Drumming is a common form of entertainment in Rwandan culture; however, the idea of female drummers was unheard of in the past.
100-year-old Elizabeth Nyirahirwa from Rusizi District vividly recalls that in the past, it was a taboo for a woman to be a drummer. A woman who turned into a drummer was considered a curse to her family and would never bear children.
But in Huye District, a group of women have defied this stereo type. Under ‘Ingoma Nshya’, a group of 20 female drummers chose to put cultural beliefs behind to pursue drumming as a profession that would empower them.
‘Ingoma Nshya’ troupe is Rwanda’s first ever women’s drumming group which actively involves women’s participation in the development of Rwanda through cultural preservation. The troupe comprises of survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and relatives of Genocide perpetrators.
How it all started
In 2004, Odile Gakire Katese, the executive director and creator of the initiative, thought about how the women can transform their lives through healing and reconciliation, with social and financial empowerment.
The idea to create ‘a women’s drumming group’ came to mind.
With the help of former Rwanda University Centre for Arts and Drama, ‘Ingoma Nshya’ started with about 10 women. The number has since risen to 20.
“At the beginning people made fun of us because of the cultural mindset associated with female drummers. But, we persisted and ignored their ridicule as we looked to underscore that a woman is not tied to home activities, or has no limits to strive for her development,” Gakire recalls.
When Katese introduced her drumming project for women, many organisations and friends discouraged her from continuing with the idea.
“When I presented my idea to the Rwanda museum authorities, they told me that I am going against culture because many people still consider it taboo. They forgot that culture evolves. All I did was to bring about innovation in our culture, especially enabling women in what is considered a man’s field.
“Of course, taboos are the tools that help our culture survive. But some are based on falsehoods that citizens should be aware of,” Katese says.
However, the voices of resentment did not deter her from keeping her initiative going.
“There are female soldiers, drivers, leaders, why can’t we get female drummers? To break taboo and avoid confinement in traditions, we would like to be an embodiment for other women in society,” Katese argues.
Julienne Uwacu, Minister of Culture and Sports, agrees with Katese and notes that citizens are primarily responsible for keeping their culture alive by sieving out the good and the bad.
“The women drummers are the country’s cultural ambassadors. It’s amazing that women play the drums. There are some cultural changes that are not avoidable,” the Minister says.
Today, members of ‘Ingoma Nshya’ are proud of their achievements. They have been both to regional and international cultural festivals such as the 2009 ‘Pamojakungoma Festival’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Netherlands Cultural Festival, among others.
The dance troupe was also recognised for breaking cultural chains by ‘Search for Common Ground’, an international organisation. The group received an award for this achievement.
With the aim of improving cultural exchange, the group invited Senegalese female drummer, Ndewy Seck, to teach the women how to drum professionally.
Currently, ‘Ingoma Nshya’ women are now skilled in four drumming styles such as Rwandan, Burundian, Senegalese and even French.
Drummers share their experience
24-year-old Clementine Uwamariya, a member of ‘Ingoma Nshya’, knows several Rwandan beats such as Umugendo, Urudaca, and Ibitego, among others.
As a professional drummer, she says drumming has changed her life since she joined the group and that it is a profession that pays her bills with comfort.
“Good cultural changes bring about societal development. In the beginning, I was afraid of being part of the group because of what my community would say about me, until I later discovered that it is something that could transform my life from being just a girl confined in her home,” she says.
Another member, 26-year-old Marie Noella Uwizerwa, adds that the vision of the group goes beyond the art of music and dance. It advocates for a new culture of female drummers.
“Rwandan women can be good drummers but we realised that the cultural mindset was chaining our freedom. I did not have a chance to attain an education, therefore, drumming has been my main source of income and the three awards scooped from our drumming have been my source of pride,” Uwizerwa explains.
What does drumming represent in Rwandan culture?
Many years ago, around the 15th to the 17th century, Kalinga, the royal sacred drum, symbolised political power in the Rwandan kingdom.
Drums were tools that expressed the life styles of people such as music and poetry. Drums also symbolised the success of the kings, and bravery, among others.
The role of Rwandan women in traditional entertainment
Music and dance are an integral part of Rwandan ceremonies and social gatherings, the most famous Rwandan traditional dance being the ‘Intore’ and ‘Amaraba’, a highly choreographed routine consisting of three components - the ballet, performed by women; the dance of heroes, performed by men, and the drums.
Usually, men are helped by women in performing the ‘Amaraba’ dance, with the men beating the drums in groups of seven to nine. This was the order of Rwandan traditional music blessed by the king of Rwanda in the pre-colonial period.
A set of drums is usually made up of the smallest drum which is a soprano, two baritones, a tenor, an alto, two bass as well as two double bass which are the largest drums.
Traditionally, drums were of great importance, with the royal drummers enjoying high status within the King’s court. Celebratory dances were usually accompanied by an ‘orchestra’ of drums and nine energetic men who enthusiastically provide the beat.
The restriction that only men can be drummers, a long-standing tradition in Rwandan society, prohibited women from touching the drums or even approaching the drummers, who performed for the King. It was believed that drums are too heavy for women to handle.
Although modern music and gospel hymns have taken root in Rwanda and are popular, traditional folk songs are not ignored and people still love them as much.