Are Rwandan youth struggling with ‘ancient cultural values’?

Rwanda is said to be a country that is “rich in culture” and so many values that are held dear.

Values are instilled in youth from a young age and as elders work relentlessly to pass down culture to their children, they’re cognizant of the existence of a significant clash between their culture and emerging ones.

The past decades have seen large shifts in society and culture. It has been a period during which Millennials especially, are confused about some traditional values in fashion, religion and marriage which they consider outdated something that has led to clash with the older generation.

Cultural expert Rose-Marie Mukarutabana admits that although culture has always been a reflection of society, it can be quite a conundrum on its own. She still believes, however, that there has to be a set of cultural rules, for culture to be recognised.

“Culture has always been evolving because as a youth, we also used to find our parents annoying and old fashioned. If there are no basic rules that can be adapted however, we can no longer be recognised as Rwandans. The rules are constraints on what people should do and without them we will have no direction,” she says.

Rose-Marie Mukarutabana speaks to women about Rwandan tradition cultural values. Women have come out to challenge cultural norms that undermine feminism. / Courtesy

Events host, Lion Manzi, says that the conversation onculture in any given country, makes people think that there is one set of cultural rules that people have to follow in order for them to belong to that community.

For him, this is far from the truth because in reality, culture is man-made and therefore goes with the times. As such, culture is still relevant in any given society to create that kind of cohesion that is needed, and the sense of identity that makes us who we are.

“In order for culture to remain relevant we have to take into account the new experiences and the new realities of the world we live in. We cannot filter out everything. There is no legal requirement for anyone to follow the culture to be called Rwandese. You cannot compel people to follow a certain way, you can only inspire them and show them what is so good about your culture for us to follow it.  It’s like trying to teach my children life values, I cannot impose it, I can only show them the advantage of being kind, or truthful,” he says.

Inanga player, Deo Munyakazi on the other hand believes that Rwandan culture defines our roots and minimising it, means we minimise ourselves and that although embracing foreign traditions is diversity, we do not have to copy everything because then we will forget who we are.

“There is a battle between different generations but the younger generation should learn that our parents play the role of keeping our culture while the current generation will bring in new norms, because it’s not easy for us to be on the same page,” he says.

Inanga player Deo Munyakazi believes minimising culture, means we minimise ourselves. / File

Manzi further says that the values that we have carried on for generations, as Rwandans are very good and should be maintained but is of the view that we need to be inspired in order to maintain them.

“When we become protective of our culture and impose standards on people, then we run the risk of becoming like some of the most restrictive countries who have a cultural or religious police that forces people to do things that they don’t necessarily agree with.”

“We need to be free enough to understand that we are not obligated to follow culture but at the same time inspirational enough, so that the young can see the value in the culture, and the elders to also understand that every new generation will see things their way, and so we cannot police that,” he says.

With this he explains that article 11 of the constitution defines that Rwanda has a rich cultural background heritage from which we should inspire ourselves to look for homegrown solutions.

“The only reference, therefore that we legally make of cultures is looking for homegrown solutions like Gacaca, and Umuganda that we can apply today and be beneficial to the community. Everything else you cannot compel people as they are not obligated to abide by them to be citizens of Rwanda.”

Effects of culture on feminism movement

The Women’s right movement believed to have been birthed in the early 18th century in New York, has since taken in all parts of the world, by women bothered and discontent with the many limitations placed upon them by society along with the many freedoms they are denied.

While Rwanda is one of the leading global gender-equality success stories, many women have stood up to fight the cultural norms that limit their freedom.

Olive Uwamariya is a gender activist. When questioned about some of the cultural beliefs that she thinks should not be relevant in today’s society, this is what she had to say:

“Any cultural belief that discriminates or reinforces traditional gender norms that inhibit a segment of the population from enjoying their rights. For instance, kwambara ukikwiza is a post-colonial culture which requires women to dress in ways society deems acceptable and this is rooted in the need to control women’s bodies. The world we live in today should not dictate how people dress, women should have full control and autonomy over their own bodies and choices,” she says.

In October, the Rwanda National Itorero Commission (NIC) issued a letter announcing the stripping of the ‘Ubutore’ (noble warrior) title of a Rwandan female artiste, Oda Paccy from Itorero on the basis of her sharing a nude cover photo of her song and a song title that were considered “inappropriate according to Rwandan values”. 

In the same month Rwandan representative at Miss Supranational Munyaneza Djazira was disqualified on the basis of her sharing photos that were deemed “inappropriate and against Rwandan values”.

The actions received mixed reactions on different social media platforms with some acknowledging that the artiste’s action compromised Rwandan values, while others argued that culture has evolved over time, and that the older generation simply has to accept it.

Feminists in Rwanda went ahead and signed a petition to institutions and individuals to stop policing and restricting women and girls’ bodily autonomy and freedom on baseless grounds of ‘culture’.

One such feminist is Brigitte Kamaraba, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Ikamba, who believes that the only way for women to possess their sexuality is by actively exploring and shaping their own desire on their own terms and overcoming the shame and stigma attached to being sexually forward, which has been forced on women from birth.

Uwamariya further adds that while the older and younger generations may not agree on everything, she believes that it’s important to acknowledge that any cultural practice that stifles women’s autonomy should not be promoted by the young and old alike.

“I believe Paccy or any other female artiste can choose to express their art using their bodies. They choose to embrace their sexuality and who they are.”

Manzi also adds that, more importantly, the culture mostly talked about has evolved a lot and even those trying to preserve it are preserving an evolution of something else because we have incorporated things that we inherited from colonisation and religion because the conversation around how young ladies should dress, is borne out of religion.

“I believe that our individual stories have made us embrace some positive parts of different cultures and its okay. They don’t come to threaten our own, they just come to enrich it,” he says.

Mukarutabana disagrees saying that religion and culture overlap citing an example of how Muslims dressing originated from Prophet Mohammed’s culture.

Brigitte Kamaraba.“Your religion has to fit your cultural environment. Some cultures influence people to go to church barefoot, the culture is always stronger and influential,” she says.

Making peace amidst cultural differences

Kamaraba believes that the older generation needs to understand that their traditional beliefs are not the center of what’s normal for the world, as the world changes culture evolves, and so does artiste’s expressions.

“They need to seek to understand, rather than criticise or defend their way of doing things, acknowledge that there are differences. It’s called art and diversity and artists deserve freedom of artistic expression and should be free to decide what they will create and how they will create it.

“We all know that there is a body myth about the “true” nature of woman kind.  The activities and accomplishments of woman kind in every area of life are being judged. There’s art criticism of both sexes however, being no different from other human beings , have been stereotyped concepts as to what constitutes women’s art and expressions which I think happened to Paccy,” she says.

Munyakazi, on the other hand, believes that the only solution would be coming up with an open dialogue between both generations, with the older one having a bigger role to play.

“Our parents need to educate us more about our culture so that when we are exposed to foreign cultures. We will be able to sieve out what is right while keeping the legacy of parents. If we do not agree with our parents, our culture stands to die out yet development cannot exist without cultural values, because then we will lose ourselves. Culture is our sense of identity and uniqueness,” he says.

Mukarutabana believes that as long as cultural differences exist there will always be meaningful dialogue between generations.

“Cultural differences will always be there. Both the young and older generation will always think they are right which is a good thing because the elderly will always remind us of our cultural roots while the younger generation will decide what works for them because the elderly also fought with their parents,” she says.