June 16 marks the International Day of the African Child, a day celebrated to raise awareness of the continuing need for improvement of the education provided to African children, among other things.
As his own way of addressing the needs of the African child, Francois Ngarambe, has committed himself to traditional music, focusing mostly on the rights of children.
The singer, commonly known for songs like Umwana N’umutware, among others, was born in 1962 in Mokoto Village in Northern Kivu, former Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo. He started his career in 1975 when he was only 13 years old, focusing on songs that uplifted and encouraged children, most of which were popular around the 80’s and 90’s.
He completed his secondary studies at Petit Seminary de Miguel in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo before joining University of Burundi in 1980 where he pursued a course in Humanities and History.
After college, Ngarambe came to Rwanda where he continued with his music. During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, he fled the country and went to DRC. He returned in 1995.
“The affection that I received from my parents as a child inspired me to look out for the needs of children. I was saddened to see the exploitation of children. Respect of children’s rights was a myth in many societies and the passiveness of the then governments and leaders in protecting children was clear,” he says.
He says that during those years, child mistreatment was at a very high level, regardless of whether they were at home or school, they were forced into labour, sometimes they had no food, street kids were at an all-time high, corporal punishment and other infringements were the order of the day.
He says infringement on children’s rights at the time was a continental problem.
“I remember seeing horrible photos of starving children in Ethiopia and Somalia broadcast on television. I was so shocked by those images that I wanted to make a change. I decided I would fight peacefully for children’s rights through songs,” he says.
Ngarambe says that the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi also pushed him to look out for children, so many children lost their lives and others were left without parents, or family for that matter.
“Parents killed their own children because of ethnicity. The memories come back when I visit the children’s room at Gisozi Memorial and see the pictures of the children. I see their innocence and the fact that their lives were cut brutally short,” Ngarambe says.
He says that aside from the fact that the songs have earned him recognition, they have also sustained him and his family financially.
He says that winning awards since the 80’s has come with earnings and prizes. However, it’s not until recent years that children rights organisations hired him for multi-activity programmes.
Ngarambe says that since 2000, he has managed to enter short and long-term contracts with many NGO’s like World Vision, Hope and Homes for Children, UNICEF, S.O.S Children Rwanda, and many others, where he works with them in the campaign of children rights during conferences and related activities.
“And it is not just organisations, parents also invite me to sing at birthday parties and schools invite me for their end of term programmes, which I am paid for,” he says.
The 55-year-old does not take aging as a reason to retire from his music.
“I am ageing and physically weaker but mentally, young and handy. Aging won’t stop my activism; in fact, I want to open a school that will teach young people how to care for children compassionately. They will also learn ‘lullabies of the children’ traditionally called Ibihoozo bya Bana,” he says.
He says that many young girls and women these days do not know how to care for children, or even get a baby to sleep through these lullabies.
“The school will teach girls how to sing lullabies for babies the cultural way, something that has been phased out in society.Many people do not know how to compassionately make a child fall asleep or how to soothe them when they cry. These days, they simply turn on the TV and tell them to settle down and watch even though they are still crying, which is not good,’ Ngarambe adds.
Some of his known songs include Umwana n’ mutware,Kibondocyangye, AmariraYabana, NabanaNkabandi, and Abana Bose naBacu.
He has received awards for his work; most notably, his song Hamwenabana won the ‘Meilleure chanson de la Paix’ in 1997 at Centre Martin Luther King in Germany.