Vuningoma, the executive secretary of Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC), in Rwanda’s history, Umuganura was one of the most important ceremonies celebrated by Rwandans at the beginning of every harvest season.
“The festivities were an occasion to celebrate the country’s achievements in terms of harvest both at the kingdom and family levels. This unique occasion had been suppressed by the colonialists after they had realised it was a bond that brought together Rwandans, but later the Government re-introduced it,” he said.
Steven Mutangana, the director of culture promotion at the Ministry of Sports and Culture, said Umuganura was the first-fruit festival and one of Rwanda’s ancient royal rituals.
“The festival served as a harvest thanksgiving ceremony to thank God, the King or Queen Mother as God’s minister and the ancestors as guardians and protectors. It is attributed to Gihanga, meaning that it has existed since the country’s early birth, and is among the key rituals in Rwandan culture,” he said.
But the aspects have completely changed as there are no more kingdom rituals to uphold. Although cultural dances and recitation of poems is held, the celebration of Umuganura goes beyond this.
Today, it has a broader meaning; from being initially about agro-based harvest celebration to including striking achievements from other sectors key to national development.
“Today, we celebrate what has been achieved in the different sectors of the economy including health, education, ICT, sports, mining, infrastructure, culture and tourism, among other things,” said Julienne Uwacu, the minister for sports and culture.
Umuganura has evolved to become a national festival to celebrate the country’s achievements in line with its vision for a more cohesive, united, peaceful and prosperous future.
Uwacu said Umuganura has become a huge opportunity for Rwandans to think of new ways to attain sustainable development. In fact, during the national celebration, people display what has been achieved from farming, businesses and other sectors.
Many Rwandans believe that the festival has been one of the inspiring pillars of dignity and solidarity of Rwandans since hundreds of years back, and that this should even be upheld today.
Vuningoma said it is the essence of unity and brotherhood at the same time the pillar of self-reliance resulting from economic performance, family welfare, and national dignity.
“Umuganura is a great opportunity for families to come together. This spirit of unity and solidarity is the real identity of Rwandans and leads to a nation of dignity and respect,” he said.
Rwanda has, in the recent past, embarked on the journey of promoting cultural tourism as a sector that the Government believes has a potential in contributing to not only preserving the Rwandan culture but also bringing in more tourism revenues.
With Umuganura, some say that this can act as a unique activity that could be leveraged to advance the cultural tourism.
Modeste Rutangarwamaboko, the founder of Rwanda Cultural Health Centre, said the festival can even be used as a platform to promote cultural tourism.
“This day is so important to our people (Rwandans). It is a symbol of what Rwandans believe in, the unity among them and love they shared amongst themselves. But beyond this, Umuganura can be used to preserve our culture as well as in promoting cultural tourism,” he said.
“Today, we want to copy what has been done in the West and do it back home. Yet, we say we are promoting local tourism. The only way we can have a sustainable tourism sector is to tap into cultural tourism and sell the different features that our culture has to offer.”
Rutangarwamaboko thinks that Rwanda’s tourism sector has achieved anything, but could soon fetch more revenues if they preserve and promote the cultural traditions which Rwanda offers, and that Umuganura can serve a big purpose in realising this.
Rutangarwamaboko’s views were echoed by Mutangana, who also highlighted that within the last few days, Rwanda’s cultural heritage sites have seen more people visiting them and that other local players have made more money.
“The people from outside want things that are exclusive. This is why if we invested in what we have home, we can attract more people and make more money. Just few days, during the week of Umuganura, our cultural heritage sites have seen more visitors and hotels have seen more arrivals,” he noted.
He said if more efforts are invested in extending the celebration to the village level it could raise awareness about Rwanda’s culture.