Back to our roots: Why more Rwandans are embracing afro-centrism

IT IS increasingly becoming easy to spot them; men and women trying to get in touch with their African roots. Trying because they have been away for too long, physically and emotionally, and are doing everything they can to rid themselves off the alien western feeling.
Speciose Kayitesi
Speciose Kayitesi

IT IS increasingly becoming easy to spot them; men and women trying to get in touch with their African roots. Trying because they have been away for too long, physically and emotionally, and are doing everything they can to rid themselves off the alien western feeling.

They try by wearing outfits from African print material, beaded necklaces, shaggy afros, and some see to it that their children only have exotic African names instead of Christian Names. All this to prove to themselves and the world that they have not lost touch with their roots.

The loss of the African touch comes from the long periods they spent or spend abroad, the modern lifestyles they lead or just those moments they became wannabes because of what they see on TV.

As the world becomes a global village, people travel, explore, research, become aware of cultures and lifestyles that they were previously beyond reach. In the process, some of it rubs on and they lose some of theirs in the process.

Going by the look on the streets of Kigali lately, afro-centrism can be described as an emerging trend; it is all over. Business enterprises are also ridding along and capitalising on the fad to attract those reconnecting to their African roots. More and more coffee shops are African themed, fancy bars and hang out spots have African themed interiors, and local designers who use African print materials are having an influx in the number of their customers.  Most of them also tend to have western accents, giving away the fact that they have just returned to their motherland.

Angie Mukaruliza, a Kigali based outfit retailer who deals in a range of clothing items including those made from African print material, says that a large number of those who prefer African print outfits are either ‘uptown’ people or people who grew up away from Rwanda.

“Most lovers of African print materials and African jewelry are people who have experienced modern or western lifestyles and have somehow embraced them. Few care about the pricing; to them what matters is having them. There are others who want designers to fuse modern outfits like denim or khaki with the African prints so that they can wear African print material more often or formally.”

You would imagine that the local designs would be cheaper than imported outfits, but they are not. Mukaruliza says that locally designed outfits cost a couple of times more and give wearers the benefit of uniqueness.

“Most of the African print outfits are expensive because of the quality and that they are handmade. Their guaranteed uniqueness is also something that the wearers are looking for and it comes at a price, mostly a high one. But most of them seem not to mind that.”

Others want their houses themed with African themed furniture and decorations as Sam Rwirangira, a small scale designer, has noted during his recent assignments working on interior designs for offices and homesteads.

“There is a large number of clients who want their houses and offices to have local African furniture and decor that makes the house look African.”

Strangely, it is more expensive to have an African theme than it is to have a western one. “Since most of the clients want quality and uniqueness, the materials we use are a little costly as they are rare. To them African themes are something of prestige.”

Those who do it give various reasons, for some, like Anita Uwizeyimana, a 30-year-old, who spent about a decade in Canada, the efforts are almost unconscious.

 “People tell me that I am afro-centric but I am rarely aware of it. I just prefer African prints and designs because growing up, it was hard to come across them and when we did they were expensive and out of reach. It is like I am making up for the time I spent without them. Most of my clothes are made from African prints and my jewelry is all African.”

She admits to spending free time in coffee shops with African themes like Shokola Lite in Kayciru and would prefer a bar that comes off as African.

Most of her outfits are made of Kitenge just as her handbags which mostly match the rest of the outfits are.

But efforts of people like Uwizeyimana are not always seen as commendable, some see them as pretentious.

Jean Pierre Kayiranga, a 50-year-old father of three who spent time abroad, doesn’t get why a grown man or woman would be convinced that their clothes or house decor would make them feel more connected to their origin.

“It is strange that one would need to wear African print materials to feel that they are really African, it is to some extent pretentious. Being away from a country doesn’t necessary mean that you have to completely water down your African principles and culture.”

Kayiranga says that most of those convinced that their clothes or house decorations or anything else will make them more African are only subscribing to a false ideology sold to them by people willing to cash in on their desperation.

“What makes you really African or Rwandan is not attires, it is the principle you hold dear and how you live your everyday life. It is ironic that some wear those outfits and stuff in an attempt to feel more African but in other aspects of their life are centrally not. They can barely speak their mother tongue and have no African values. They do not show respect for elders or value family and their extended relatives which is a value Africans hold dearly.”

But as a mother, a grandmother and an elder, Speciose Kayitesi, a 60-year-old business woman in Kigali would advise people who feel disconnected to their motherland and principles to get them back any way they can, be it through the clothes they wear, the music they listen to or the places they spend a lot of time in.

“It is hard to define what makes one African or Rwandan; it is a blend of very many things that we are mostly unconscious of. It is things we can barely explain, though it is part of our life. For anyone who feels that they need to do something more than just come back home to feel at ‘home’, I would advise them to do anything and everything they feel will make them blend in.”

“It is understandable that most Africans have spent a lot of time away from their home country that they could easily lose touch of their heritage. It is by doing anything they feel will play a part in bringing them back home that they will truly feel at home. It matters not what those around them will say or think, it matters most what they feel, so it could be that what we are seeing on the streets is actually doing them some good.”

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