Culture debate: revive and adapt

The past week has been a period of culture. Well, culture is an everyday thing, but still we set aside a time to focus on this aspect of our life that defines who we are but that is not well understood.

The past week has been a period of culture. Well, culture is an everyday thing, but still we set aside a time to focus on this aspect of our life that defines who we are but that is not well understood.

So we had Umuganura, our national thanksgiving day, a celebration of harvest and achievement, but also a time to commit to even greater accomplishments.


There was also FESPAD, a celebration of African dance. As has become the custom, countries participating in the festival took it to the provinces to celebrate their unique dance forms with their Rwandan brothers and sisters.


In Kigali, sports lovers were treated to a fine display of basketball talent and competitiveness by Africa’s under-18 youth.


Then on Sunday thanksgiving took on a religious dimension. Many of God’s people gathered at the National Stadium to tell the Almighty that we are immensely grateful for the journey we have travelled so far and ask him to accompany us on the road still ahead.

Not to miss out on the festivities, and perhaps to place culture in a philosophical and historical context, the more intellectually inclined also had their thing. They met at a seminar organized by the Ministry of Sports and Culture and the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture to debate the role of culture in development.

No surprise about the topic. Every discussion these days is about the role of something or other in development. We are so taken up with the subject we must utter the word every night in our sleep. It probably shows how much we are eager to move ahead and fast.

I had the privilege to attend the seminar. It went as many of this sort go. There were deep and informed discussions, at once elegant, informative and humorous. But also shallow and misdirected comments, many of them said with inexplicable anger and crass self-promotion were in evidence.

This too is to be expected. Seminars attract a diverse lot and this one was no different.

There were the experts, the ones that presented papers and led the discussions. They had such a wealth of knowledge and expressed it in such rich yet ordinary language that you wonder why we don’t see and hear this all the time. Why must such wealth remain a matter for seminars and workshops, and not be in the public domain, accessible to all? Because then misconceptions and misunderstanding of culture would cease.

Kinyarwanda, too, as a beautiful vehicle of daily conversation, philosophy and poetry would be redeemed from ugly officialise that has invaded everyday speech. We need to hear the genuine language with its cadences and nuances and idioms that are pleasing to the ear and roll off the tongue effortlessly. It is this that makes language such a delicious commodity. The neutral, disembodied, and clumsy polysyllabic version of today is not such good fare at all.

The experts showed this possibility – of Kinyarwanda spoken as it should be.

Then you had a collection of people of diverse tendencies.

There were the cultural purists and enthusiasts, mainly older people, for whom other cultures are intrusions that should be resisted and kept at bay.

They were joined by the romantics, a mix of older people and younger ones that dream of a supposed wonderful past, who looked at culture and the past through misty, emotional eyes.

Then there was what may be termed historicists who confuse culture with the past and root for a return to that earlier time.

All are agreed on one thing, however: restoration of past practices almost in their original form.

By placing emphasis on restoration alone, these groups miss the point about the culture debate. Revival of aspects of culture and practices of the past is good and even necessary. But it makes better sense if followed by adaptation to today’s circumstances. Which is what the more realistic – the experts and those who dream less - advance.

The seminar setting would be incomplete without the angry brigade. Apparently there are people who will rail at anything because, well, they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t. Anger becomes a means of drawing attention to themselves and offers a sort of validation for their relevance. And so instead of talking they shout.
In Rwandan social etiquette, displaying uncontrolled anger and shouting during conversation is actually considered uncultured.

In many of the discussions on culture, young people are sadly under-represented. Yet, given the history of this country, with many of them having been born and brought up among different cultures, and today being educated in different countries, this is a section of our population that would benefit from them. Their presence and participation at these discussions should be more visible.

This past week we had a big harvest of culture, rich and diverse in content and opinion. The debate will continue and it is good to hear all these voices. The important thing is to recognise the key place of culture in the life of the nation.

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