Umuganura and the place for our traditional foods in this age

Public holidays are loved by many a salaried worker. For those in Rwanda, the law that allows public holidays falling on weekends to be carried over to Monday was a huge blessing. Several long weekends are now more of a possibility than before.

This weekend was one of such with Friday being the National Harvest Day better known as Umuganura.

It is one the few public holidays that is authentically Rwandan in every sense of the word. An outsider would struggle to know what it’s all about if they just flew in and found offices closed. Nyanza District in the Southern Province played host to the main celebrations of the day.

As is always the case, others elsewhere celebrated the day at the sector and village level. Umuganura is essentially a day of thanksgiving and is celebrated in a bid to promote the Rwandan culture of valuing and celebrating achievements and crop yields from the country’s fertile soil.

It is one of those festivities that was pulled back from the ancient days and made part of the modern Rwanda setting in line with its broader vision. Over the recent years I have come to notice that on this day a lot of culture is on display from the fashions, games and foods of the days of yore.

Basically almost everything that we love to refer to as traditional is dragged to modern spaces and celebrated without anyone viewing it as ‘backward’ and to me this is very important. The interaction that most African societies had with outsiders left many aspects of our culture relegated to backward or simply ‘traditional’ or ‘local’.

Seeing Rwandans celebrating such days is indeed a step in the right direction. It shows a sense of ownership to what is truly ours. This year’s festivities were merged with the 10th edition of the Pan African Dance Festival (FESPAD) hosted under the theme “Culture and source of unity and foundation of self-reliance.”

I used to be a huge fan of FESPAD and I keep hoping that it can gradually claw back the clout it had gained and grow bigger into the kind of African festival it is supposed to be. On many occasions I have written about how festivals are great opportunity for the tourism industry especially as far as domestic and regional tourism is concerned.

Celebrated every first Friday of the month of August Umuganura is no longer just about agricultural harvests but my eye is still caught by the foods on display. Yes I admit, I have a weakness for food, especially our food. And many times while doing work with tourism boards across the region, the issue of local foods is often raised.

In a bid to boost domestic tourism, it was realised that many tourism establishments, especially high end hotels, tend to downplay the need to have these foods on the menu. Many only focus on foreign dishes with exotic names that sometimes confuse domestic tourists. In some places, the only thing locals can relate with is the locally produced beer brands. 

To fully celebrate our cultures will require that we embrace our foods and show them off to the world. We should call them by their right names and not simply branding them as local food. It is our food and it has a name, a story and a taste to savour. Culinary tourism is a huge aspect of tourism that we cannot ignore by simply perfecting how to make and serve exotic dishes.

In Uganda, food festivals are becoming a thing and although it is the ‘rolex’, fish and pork so far being showcased, more can be done. I know of a cool gentleman who organises domestic tourism trips and part of the package is that the tourists get to enjoy the foods of the place they visit and even taste the local brews. 

Our tourism offerings need this authentic touch, we cannot forever sell only our wildlife and physical features. We need to sell our cultures as well beyond the usual dances. Many times when you Google the things to do as a tourist while around here the food bit is often not mentioned. And yet being essentially agricultural societies we should be using every chance to market our organic culinary offers.

Now that part of the focus of what Umuganura stands for is sustainable development then it is imperative that hospitality establishments do a better to embrace local dishes. We need to do better when it comes to showing off our harvest.

Twitter: @ssojo81

The views expressed in this article are of the author.