On October 9, photos of a traditional healer, cultural researcher, and philosopher, Modeste Nzayisenga Rutangarwamaboko, meeting the Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Dr Ildephonse Musafiri, and the Director General of Rwanda Agricultural and Animal Resources Board (RAB), Dr Thelesphore Ndabamenye, circulated on social media. The photos elicited quite a debate — officials clad in suits, meeting a man many consider an ‘herbalist’, dressed in barkcloth, playing the traditional Rwandan board game ‘Igisoro’, as they talked. On his social media platforms, Rutangarwamaboko, who is the CEO of an institution known as Ikigo Nyarwanda Cy’Ubuzima Bushingiye Ku Muco, said he discussed with the senior officials the socioeconomic importance of traditional food crops, livestock farming and medicinal plants in the country’s quest to ensure sustainable food security. The conversation focused on the restoration of endangered traditional food crops and medicinal plants, which have been relied upon by Rwandans for centuries before the advent of modern medicine and agriculture. For many centuries, before the arrival of different types of crops and seeds imported from other countries, Rwandans grew traditional crops such as millet, sorghum, pumpkins, and different types of vegetables such as isogi (cleome gynandra) and tubers which were indigenous to Rwanda. They also discussed things to do with traditional livestock farming and research into traditional therapeutic plants; practices he believes can take Rwandans back to their traditional values, not only to improve their wellbeing but also to promote sustainable development that is based on culture. ALSO READ: Rutangarwamaboko: The traditional healer with ‘magical powers’ The New Times interviewed Rutangarwamaboko to fully understand what he is up to and what he intends to achieve with his efforts. After sitting down with him in a one-on-one interview for an hour, Rutangarwamaboko gave us a tour of his Gisozi-based centre, which is comprised of a two-story building, a big compound, and small gardens, where he explained to us in detail the importance of different traditional crops and medicinal herbs he grows. Keeping it local Rutangarwamaboko maintains that traditional foods originally eaten by Rwandans have proved to be of more value because they are not only organic in nature, but they are also suitable and adaptable to the indigenous soil. He has focused on promoting the growth and consumption of traditional food crops, but surprisingly, today some individuals still view traditional meals as backward. From pumpkins and their seeds to beans, millet, and sorghum which would be turned into different meals, Rutangarwamaboko said research has shown that these traditional food crops have more nutritional value than scientifically improved or modern imported breeds. “This is not my research by the way, but it has been proved that the smaller the grain, the more nutritional value. That is why millet and sorghum are more nutritious than maize,” he said, adding that on the other hand, the bigger the grain, the more fats or carbs it carries. Growing these traditional crops would not only improve food security, but it would also ensure the quality of food produced. These are practices he is not only promoting but he has also invested time and resources to show that it is doable. Like trees, each seed or crop had a meaning and story attached to it while traditional Rwandan seeds were highly valued in the sense that from a seed comes life. In regards to traditional medicine, Rutangarwamaboko, considers himself a ‘mighty traditional healer’ and ‘high priest of Rwanda’ (Umupfumu mukuru mu Bicumbi akaba na Nyagasani Imandwa Nkuru y’u Rwanda) from the heritage of his great grandfather. Rutangarwamaboko, who inherited the name from his great grandfather, who was also a high priest of Rwanda, says it is time to give cultural practices side-lined by colonialists a chance because modern medicine, for example, has proved not to be 100 per cent effective. “I don’t know how someone can believe in modern medicine 100 per cent, because we have seen that modern practices that are not rooted in culture are not holistic. I say this as a traditional healer who also studied medicine and founded cultural-based therapies.” He is the founder of Rwandan Cultural Psychotherapies. “We thought modern medicine and practices would be our saviour but over time we have noticed that actually, they are not, because some of the practices of modern medicine are not our own,” Rutangarwamaboko said. ALSO READ: Govt to regulate traditional medicine practitioners As a matter of fact, Rutangarwamaboko, said that he has been able to heal people who could not be treated by modern medicine using traditional-based ways and it worked. In one particular case, he mentions a mental health patient who for three-and-a-half years could not be helped by doctors to overcome their condition, but after he studied their file, he was able to apply traditional practices and they healed. Perhaps what makes Rutangarwamaboko different from other traditional healers or witchdoctors (he is normally mistaken for one), is the fact that he combines what he does with what he has studied through research and facts. He said the patient had been treated by several recognised psychiatric doctors but they didn’t succeed, as a mere intern at CARAES Ndera Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Gasabo District, he was able to treat the patient in question using traditional methods. “People need to understand that whatever we see today happened because of a certain culture and belief somewhere. Modern clothes were made because at first there was the barkcloth. Everything started somewhere,” Rutangarwamaboko argued. He said that oftentimes, it is claimed that Rwandans used to walk around naked in the pre-colonial era but that is misleading because Rwandans used to wear barkcloth, made from the bark of the ‘umuvumu’ tree, as well as treated animal skins like ‘uruyonga’, ‘inkanda’, ‘impuzu’, ‘ibicirane’ and many others. “Rwandans at the time used to go hunting and fruit gathering naked but they also knew they needed to keep themselves warm during cold weather and they came up with the barkcloth and softer animal skins to cover their bodies,” he says. Rutangarwamaboko believes that this cannot be discredited to say that Rwandans didn’t have what to wear before the arrival of modern clothes. However, it would make a difference if Rwandans looked back at how these apparel used to be made, and applied the knowledge to modern manufacturing. “We talk about Made in Rwanda but the material is from China. How realistic are we with ourselves?” he asked, emphasising that he is not a big fan of that, but rather what would excite him would be to see Rwandans go into manufacturing based on what their ancestors used to make, but this time fusing it with modern technology. Going back to the roots Rutangarwamaboko argued that whichever way you look at it, traditional products were more genuine and durable and they still are today, than most modern products, citing the barkcloth he wears as an example. “I wore this barkcloth and shoes on my wedding ceremony six years ago but they still look the same,” he said, pointing out that his shoes, which were made out of the skin of a serval wild cat (imondo), until today, they still look firm. According to Rutangarwamaboko, any sort of innovation should be built on culture if Rwandans want to truly build something original and with their own identity. “Innovation is built on culture and when you innovate, you need to have an essence or foundation to build your innovation around. What is our philosophy and objective today?” he pondered. By applying cultural traditional practices, Rutangarwamaboko believes Rwanda can tackle some of the challenges it faces today, especially if the country is able to fuse what is considered modern practice, and traditional ways of life. “Today we are talking about climate change, we have a challenge of food security and flailing economies. The entire world doesn’t seem to have a solution. They have come up with different measures to deal with these challenges but we are not seeing the difference yet. “However, when you look back at how our great-grandparents used to live, you realise they co-existed with the universe. They had their different types of food crops and medicinal plants which they used to treat illnesses,” he said. ALSO READ: Why traditional medicine needs support and preservation An example he gives is different trees that carry different values and meanings, such as ‘umuvumu’ or the sycamore tree, scientifically known as “Ficus thonningii Blume” and ‘umuko’ or the Red-hot poker tree (Erythrina abyssinica), which played a key role in defining the weather and seasons. These trees, according to Rutangarwamaboko, are nearly becoming extinct, with many, especially the younger generations, not knowing their purpose and value. These trees, along with ‘umusave’, known as the Nile Tulip tree in English or scientifically as ‘Markhamia lutea’, played a key role in conserving the soil and the environment, but they have since been replaced with modern tree species. Rutangarwamaboko said these trees were replaced by different types of species such as eucalyptus, which are not suitable for Rwandan conditions and some led to a negative impact, including degrading soils. “I am glad the government has taken the initiative to encourage afforestation but what trees are we growing? Are we considering these indigenous tree species?” Rutangarwamaboko asked. He said that each indigenous tree carried a meaning to its name and played a key role in the rituals and traditional practices, whether it is in terms of treatment, meditation, or exorcising bad omen. Another example he gives is the Momordica foetida plant, traditionally known as umwishywa, a perennial climbing herbal vine native to Rwanda and neighbouring countries, which can be described as the ‘wild cucumber’ in English and belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family. Rutangarwamaboko said this plant was one of the most magical plants in Rwandan traditions. It did not only have medicinal value for different ailments, but it also served as a lucky charm, used as a symbol to tie down matrimonial commitments, instead of a wedding ring or band. He said that the value and meaning of this plant, which mainly stems from its resilience to survive difficult conditions, and ability to cure dozens of conditions, is no longer recognised. Apart from highly valued plants, birds and animals similarly had immense value, traditionally considered totems, and had different meanings, from one tribe to another, all of which he said were aimed at preserving and conserving them. Rutangarwamaboko added that regardless of colonialists trying to discredit these practices and eliminating traditional ways of life, they have persisted over the years and that is a sign that there is much more to it. “They portrayed our culture as evil, made it sound archaic or outdated, and even sowed divisions among us, to the extent of massacring people all in the name of ethnicity in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. “They want to finish us and erase us from the map but we have persisted as a people. We are here, we are not going anywhere. That is why we need to carry on with who we are and sustain what truly belongs to us,” Rutangarwamaboko said. As such, he said people have been made to believe that traditional foods are not tasty, but he despises people who have such a mind-set that all traditional practices are backward and modern ones are the best. “I consider it a lack of identity and self-esteem. We had this culture before they came and it had sustained us. If someone makes you believe that your ways are the worst and theirs the best, then the problem is certainly you,” he said. Rutangarwamaboko said that most times he is laughed at or mocked due to his practices, but those who do so don’t have an understanding of who they are. He attributes it to ignorance but adds that it is never too late to learn. “We have borrowed everything, from clothes to languages, and abandoned our own. What would you call that if it is not a lack of identity,” he said, emphasising why he focuses on cultural psychoeducation, perhaps to win back a few souls. It is a fight he is willing to fight, even if he is alone, because many times what he does is portrayed negatively by people and sometimes the media, to discredit cultural values. View on religion Before Christianity and other religions such as Islam came, Rutangarwamaboko says Rwandans had their own Imana (God), a true God of Rwanda known as ‘Nyagasani Imana y’i Rwanda’ but when modern religion came, traditional religious practices were discouraged. Rutangarwamaboko, who studied medicine in clinical psychology and founded the Rwandan Cultural Psychotherapy initiative, emphasises that Rwandans were ‘sold a different God’ but that did not mean the one they used to worship was evil. From his discussions with officials, Rutangarwamaboko believes that these traditional cultural values will once again be considered and integrated into national programmes. Born in ‘mu Bibungo bya Mukinga’, Kamonyi District, Southern Province, in a family of six, Rutangarwamaboko is the firstborn, he holds a master’s degree in cultural and historical studies and is currently pursuing a PhD in Culture, History, and Cultural Tourism. He also studied philosophy and initiated the ‘umwimerere philosophy’ which emphasises innovation based on traditional and cultural wisdom, based on the research he did. His research which focused on dealing with mental illness using traditional methods got a great distinction and the findings were recognised. Rutangarwamaboko went ahead to establish the centre himself upon graduation, to walk the talk. He picked interest in healing, herbal and medicinal plants from childhood, something he carried on from his great grandfather. “I inherited this. I didn’t just stumble into it. My great grandfather, who was called Rutangarwamaboko, was a high priest of Rwanda and a mighty traditional healer (Umupfumu Mukuru mu Bicumbi). He used to send me to pick the herbs for him at the age of five, seven,” he says. The more he got involved, the more he picked interest and soon he felt it was a calling, and upon graduation, he embarked on his current work, with a particular focus on ethno-psychiatry. He combines his studies with philosophy and ‘other ancestral-given power’ to heal, meditate, and counsel people, based purely on traditional healing and cultural divination (kuragura). Rutangarwamaboko believes that most people who don’t value culture do so out of ignorance or lack of information. That is why he opened up the centre Ikigo Nyarwanda Cy’Ubuzima Bushingiye Ku Muco which is located in Gisozi, Gasabo District, where people can go and learn more about culture. He offers different services such as cultural health-based services, cultural-based research, culture tourism, Rwandan culture exhibitions, Rwandan traditional rites and customs exhibitions, and more.