A visit to Ikirenga Cultural Centre is an enriching journey into Rwanda’s history and cultural heritage.
Located in Rusiga Sector, Rulindo District, along the Kigali-Musanze highway, the place is better known as Ku Kirenge cya Ruganzu – literally translated as At Ruganzu’s Footprint.
It’s located 25 kilometres from Kigali.
Ikirenga Cultural Centre is built on a historical site that shows some of the exploits of King Ruganzu II Ndoli, one of Rwanda’s most famous kings who reigned in the 16th century.
Ruganzu, according to history went into exile at the time Rwanda was under the domination of Bunyoro Kingdom (now in Uganda), before returning and liberating Rwanda and expanding it thereafter.
Ruganzu is believed to have had supernatural powers which consolidated his influence locally and beyond.
According to one account, his footsteps and his dog’s paws are still visible on rocks across Rwanda to date.
Ku Kirenge is one place among many where Ruganzu is said to have left his traces. The place, like others elsewhere in the country with his footprints, has become an attraction of sorts.
Now Rulindo authorities see this as a great opportunity to promote the area and district at large as a tourism destination.
A glimpse into the site
At the main entrance of Ikirenga Cultural Centre, there is an imposing statue of a giant man with a bow and spear. A guide is eager to inform you that the statue is for Ruganzu, who is depicted as a warrior and winner.
Besides it is another statue of a beautiful woman sporting ancient Rwandan hairstyle known as Amasunzu. She’s holding a pot and is looking at Ruganzu.
Gantille Girimpuhwe, a guide at Ikirenga Cultural Centre, said the woman symbolises how resourceful Ruganzu was and remains to Rwandans.
The centre also has a traditional house considered prestigious in the ancient Rwanda and only belonged to the high and mighty.
During Ruganzu’s time, Girimpuhwe said, there were three types of housing, according to social classes.
The first was the king’s house which was large with many rooms, and constructed in expensive materials. The house had amashyoro (two sticks that stuck out like antennas) above the front door.
The centre also has Migongo house, in which tools used in sacred ceremonies and other traditional tools are kept.
Three ‘religious’ ceremonies were observed in traditional Rwanda. They are Kubandwa, which our guide equated to the current baptism in Christian faith. During this ceremony, traditional tools such as inanga (a string musical instrument or harp) and small pots were used.
The other is Guterekera, which can be compared to imploring saints that’s mainly done by Catholic believers today. In this ceremony, members of a family would gather around a fire, carrying banana and honey beer to beseech ancestors for help.
Sometimes, Girimpuhwe said, the family would receive a message from their ancestors conveyed in different ways.
The third ceremony was Kuraguza, or seeking future predictions. This would be presided over by sorcerers who used tools like horns and inzuzi (magical seeds), among others, to tell people what’s going on and what the future held for them.
Migongo house is also characterised by some decorations were common in traditional Rwanda and neighbouring kingdoms like Karagwe (now in Tanzania).
All these tools had been acquired from neighbouring populations and the Catholic Church, Girimpuhwe said.
When King Mutara III Rudahigwa dedicated Rwanda to Christ in July 1946, many Rwandans abandoned traditional religion and became Christians, Girimpuhwe said.
Many surrendered these traditional tools to the Church.
A profitable shop
Girimpuhwe said most of their visitors are Rwandans. Rwandans pay Rwf500, while foreigners part with Rwf3,000 to visit the cultural museum. She said they are increasingly receiving people as word about the cultural heritage that the site represents continues to spread.
The centre also has a cultural troupe.
The Ikirenga traditional dance group is made of 36 members, mostly from nearby neighbourhoods, especially Rusine Sector.
“When the troupe is invited to perform elsewhere, they are paid at least Rwf100,000. This can happen for at least three to four times a month depending on the seasons,” said Girimpuhwe.
But the centre has also become a source of livelihood for residents in other ways. When it was established, women from the district came together and formed Umwimerere cooperative. They make different types of traditional arts and crafts that are sold at a gift shop at the centre.
“When we sell a product, 15 per cent goes to the centre’s account; the rest is for the cooperative. I can’t say we have enough clients, but we get profits and the business keeps improving,” said Girubuntu.
Impact on community
Jaqueline Ingabire, 37, a member of Umwimerere cooperative, makes drums which she sells through the gift shop.
Before coming to Ikirenga Cultural Centre, Ingabire used to earn about Rwf6,000 a month.
“Churches were my only clients and you know a drum is not something that gets old in a short time. It used to be tough but things have improved since I started bringing my drums to this shop. I also make small decorative drums,” she said.
Today, she said, she earns at least Rwf200,000 a month. This has impacted her life and that of her family. She has used the proceeds to develop herself, even buying a cow valued at Rwf200,000.
“I want to grow my business by investing more into it,” she tells Saturday Times.
Uwambajimana, a resident of Rusiga Sector, said she got a part-time job at the centre when it opened. “There are always jobs especially whenever there are events here. This centre has changed our lives for the better,” said Uwambajimana.
She says she earns between Rwf15,000 and Rwf30,000 a month from the centre.
She has since used the money to buy cattle for herself and cater for her family’s basic needs, she said.
Theogene Niyonshimira, the manager at Ikirenga Cultural Centre, said they are currently expanding the facility.
“What we have in place today is just the first phase of the centre, the second and the third are being worked on,” Niyonshimira said.
He said the second phase of construction will focus on the life of Rwanda’s 16th century kings, their palaces, how they exercised their power and how their subjects came to pay homage to them.
The third phase, he said, will include accommodation facilities for visitors – all built in traditional ways.
There is also a plan to put up a structure to showcase the specific history of Rulindo, and a multipurpose hall for weddings and other events, as well as expanding the arts and folklore section.
He urged travellers and tourists using the Kigali-Musanze road to always make a stop at Ikirenga Cultural Centre to learn about Rwanda’s history and heritage.
The Rulindo vice mayor in charge of Economic Affairs, Prosper Mulindwa, said the centre was built as part of efforts to enhance culture-based tourism in the district.
“In this fiscal year, we are planning to expand the facility on six hectares. We will create an hetno-botanic garden with traditional vegetation. Works are starting in September,” he said.
He said they will also add more locally made products like coffee and tea. “They are also part of our heritage,” he said.
All envisaged construction works will be complete in five years, he said.
Last year, Ikirenga Cultural Centre received more than 2000 individual visitors and another 10,000 or so who came in groups, he added.
“We are in talks with government institutions in charge of tourism like Rwanda Development Board, MINISPOC (Ministry of Sports and Culture) and National Museums of Rwanda on how best we can work together to make this centre more attractive,” said Mulindwa. “We want to offer a complete package to our visitors.”