Itorero: My memorable experience of Rwanda's centuries old tradition

When I was told to represent my company for the Itorero, I was a little hesitant and I asked many questions on why I should participate or why I should be taught to be patriotic.
The passout day for the Impamyabigwi as trainers of civic education. (Courtesy)
The passout day for the Impamyabigwi as trainers of civic education. (Courtesy)

When I was told to represent my company for the Itorero, I was a little hesitant and I asked many questions on why I should participate or why I should be taught to be patriotic. 

There had been many debates on radio and social media on the issue of taking journalists to Nkumba Peace and Leadership Training Centre for Itorero because most journalists argued that journalists were going to be brainwashed with propaganda which would affect the way we report.


Later my adventurous side pushed me into attending and on December 3rd, 2015, I joined other journalists at the Amahoro Stadium and we set off at around 10am. We were about 119 journalists, media owners and some stakeholders in the media fraternity.


As a practicing journalist, I imagined I knew a lot about my country and its history but all that changed last week after I attended the civic education program popularly known as Itorero at Nkumba Peace and Leadership Training Centre in Burera District.


Itorero is cultural school of sorts through which people learn their national culture values and how to preserve and defend them. These values include; language, patriotism, dances and songs as well as social relations.

Itorero can be traced back to 1510 and it was introduced by Ruganzu Ndoli. In ancient Rwanda before colonial rule, Itorero was a cultural school where patriotism, language and social values would be instilled.

Anyway, we arrived at Nkumba early enough to have lunch before we were fully checked to see what we were carrying. The security check was looking out for sharp objects like razors or scissors which were confiscated.

After the security check, we were given forms to fill in our personal details, which included names, media organisation we worked for and next of kin to contact in case of an emergency.

The writer showcasing what is considered as front salute. (Courtesy)

Our blood pressure levels were tested, so was our height and weight and a photo was taken to be put on the form that we had filled.

We were later given old uniforms that were used by the former Rwanda Defence Force (RDF now has new uniforms) and gumboots to wear. This is where the fun began. The uniforms were so huge that some people changed in as many as five pairs to get the right size.

When we were through dressing up in the uniforms, the trainers (Abatoza) told us to put our most valuable possessions especially mobile phones in an envelope that was provided.

It was so difficult and emotional to hand over our phones, especially some of us who are addicted to them. People started making calls to loved ones because it was very difficult embrace the fact that we would survive a week without mobile phones.

When I handed over my phone, it hit me that I had to abide by rules that I had last encountered while still in boarding school.

We were directed to the football pitch and put in five groups. I was put in the first group which was named Icyerekezo (Vision). We were asked to elect three leaders from each group. The main leader was called Umukondo which can be loosely translated as ‘umbilical cord’. I asked myself why our leader was given such a weird title, until I realized the importance of the umbilical cord to a mother and child. It was a whole new experience all together.

Journalists showcase one of the experimental learning exercises (umukoro ngiro) during the pass-out as trainers of civic education. (Courtesy)

We were then taken through experimental learning exercises (Umukoro ngiro), morning sports, group work and cultural evenings that greatly reflected on the responsibilities of media practitioners and set performance targets collectively. 

The key values we were taught is the ability to be confident in solving problems but at the same time uphold our dignity.

The one thing that is so important at Nkumba is being time conscious. The place reminded me of the common English saying ‘Do the right thing at the right time’.

Besides being taught about embracing our cultural values, we were given lectures on the media’s role in national developmental programs by notable personalities such as Senator Tito Rutaremara, Defence Minister Gen. James Kabarebe, Gen. Patrick Nyamvumba, Rwanda Defence Forces’Chief of Defence Staff and Prof. Phillip Cotton; Vice-Chancellor of the University of Rwanda (UR), just to mention a few.

The course master Brig. Gen Emmanuel Bayingana, who is also the Vice Chairman of National Itorero Commission gave a rousing welcome speech during a dinner to officially open the Itorero which was attended by Boniface Rucagu Chairperson of National Itorero Commission and Vincent Munyeshyaka, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Local Government.

At the end of the day, we were told that we would wake up at 5am to jog and do other physical exercises. There was hesitation but the funniest thing was how people started asking for the agenda of the whole week to know what was in store for them. We were told that we would always get the information from our trainers.

Daily routine

Nkumba is a cold place, so waking up at 5am was a challenge on the first day, but the whistle being blown every second until the last person runs out of the dormitory was so nagging that one had no choice but to get out of bed any way. To keep up, I used to sleep in my running clothes so that when the whistle was blown, I would just wear shoes and get to the parade area. We would be counted based on group name so it was difficult to dodge.

We would jog for close to 45minutes then do drills and stretch and then go back to the dormitory to shower and by 7am, we had to be through with showering and having breakfast. At 7:15am, we all had to be at the football pitch for military parade (drilling or marching). The marching exercise was the most exciting but also exhausting act of the day.

It requires the utmost discipline and patience.  The reason why I say this was the most exciting is because it was characterised with laughter because some colleagues had totally failed to master the order formation. For instance when the instructor told the students to turn right, some people would turn left thus hindering the formation.

After the marching exercise, we would go back to the lecture hall and do group experimental learning exercises (Umukoro ngiro) and then one person from the group would make a presentation on behalf of the entire group.  This would take roughly an hour and then a notable person would come and gives us a lecture. As journalists, the question and discussion session would take an hour or two in that the course master would call for time up even when there are more  questions being asked. Time in Nkumba is one of the most respected elements.

We would have lunch at exactly 1pm and be back in the hall for another experimental learning exercise which we had to execute and then relate it with our daily life or work ethics. These were always different as days went by and they became more complex as days went on.

Another lecture would be held from 3pm-5pm and then we would go change into sportswear and head to the football pitch for games, by 7:00pm we were supposed to have showered and dressed back in our uniforms and seated in the hall for cultural evenings (Igitaramo).

One of the female jounalists illustrates for her colleagues the marching techiniques. (Courtesy)

We would go for dinner at 8pm and come back for Agaciro television news. We all looked forward to the news because it was characterised with various events that transpired throughout the day but the delivery was humorous.

The one day that stood out for me was when we had to run 3kilometers in 15minutes. I was the last because I used 36 minutes.  The truth is I didn’t run; I walked because I have sinus issues that cannot accommodate such a run but before the day, I had never thought that I was capable of walking that fast in my entire life.

Wearing uniform for all the days I was in Nkumba without washing it because chances of it drying were so slim renewed my respect for the men and women that serve in our army and police forces.

Whenever it would get hot, I would feel like undressing, but each time I would remind myself that there are people who wear it for most of the days of their lives and I would persevere. Today, when I pass an army patrol at the road side, I look at them through different lenses because I now understand the sacrifices they are making to keep me safe.

On the last day, as the media fraternity, we committed by signing Imihigo (performance contracts) with the Minister of Local Government Francis Kaboneka where we promised that besides being patriotic, we will report the truth, preserve our cultural norms when we are reporting stories at the same time properly use Kinyarwanda, promote partnership and uplift the journalism profession in Rwanda. The journalists also pledged to start a media solidarity fund.

Itorero for media practitioners was organised by National Itorero Commission in collaboration with Rwanda Association of Journalists and Media High Council. 88 men and 21 Women attended.

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