Nyirarumaga, mother of Rwandan poetry immortalized

“By paying tribute to the men and women whose only instrument is free speech, who imagine and act, UNESCO recognizes in poetry its value as a symbol of the human spirit’s creativity.
Jerome Kajuga, UNESCO's director of culture, social and human sciences. / Net photo
Jerome Kajuga, UNESCO's director of culture, social and human sciences. / Net photo

“By paying tribute to the men and women whose only instrument is free speech, who imagine and act, UNESCO recognizes in poetry its value as a symbol of the human spirit’s creativity.

By giving form and words to that which has none – such as the unfathomable beauty that surrounds us, the immense suffering and misery of the world – poetry contributes to the expansion of our common humanity, helping to increase its strength, solidarity and self-awareness.”


That was the message to the world poetry fraternity by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO on the occasion of World Poetry Day in March last year.


In Rwanda’s context, any such tribute to outstanding works of traditional poetry will have to make mention of Nyirarumaga, the most famous Rwandan poetess.


As the foster Queen Mother of King Ruganzu II Ndoli (1510-1543), Nyiraruganzu II Nyirarumaga played a central role in institutionalizing the use of poetry to perpetuate the history of the reigns of Rwandan monarchs.

Her poem, Umunsi ameza imiryango yose (the day she became the matriarch of all families), tells the story of Nyamususa, the wife of Gihanga, who founded the Nyiginya monarchy. Legend has it that Nyamususa bore three children, each of whom inherited a kingdom from their father: Kanyarwanda was bequested Rwanda, Kanyabugesera, Bugesera, and Kanyendorwa, Ndorwa.

Nyirarumaga composed this poem as a model for a new historiographic poetic form called Impakanizi. Its form can be viewed as a necklace –urunigi, in which every king’s history is added like a pearl/bead –isaro.

This was basically a new system of conserving the country’s literature through poetry.

According to Jerome Kajuga, the Director of Culture, Social and Human Sciences at the Rwanda National Commission for UNESCO, Nyirarumaga created the first chair of poets in Rwanda (Intebe y’Abasizi), which was very important in the kingdom’s administration, almost the equivalent of the present-day parliament.”

“So it’s practically the entire history of Rwanda captured in poetry and it’s a very important tribute to her,” he adds.

“Poets were capable of saying no to a decision by the king, and the right to be a poet was hereditary until the culture of writing came to Rwanda with the advent of colonial rule.”

In memory of the queen mother’s contribution to the development of traditional poetry, a beautiful clay statue of her was unveiled for the first time at last year’s World Poetry Day celebrations in Kigali.

“This clay statue is simple but very symbolic of the 500 years of this country’s history as embodied in many poems,” Kajuga explains, adding that historically, all poets belonged to the chair of poets which started with Nyirarumaga.

The statue depicts the queen mother sitting on three traditional stools that are hoisted on top of one another. She is poised, elegant, and seems to be in deep contemplation, which is basically to symbolize her role as the founder of the chair of poets.

The statue was developed under the auspices of the Rwanda National Commission for UNESCO.

A group of ten young artistes from Butare in the Southern Province, all former students of Nyundo School of Music and Art, and who have since formed an association to harness their artistic endeavors.

“Personally this group also interested me as a person that is interested in culture,” Kajuga explains, adding that taking the statue away is just one way of giving exposure to the budding artistes.

Nyirarumaga at Transpoesis Rwanda:

After the statue made its debut at the World Poetry Day celebrations last year, this time it’s back as the winning prize for the 5th edition of Kigali Vibrates with poetry, a monthly poetry contest that is slated for October 29th at Café Neo, at The Office shared working space in Kiyovu.

Kigali Vibrates with Poetry is a platform for supporting and celebrating young Rwandan poets. It is run by Andrea Grieder, the founder and curator, in partnership with the National Commission for UNESCO.

They organize poetry competitions for young boys and girls especially in schools and every school term there’s an inter school slam competition.

“Tranpoesis is a private initiative founded by Andrea Grieder, and because it was a very good idea to boost the efforts of Rwandan traditional poetry, the National Commission for UNESCO took interest in the project,” Kajuga explains.

“We’re there to offer our humble support with things like registration, publication of poems, and some symbolic help here and there like this statue of Nyirarumaga.

For her part, Grieder describes the statue as a symbol of the power of poetry and its place in society.

“Nyirarumaga is a role-model for women poets and an encouragement for innovation. We can learn from her that the institutionalization of poetry can be a strong pillar for development and transformation. I look at her and feel touched by beauty, a flash transcending time and cultural differences in the family of poets We can see her as a symbolic mother, an inspiration to go far to become a hero in history – a poetic hero. 


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