On the evening of April 30, 2011, hundreds of people who had come to see the annual African Music Ensemble Spring Concert at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, were introduced to yet another aspect of African culture with the guest performance of a Rwanda traditional dance group.
The theme of the night was to broaden the understanding and perception of what the immense African continent can offer in diversity and richness of culture.
Sowah Mensah, the Director of African Music at Macalester, also Director of the ensemble, set the tone by jokingly sharing how he as a native of Ghana who has lived in the United States for several years, still gets asked whether he knows a certain Mohamed from Somalia.
Picking up where Mensah left off, Rwandan Professor Jean-Pierre Karegeye expressed a similar feeling of the perception of Rwanda in the world and in the United States:
“More often than not, people’s response upon learning that I come from Rwanda is to say: ‘I’m sorry’ as a reaction to my country’s history,” he said.
However, Karegeye explained that Rwanda is so much more than the movie Hotel Rwanda.
“Even though the 1994 Genocide continues to affect Rwandans, Rwanda is not a cage in which we live. The handicap of the past has really been transformed into a momentum of inspiration and invention. It is a country where culture, dance and music flourish.
To give you an example, 97 percent of the Rwandan population now has health insurance, and we are also close to reaching universal education,” he said.
The five member Rwandan dance group that was invited to the event was composed of Sandrine Ingabire, Desire Ingambire, Tabita Mpamira, Jacques Nyungura and Rachel Uwase.
During their thirty-minute-long performance, the audience was presented with Rwandan traditional female and male dances.
There was one male dancer in the group who danced professionally and impressed the audience with a powerful show of the Intore dance, an old warrior dance.
He was dressed in a large white headpiece, an animal skin around his waist, and carried a spear and a shield.
The high jumps and the rhythmical thrusting of his head, back and forth brought down several rounds of applause and excited cheers from the audience.
In stark contrast to the dynamic male performance, the four women arrived on stage in beautiful cultural attire, carrying baskets that are woven by most women in Rwanda.
Their movements were slow and elegant, showing the beauty and grace of Rwandan women while at the same time emulating the movement of cattle, seen as a source of wealth in the Rwandan and Burundian culture.
Tabitha Mpamira, one of the female dancers and currently residing in Michigan where she is obtaining a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, said that the dances were a rich aspect of Rwandan culture.
“I like for everyone to view my country and culture the same way I do, as a beautiful land of a thousand hills, filled with loving people, rich culture and beauty.
Therefore, we tried to mix up the dances, so that we can give the audience a glimpse of the beauty and elegance that we only see in our culture,” she said.
Mpamira expressed a personal goal toward showing Americans Rwandan dance and culture because she wants to represent her country in a way that exemplifies the fun, beauty and grace embedded within it.
Agreeing with Professor Karegeye, she wants to paint a picture of a country that is so much more than its difficult past.
Mpamira has previously performed together with Rachel Uwase, and has toured the United States on several occasions.
“It is exciting to go to new places because you experience different audiences, some are more energetic than others, some are more inquisitive about the culture, and others come just to be entertained.
All in all, I have had only positive and encouraging feedback from all places. I mostly love it because I get to open a lot of people’s minds about Rwanda and our culture,” she explains.
The dance troupe’s visit to Saint Paul was exciting because they met some Rwanda.
“We were able to enjoy speaking our language! The audience was amazing, and it’s empowering to see other people appreciating your culture. I could see smiles in the audience and that was encouraging.
The highlight for me was taking a chance by going out to the audience like that, because you don’t know if you will be rejected or not,” she adds.
However, the dancers were not rejected when trying to involve the audience in their dance; on the contrary, a large group of people from the audience, who had been mostly sitting through the rest of the concert, quickly accumulated on, and in front of the stage.
Laughing and smiling, many were trying to copy the movements they had just seen performed and the spontaneous dancing went on for several minutes.
The dance group could definitely be said to have demonstrated Rwandan culture in a way that became very tangible and enjoyable for many of the visitors at the concert.
Abigail Wetzel, one of the senior student managers of the African Music Ensemble, said the Rwandan dance group a unique experience to invite the Rwandan dancers to the concert.
Usually, concerts revolve around Ghanaian culture, since the director is from Ghana.
“This time, the African Music Ensemble was able to give people another, broader glimpse of what African culture can encompass and that feels great,” Wetzel said.
Additionally Mpamira thinks that through dance, people can really bring awareness to Rwanda more than its past history of Genocide.
Besides touring with different dance groups, she started an NGO, the Mutera Foundation.
The foundation helps educate girls who would otherwise not have the chance to study due to poverty or being orphaned. It also creates a network for U.S and Rwandan youth, especially those in the Diaspora, who never had the chance to learn about their culture and language.
“Through dance, I hope to reach more people so we can make a difference and keep the legacy of our ancestors,” said Tabitha.
Rwanda has a rich culture that is centuries old and music and dance has always been part of that culture. Dances were and still are, very important in public ceremonies and continue to be performed at weddings and other celebrations in Rwanda and other Rwandan communities all over the world.