No celebration of a social or public event will be complete if there is no poetry recitation. Organisers of such events search for talent – and there is plenty of that – and tell them what the theme or purpose of the occasion is, and lo and behold, a wonderful poem is ready.
All present – dignitaries and ordinary people alike - are suitably entertained and applaud the poet/performer.
The most entertaining are those recited by little girls especially if they have a quaint regional accent. They also sound genuine perhaps because of their rustic simplicity and earnestness, qualities missing from urban populations where cunning and calculation sometimes set in very early.
Marking celebrations with poetry recitations is, of course, a good thing. It confirms the primacy of poetry in Rwandan culture even today. It is a popular literary (more appropriately, oral) form – appreciated by everyone, not just those schooled in the arts.
But this is where the good about this form of poetry that can be called public poetry ends.
What happens to the poems and poets after that? No one knows. Some of the poems are really well-crafted. They show an exceptional mastery of language and rhythm, and blend the utilitarian purpose of the composition and literary aesthetics with effortless ease. Yet they are never seen or heard again. Are they collected and kept as records of the organisation that commissioned them? Does the poet keep them as his own creation? Can they be published and read as works of art by even those who were not present at the event that occasioned them?
And the poets - they seem to be forgotten the moment the event ends. They have served their purpose and are no longer needed. At the next public event another poet will be selected. The unwritten rule for public performance of poetry seems to be: no one is picked more than once.
A few of them make it as singers and poets at other occasions like weddings. They are hired as praise singers.
And herein lies the danger – of reducing what should be excellent artistic works to short-lived praise songs.
Historically, most poetry was commissioned in most societies. Some great poets owed their creation to powerful patrons. And people will argue that public poetry recitations are a display of culture. Granted. But culture is not for display only. It is lived and grows.
At some stage, poetry has to develop into an independent art form and cease to be occasional or a product of patronage.
Rwandan poetry briefly broke out of the historical mould when poets like Cyprian Rugamba composed and wrote poems not specifically tailored to a particular occasion. That trend seems to have been arrested and poetry has become public and occasional again.
The current poetic trend also confirms Rwanda as principally an oral society. Rwandans love the spoken word. They enjoy poetry performances and have a taste for the really good poem. Which is as it should be. Poetry was, after all, originally meant to be recited and heard.
As societies evolve and social relations change and become more complex, the nature of poetry also changes. It became written to be read and enjoyed by individuals on their own.
We cannot wait for official or social gathering to be able to enjoy and appreciate poetry. We should be able to do so in the comfort of our homes, the solitude of a public park or on crowded public transport, doctor’s waiting room or anywhere else.
This should not prove difficult.
The ease with which poems for public performance are composed and delivered shows that there is raw talent in abundance. The enthusiastic appreciation of the performances indicates that there is a ready-made audience.
What needs to be done therefore is to give this audience more and varied performances and even the opportunity for solitary indulgence.
We have seen child prodigies. Their talent needs to be nurtured. They have to be equipped with tools of their craft and helped to find a form of poetic expression suitable to each individual’s talent.
Other young people may not be good at either composition or performance, but they also should be exposed to good literature beyond the public event.
At the moment our literature is only available to a small group of Rwandans and even fewer researchers. It ought to be available to ordinary non-Rwandans as well.
All this calls for several things.
First, Rwandan poetry must extend from the occasional and public to a more individual and permanently available form. It must move from the purely oral to a written form.
Secondly, those that have already been performed should be collected, compiled and published as anthologies. We are always lamenting that Rwandans do not read or that they have nothing to read. The material is there. All that is needed is to make it available.
Thirdly, poetry and other forms of Rwandan literature should be taught in our schools for their enjoyment as well as a depository of our national heritage.
If we want to preserve and improve our art forms, we must guard against their being trivialised. More importantly, we have to shift to a more literary form without necessarily losing the oral quality or the unique regional charm.