Half a dozen museums across the country exhibit Rwanda’s rich history. Rwanda’s history of Genocide dominates the past but ancient times offer also a wealth of culture and tradition.
The Ethnographic Museum in Huye District presents not only the cultural history of Rwanda but also that of the Southern Province.
The museum, part of the Institute of National Museums in Rwanda, was the first to be constructed in the country. It displays pre-colonial lifestyles as well as illustrations of the subsequent development of Rwanda into a modern African state.
Visitors are overwhelmed by the number of handmade crafts items, so typically for Rwanda. It’s like stepping into a gift shop of the country’s history.
The museum, opened in 1989, is also the site of the murder of Queen Dowager Rosalie Gicanda and other people during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Rose Natukunda Musinguzi, a student of Heritage International School in Uganda, visited the Ethnographic museum to learn about Rwanda’s culture and about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“When I came here all I knew was the mass killings in Rwanda. It’s hard to take in what happened during the genocide,” Musinguzi says. “But I also discovered here that the Rwandan culture is slightly similar to our culture in Uganda.”
Another student from the same school, Angello Kalek, said that the Rwandan visit instills him with courage.
“My native Southern Sudan was faced with insurgencies like Rwanda. Therefore our people should follow Rwanda’s example by not giving up on life,” he said.
Rwanda has six museums, one is a mobile exhibit. They all face several challenges.
“Besides having a minimal budget we need to promote museums to society. The business was understaffed because of a limited skilled labour force,” explains Alphonse Bartson Umuliisa, Director of the Institute of National Museums in Rwanda.
The first action he took when taking up his job in 2010, was to employ tourist guides. He recruited graduates from the university.
“They are vibrant and easily explain about the items on display,” Umuliisa says.
Fearing the Museum threshold is too high for average Rwandans, he decided to create a mobile exhibit.
“It reaches out to the community. Partnership is also required,” asserts the museum Director.
The partnership was created by bringing in inyambo (name for local cows). Since time immemorial Rwandans have a strong connection with the traditional long-horned cows.
In the old days some animals would be trained to parade before the king during ceremonies.
Thirteen cows will be grazing around the Ancient History Museum, Rukari in neigbouring Nyanza District.
“They not only attract Rwandans but also foreigners,” says Director Umuliisa.
In Nyanza these cows were treasured by the people. There was a special selection of the ones that would be brought to the royal palace.
“During the King’s era, the inyambo were very special. People used to sing to them. The cows were decorated with beads before parading them before the King,” explains Ines Umulisa a tourist guide at Ancient History Museum, not related to the Director.
Nyanza Royal Palace, Rukari, under the reign of King Yuhi V Musinga who was crowned in 1899, was the royal capital of the country. The Ancient History Museum located on the same hill, was once the residence of King Mutara III Rudahingwa.
On a nearby hill, at Mwima, King Mutara III and his wife Queen Rosalie Gicanda are buried.
Rwesero Arts Museum, located across the valley displays contemporary art. It shows the originality of Rwandan creativity and its rich history.
The museum was originally built as a Palace for King Mutara III Rudahingwa but he died before moving in.
The two Museums, Rwandan Ancient History and the Rwesero Arts Museum, are located just outside Nyanza town.
A traditional house, a thatched hut, was erected at the Ancient History Museum. It is an imitation of the King’s palace. In ancient times, thatched houses were typical for African homesteads.
The King’s palace differed from a regular homestead. His house had three separate poles on which the roof rests while houses for the common people had only one. There were no doors in the huts. But no one would enter without announcing their arrival.
When the Belgians colonial masters arrived in Rwanda, they changed the traditional lifestyle of the Kings. A modern palace was constructed for King Mutara III Rudahingwa which is now the museum that displays Rwandan history from the 15th Century.
Museums are tourist attractions which are supposed to bring in revenue for the country. The charges for visiting the Ancient History Museums are Rwf200 for Rwandan students and Rwf500 for adults. Resident Foreigners pay Rwf2000 while non–residents pay Rwf3000 and foreign students pay Rwf1000.
Thacienne Mushimiyimana, a receptionist at the Ancient History Museums notes that the numbers of visitors vary.
“On average, we get 1,500 people in a month. In March this year for instance we had 700 Rwandans that visited the Museum and 400 foreigners,” Mushimiyimana said.
Louis Nyaminani, from Ruhiru Sector, Nyaruguru District visits the Museum for the third time. The first time was when he was still a student at the National University of Rwanda doing research.
He keeps bringing his friends so that they can learn about their history.
“The Ancient History Musem is filled with historical facts that we need to re-visit,” explains Nyaminani.
Museums are shelters for the remnants of history, traditions and culture. To understand the Rwanda of today, one needs to know and see its past.