Mariya Yohana’s journey to become the icon of liberation songs

Traditional music icon Maria Yohana Mukankuranga. File

Marie-Jeanne Mukankuranga describes herself as ‘old enough’ when one asks her about her age. She is among, if not the oldest artistes in the country.

Her stage name is a translation of Marie-Jeanne, Mariya Yohana, and she is renowned as a liberation music singer, where one of her best, “Intsinzi”, is still relevant to date since she composed it in 1991.


“We didn’t have time to start singing. We started it as families because of talking to many people. Our parents also used to train us, if one had parents who told them everything,” the 77-year-old says.


Mukankuranga narrates how her father used to tell them to always sing so that they wouldn’t grow into cowards.


When she went to school as a young girl, she always enjoyed singing with her classmates.

When she graduated from a teachers training college, she immediately started teaching, and that is when she started composing songs for her students because she was really passionate about singing.

“I used to compose children’s songs. But most of us started composing real music when Rwandans started to show interest in liberating this country. Whoever was willing made sure they composed a song for the country and for our children who were at the battlefield. That is when I started writing songs.”

By then, Yohana had fled Rwanda like other Rwandans who were being persecuted by the Rwandan government. She was forced into exile in Uganda in 1961 when she had just gotten married and a mother to an eight days old baby.

She got herself a job at a primary school where she would teach math and English, but she would add in music because she liked singing, she says.

In 1990, she started writing and composing liberation music that would then be very much loved by people.

“I was a mother at that time. But I also felt like I had a gun or spears. I didn’t know how to use them, but I would give morale to the soldiers who had left for fighting,”

“It was amazing how those who had gone to fight didn’t come back home (retreating). They hadn’t seen Rwanda in person, but for us, we had been there. Their zeal made us feel like it was our responsibility to compose songs for them,” she recalls.

The soldiers who heard the liberation songs, Yohana explains, would put themselves in the shoes of the composer.

“‘We are fine and really happy’, and that is the spirit they took to the battlefield.”

Even before she started composing for the liberation, the songs that Yohana was teaching the children at school were related to how terrible it was that they were refugees.

“We fled while we were old enough to see how beautiful our country was, we were sad. So, we felt obliged to teach that to our children.”

Most of the songs were not understood by the children, but their parents would cry when they listened to them. One of them says “Icyamara agahinda ni icyanyereka iwacu”, which means “What would take this grief away is something that would show me my home.”

She was part of a traditional troupe called Indahemuka, which legendary artistes Massamba and Kamaliza were also part of.

Their songs were morale boosters in the army and were used in fundraising events where resources were raised to support the liberation struggle.

The songs were also used to make people aware that their support was needed if the battle was to be won.

“They felt like people had their backs telling them to be strong. It is God that blessed the movement. The music made the soldiers and the rest who were behind strong.”

She misses some people who she used to sing with but have since passed on; like Kamaliza, Sentore, Minani Rwema, Karinganire Jean Marie Vianney, among others. She says they had a great time together.

“They couldn’t tell we were so much older than them, and we couldn’t tell they were so much younger than us. We had the same mindset and our cause which was noble and bonded us.”

Yohana says that young artistes should be patriotic and have the zeal to serve their country.

“If they can, they should contribute to the development of the country by singing about it and making it known everywhere. This country performed miracles for us because of good governance.”

She adds that young musicians in Rwanda are making nice music, but she requests them to sing decent music that is in line with the culture.

Yohana still performs her songs and she recently collaborated with a young rising star, B-Threy in a song called ‘Urwagasabo.’

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