FORMED IN 2004, Ingoma Nshya boasts the enviable title of Rwanda’s first ever women’s drumming troupe. To achieve that status, the group had to break from a long-running social custom that forbade women from playing the drum: hence the name, Ingoma Nshya (new drum).
Using the skills they have attained on the drums, the women disseminate messages of reconciliation and hope across the country, but particularly in Butare, Southern Province, where the group is based.
During their choreographed shows, the women belt out traditional folk rhythms in Kinyarwanda, occasionally spiced with Burundian and Senegalese sounds.
But it is the drumming; the energy and fervor with which they do it for which the women are best known.
Their drum ensemble is quite impressive, and they have more than ten different types of drums.
Breaking from tradition
“Apart from the literal meaning, Ingoma in Kinyarwanda also means a new era or kingdom. Every time we change a king or leader, it’s a new ingoma,” explains Odile Gakire Katese (better known in theater circles as Kiki), the group’s founder.
That is why drumming was forbidden to women until the genocide in 1994. After the genocide, 74% of the population that remained were women.
“That is the ‘manpower’ we were left with, so somehow they had to be engaged, and play roles they had never played before,” Katese said.
“After the genocide, all taboos were broken. People got enough shock from it, and there was nothing left that could shock them. Women started taking up male-dominated jobs as long as it was positive.”
At the onset, the group boasted 100 full-time drummers, a number that has since been downsized to 20 of the best in a bid to make the project sustainable.
“When we started, we didn’t require any funding because we already had the drums. What was lacking was just the drum sticks.”
“When we got funding of 5,000 Euros from the Dutch Foundation, we started covering our costs. We organised and attended workshops more regularly, and brought in professional drummers from Rwanda, the DRC and Burundi to tutor the women. We started working every day, as opposed to three days a week,” says Katese.
Apparently, the group’s fortunes started looking up in 2007, following a visit by president Paul Kagame to Senegal, where he had been invited for an award in honour of his efforts in promoting gender equality.
“The president was impressed by a performance by Doudou Ndiaye Rose, a Senegalese artiste who was 74 at the time,” she says.
The following year, Doudou was invited to perform at the Arts Asimuts Festival that was officially opened by the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame.
At the festival, the artiste was easily impressed by the drumming acumen of Ingoma Nshya, and later sought audience with the president, requesting to have the group at his performance as he marked his 50th anniversary on stage. His request was granted, and the women flown to Senegal.
“When we returned to Rwanda, the word had spread about our trip, and more than 100 women were at our doorsteps, asking to join the group,” explains Kiki.
Ingoma Nshya is made of ordinary peasant women who have not gone to school, do not know how to read or write their own names and, as Kiki later puts it, “women who do not expect anything from life. Women whose only ‘diploma’ had been having a husband. But they have become legendary because of drumming. They are the best translation of the unity and reconciliation process, since they come from both sides of the conflict.’’”
She hopes that through their concerts, ordinary Rwandan women can see the example of ordinary women, who expected nothing from life, and who then blossomed thanks to music.
“This sparks new ambitions, which is great.”
In 2008, the women played for the first time in Goma, Eastern DRC.
“Many people tried to discourage us from going for safety reasons. But we were warmly welcomed and we have since returned several times. We went because we knew that we needed to send a strong message: first, the fact that Congolese people were inviting Rwandans was very important, and we had to accept. Also, because those who came to watch the concert saw a group comprised of people of different ethnicities that in the past had killed one another. These women spread a message of hope, as they became living proof that a country can build itself back after conflict,” she further explains.
They have also staged performances in the US, and the Netherlands among other countries. During one such tour of the US, the women met the owners of Blue Ice Cream, an ice cream company, culminating in the opening of a similar ice cream parlor, Inzozi Nziza, in Butare town.
It was the first step in the group’s attempt at self-sustainability. Today, six out of the twenty women drummers are employed in various roles at the ice cream shop. They juggle this work and their drumming routine to make ends meet.
The women are orphans, widows, wives and children of perpetrators and for these, Ingoma Nshya has been a place to live once again, after they were heartbroken and died from inside following the genocide. Yet the struggle for day-to-day survival still remains a real challenge in their midst.
Talking to a few of them, their testimonies go along the lines of; “This is better than home! When I was born, my parents separated and left me to my aunt.” Another speaks of how people now recognise her as a drummer wherever she goes.
“The drumming has become my husband,” says another, obviously a widow.
And the winner: “We want to remain the normal women we are, doing great things.”
On average, the group performs abroad at least twice every year, while locally they do at least six major gigs. All their performances are strictly by invitation.