The role of symbols in nation-building: The case of Rwanda.
Symbols are one the main components of culture which is the "soul"
and the "identity" of the people. Other main components are concepts,
values, customs, systems, rituals, aesthetics and types of entertainment. Symbols
are both the pillars which support the foundation of the society and the glue
which holds it together. They convey specific meanings to people who have the
same cultural and linguistic background. Rwanda, one of the oldest nation in
Africa ceased to exist when its symbols were destroyed. The dying process started
during the colonial period and a nail was put in the coffin with the 1994 Tutsi
genocide. The country needs new symbols to become a nation again.
1. Symbols in a semiotic theory
The study of symbols is an object of inquiry of several disciplines: linguistics,
psychology, philosophy, anthropoloty, literary criticism. Each discipline uses
its own methodology and theories and therefore, sometimes, the meaning of symbol
is not the same. In semiotics, however, the science of signs in general, symbols
are a special kind of sign. A sign, accordig to Charles Peirce, the founder
of semiotics, is "something which stands for something else". Language
is a perfect semiotic system where its signs, words, stand for things which
exist outside of language, in the real world. There are times, however, when
these words refer to other words. When a semiotic system has signs which refer
to the world of that system, it is known as a metalanuage. Thus the word, "subject"
of a sentence, since it refers to language, it is used here in a metalanguage.
Other perfect semiotic systems are macrosemiotic systems or "speech surrogates",
to use Sebeok's terminology, because they behave like language: they are not
constrained by space and time and they can express everything that language
can express. These are writing systems, sign language, drum languages, whistle
languages, morse, semaphore. Other systems which convey meaning and information
are microsemiotic systems because they are limited on the kind of information
they can convey. Some of these systems are the highway code (traffic signals),
music symbols, chemical symbols. Roland Barthes refers to them as codes.
Signs in all these systems are either paradigms or syntagms. Paradigms have
to do with possible substitutions within a structure whereas syntagms have to
do with possible combination of signs in a structure. Paradigmatic relations
exist between signs which may structurally occupy the same position within the
same structure. They form the vertical axis of the semiotic sytem. Syntagmatic
relations are the relations between elements in the sequence or combination.
They form the horizontal axis of the semiotic system. In language, a morpheme
is a paradigm but the whole word is a syntagm because it is a combination of
morphemes. A sentence is a syntagm but its individual words (subject, verb,
complement, etc) are paradigms.
There are three types of signs: icons, indices and symbols. In semiotics, then,
a symbol is a sign whose relationship between it and what it refers to is opaque.
A sign is an icon if there is either a physical or functional similarity between
the sign and what it stands for.
There are three types of icons: images, diagrams and metaphors. Thus, pictures,
onomatopoeias, reduplication or the use of long vowels in language to refer
to long events and actions are images. The American flag which consists of 13
stripes and 50 stars is a case of diagram because of the isomorphism or one-to-one
relationship between the sign and the referent. The thirteen stripes and the
fifty stars refer to the thirteen colonies and fifteen states, respectively.
In language, morphology and sentence structures are usually diagrammatic.
A metaphor is a sign with a secondary referent whose meaning is similar physically
or functionally to the one in the primary plane of expression. In language,
the expression "the head of state" is a metaphor because the leader
of country has the same function as the human head. The head leads the body
and takes decision and so does the head of state for the country. The use of
the expressions doves and hawks to refer, respectively, to conservative and
moderate politicians is also metaphoric. Doves are gentle birds and hawks aggressive.
A sign is an index if there is an association or "factual contiguity between
the sign and its referent.
There are three types of indices: signals, symptoms and metonymies. A knock
at the door is a signal. So are traffic lights. In traditional Rwandan society,
a piece of wood planted in untoiled land meant that somebody had decided to
take that lot for residency or farm, because the unused land was communal. Since
cows had to use public watering places and these places were scarce, the first
herder to be there was the first to have his cattle served. A conventional sign
such as a jar or fire was put there to let others know that the watering place
has been taken. This convention was respected. If two individuals had an appointment
somewhere and one of them was late, the one who got there earlier would leave
a sign such as a leaf or tie a knot of grass. Travelers could tell where to
buy banana wine or sorghum beer by the banana leaf or sorghum stem exposed in
one of the main trails or roads. A spear planted in front of the house or compound-fence
entrance signaled to the husband that a brother or a very close friend was in
the house. The wearing of impumbya plant by women signaled that their husbands
had gone to war and wished them a happy return. This is similar to the tying
of yellow ribbon in the United States. Symptoms are like signals but differ
from them by the fact that they are natural, instinctive or automatic. Examples
are clouds for rain, smoke for fire and most of the clinical signs such as temperature
for fever, perspiration for fear. Metonymies are signs which are linked to their
referents by cause and effect, part and whole, content and container, possession
and possessor, product and origin, work and artist. Many African flags, for
instance, have three colors: red, yellow and green. These colors are both iconic
and metonymic. Red stands for the color of blood, yellow the color of the sun
and green the color of vegetation. Red reminds people of the blood of martyrs
who had to shed their blood to protect their respective countries and fought
for independence. The sun is the source of energy which is needed to rebuild
the country and green is the symbol of harvest and economic prosperity. The
cross, a Christian symbol for faith, is a metonymy because of Christ's crucifixation.
The cross has been shifting meanings during world history, however. In Rome
it was a despised means of execution for the lowest of criminals. For the Egyptians,
however, the cross symbolized life, whereas, for the Greeks, it was a metaphor
for the four elements of creation namely: earth, air, fire and water. A blind
woman holding a scale is a symbol of justice, because justice is supposed to
be blind and doesn't discriminate. Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty or the
Golden Bridge as symbols of Paris, New York City and San Francisco, respectively
are metonymies because, one item of the city (a building, monument and a bridge)
, thus parts, are used to represent the whole city. The expression "Kigali
invited Washington" is a metonymy because capital cities are used to refer
to their respective countries or leaders. The expressions "blue collar"
and "white collar", referring to workers and professionals, respectively,
are also metonymies because they are referred to by the uniform they wear at
The majority of signs in both language and other semiotic systems are symbols.
There is no similarity or association involved between signs and their respective
referents. This doesn't mean that they don't exist. It only implies that they
have become opaque.
A dove holding a branch of olive tree as a sign of peace is opaque but for those
who know the bible, know that that it comes from the story of Noah's Arc.
2. Symbols in popular culture
In popular culture, symbols have a restricted and specific meaning. Symbols
are the embodiment of people's identity, values, space and pride. They reflect
either communal heritage or common aspiration. Symbols and icons are used interchangeably
in popular culture. These might be cultural artifacts such as Jeans, fast food
(MacDonald's hamburgers, Coca-Cola, etc) and Chevrolet cars as American cultural
icons. They may be individuals or organizations who represent people's cherished
values such as Mother Teresa, a spiritual icon, Che Guevara, a Third World revolutionary
icon or Bob Marley, a revolutionary and counterculture artist. Popular sports,
movie, music idols are also symbols.
In Rwanda, Alexis Kagame and Aloys Bigirumwami were intellectual icons. Cyprien
Rugamba and Eustache Byusa were also artistic icons because they were the pride
of every Rwandan. Symbols are thus in a sense prototypical physical manifestations
of society's ideal culture. Symbols make statements.
Sometimes, it is not easy to make a distinction between symbols and rituals.
Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, spreading a red carpet
for visiting foreign dignitaries, a 21-gun salute, giving somebody a key to
the city or washing hands in many ceremonies are both symbols and rituals. These
last examples include actions. The difference between symbols and rituals is
probably due to dynamism. Symbols seem to be frozen in both space and time,
whereas rituals entail actions associated with ceremonies.
2.1. The typology of symbols
Symbols can be realized as: logos, uniforms, gestures, tattoos, emblems, totems,
architecture, flags and names. Monuments, stamps and coins are also full of
history because they memorialize national events or heroes or celebrate national
prototypical domestic fauna and flora. Symbols are also used as motifs in arts
2.2. Where symbols are drawn from
Symbols are drawn in great majority from geometric shapes (circles, triangles,
squares, rectangles,...) colors (red, black, white, violet, green, yellow,...),
animals, plants, celestial bodies (moon, stars, sun), and numbers.
2.2.1. Celestial bodies as symbols
Astronomical bodies such as sun, moon, star, and rainbow are found in many
world symbols. The sun is found in the flags of Japan, Taiwan, Argentina, Uruguay,
India, Malaysia, and Malawi (sunset). The majority of Muslim countries have
both a crescent and star(s). These include Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Singapore,
Malaysia, Pakistan, Nepal (sun and a crescent with a full moon), Maldives Islands
(crescent without a star), and Turkey. The star symbol is found in the flags
of the United States, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, Chile, Surinam, Yugoslavia, Jordan,
Yemen, Israël (star of David), Syria, Northern Korea, China (one big star
and 4 small stars) , the Philippines, Burma (one big star surrounded by 5 small
stars), Australia, New Zealand, Somalia, Ghana, Cameroon, Togo, Morocco, Central
African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, United Arab Republic, Liberia
The cross and stripes are found in the flags of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland,
Iceland. The last five have the same shape. They differ only in the color of
the cross and the remaining part of the flag. Other countries with a cross in
the flag are Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland and Greece.
The cross is imprinted on battle shields and is still used as an award for valor
in many countries such as the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished
Flying Cross given by the U.S. Congress, the famed Iron Cross given by Germany
or the Victoria Cross awarded by Great Britain.
2.2.2. Names as symbols
Names in many parts of the world are symbolic. They reveal the person's identity.
This is evidenced today by the names given to business companies, organizations
or sport teams. If a sport team is called Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Rams or
Washington Bullets, this is to convey physical strength for the first two teams
and speed for the last one, respectively.
Names in the traditional Rwandan society were very important and significant
but unfortunately, they have been replaced by European names which don't seem
to have any meaning in the Rwandan society. They gave information about the
circumstances in which the baby was born such as peace time or war time, famine
or abundance, the physical and emotional state of the parents at the time of
birth, when the baby born in a big family or born with difficulty. Many names
expressed patriotic and nationalistic idealisms such a loyalty to the king,
fitness to defend the country, acknowledgement of God's greatness, power and
generosity. Others were about cows, one of the pillars of the Rwandan nation.
By giving a name to the child, the father had also an opportunity to convey
his beliefs and philosophy or to share his wisdom and advice about life.
The importance of names as symbols was evident in the royal names given to the
monarchs on the day of their coronation. There were six royal names namely:
CYILIMA, KIGELI, MIBAMBWE, MUTARA, RUGANZU and YUHI. The royal council ABIRU
was the ones who decided which royal name the new monarch should be given because
the name set the political program of the reign. For instance, historians have
recorded that many wars with neighboring nations took place under monarchs who
were given the name KIGELI because the king bearing that name could move freely
in any part of the country or go beyond the national borders. Those with the
name of YUHI, however, could not even traverse some of the rivers inside the
country. Because of this there was peace and prosperity.
Names in traditional Rwandan society were given only to people, animals, objects
and events which were significant and had an important value. In many countries,
names are also given to ships but not to airplanes! In the United States, natural
disasters especially hurricanes are given names such as hurricane George, hurricane
Linda. The most famous now is the current one El Nina. In Rwanda disasters such
as famines, plagues were also given names such as Miriam a mysterious disease
that killed thousands and thousands of cows in the early beginning of this century
, or Ruzagayura a famine which took place during the forties. Names give a reference.
Place names have also been changing both because of the colonial power and the
Hutu supremacist ideology of both Parmehutu and MRND which wanted to destroy
Rwanda as a nation. Rwanda consisted of at least seven traditional regions namely
Kinyaga, Nduga, Bwanamukari, Bwanacyambwe, Rukiga, Gisaka and Ndorwa. It consisted
of 44 provinces also such as Buganza, Marangara, Bufundu, Nyaruguru, Mvejuru,
Kabagari, Bugesera, Mayaga, Nyantango, etc. People identified themselves with
these regions and provinces. One of the first tasks of the Parmehutu regime
was to change this traditional administrative structure which was based on history,
culture and other traditions. Provinces and counties were replaced by communes
with sometimes artificial boundaries which did not take into consideration geographical
morphology or shared history. This created space disorientation for the people.
This disorientation has had greater impact on refugees returning from exile.
The colonialists and the missionaries knew the importance of names and their
role in cultural preservation and national identity and unity. Their first task
was to force all Rwandan who got baptized to have a European name. By abandoning
their beautiful names rich in meaning, history, and philosophy and adopting
European names, Rwandans lost their identity and Rwanda started heading to its
2.2.3. Plants as symbols
Trees, plants and flowers also act as symbols. Their meaning depends on the
culture. In Rwanda, symbolic plants are muumuu 'focus' and umuko ' ', umwishywa
also used in Lyangombe initiation ceremonies and wedding. Amoco is a sacred
plant which is used in the initiation ceremony of kubandwa, to be accepted into
Lyangombe's cult. The ritual name of the plant during the ceremony is umurinzi.
It became sacred because it saved Lyangombe when he was pierced by the buffalo's
horn. The ficus tree umuvumu which is used in all Rwandan compound-fences, was
found at all royal burials or ancient residences of Rwandan important families.
These giant ficus trees were called IBIGABIRO. Unfortunately, these giant trees
cannot be found anywhere anymore because the governments responsible for massacres
and genocide destroyed them.
2.2.4. Animals as favorite items of symbols
Animals are used as symbols in all cultures. They represent either strength,
rapidity, elegance, grace, loyalty, generosity or intelligence. The most popular
are the eagle, the falcon, the lion, the tiger, the horse, the snake and the
bear. The eagle and the lion are found in many world's flags, emblems and currency.
The eagle is found in the United States seal, coins and dollar bills. The lion
is found in the emblem of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The bear is the symbol
of the state of California. The elephant is the symbol of the US Republic Party
whereas the donkey is that of the Democrats.
American cars have animal names: Jaguar, Mustang, Buick, Colt, Cougar, Eagle,
Cobra, Thunderbird, Hawk, Packard Hawk, Golden Hawk, Silver Hawk, Greyhound,
Falcon, Lark, Impala, Skylark, Stutz Bearcat, Barracuda, Cornet Stingray, Firebird,
Hornet, Bronco, Dodge Ram, Charger, Beetle, Taurus, Honda Nighthawk, Kaiser
Dragon, Kaiser Golden Dragon, Kaiser Emerald Dragon, Kaiser Silver Dragon, Kaiser
Jade Dragon, Pacer, Lancia Scorpion, Porche Spider, Alpha Romeo Spider, Hudson
Wasp, Cheval, Viper, Volkwagen Beetle, Jeep Eagle, etc.
Many sports teams and schools also use animals as symbols or mascots.
The majority of the symbols in the zodiac are animals: Autumn symbols: Libra,
the Balance, Scorpio, the Snake, Sagittarius, the Archer; Winter symbols: Capricorne,
the Goat, Aquarius, the Water-bearer and Pisces, the Fishes. Spring symbols:
Aries, the Ram, Gemini, the Twins and Taurus, the Bull. Summer symbols: Cancer,
the Crab, Leo, the Lion and Virgo, the Virgin.
The Chinese lunar cyclical calendar year consists of animal symbols only : The
year of the rat (1985), the year of the ox (1986), the year of the tiger (1987),
the year of the rabbit (1988), the year of the dragon (1989), the year of the
snake (1990), the year of the goat (1991), the year of the horse (1992), the
year of the sheep (1993), the year of the monkey (1994), the year of the dog
(1995) and the year of the pig (1996). The majority of West African masks represent
also animal symbols.
Clan totems among Native Americans and in Rwanda are also animals. Although
Rwanda has three distinct ethnic or social groups, Abatutsi, Abahutu and Abatwa,
these three groups share the same clan and the same totem. The wagtail inyamanza
is the totem of Abagesera clan, the crested crane umusambi, the totem of Abanyiginya,
the ox-biter bird (Buphagus africanus Linnaeus) ishwima , the totem of Abahongogo,
the leopard ingwe, the totem of Abazigaba, the lion intare , the totem of Abashambo,
the frog igikeri the totem of Abega and Abakono, the hyena impyisi, the totem
of Abacyaba and Ababanda, sakabaka kite (milvus aegyptius tenebrosus) for Abasinga,
the robin, the totem of Abungura.
Most of the world's tattoes also happen to be animal symbols that are worn by
military people or gangs. Many folk dances around the world symbolize animals
as well. Native Americans, for instance, have snake dances, bear dances, sun
dances and so on.
Animals are used as symbols in all cultures probably because they are cousins
2.2.5. Magic numbers
Numbers play a very important role in the majority of world's cultures and
they are associated with mystic power or mystery. Some of these numbers are
1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 16, 17, and 40. Number 13, in European cultures, is supposed
to bring bad luck. The number 666 is known as the number of the Beast. Number
1 is used in many cultures to express unity and wholeness. Number 3 is used
in religion for the Holy Trinity and in Rwanda it refers to the social fabric
of the society which consists of three interwoven ethnic groups known as "imbaga
y'inyabutatu". In Burundi, the political part UPRONA's greeting sign is
the raising of three fingers between the thumb and small finger. Number 7 is
also symbolic in many cultures. In Christianity it reminds of the seven sacraments,
seven days in the week. In the Jewish culture, the Menorah is a seven branch
candlelight. In Rwanda, 7 acquires a special cultural importance. For instance,
the seventh child always receives a special name and a special ritual has to
be performed. Nyandwi is the name which is given to the seventh child. A warrior
who kills seven enemies in the same battle is awarded a special medal called
UMUDENDE and becomes a national hero. A woman who had her seventh child while
the previous ones were all still alive, became also a national hero. A special
ceremony known as kwasa indwi 'to cut firewook for seven' was performed for
her. She was no longer subject to women taboos such as gutsinda : the interdiction
of uttering the names of the father and mother-in-law. Number 8 is also symbolic.
The new born is usually given a name the eight day and that is when the mother
leaves the bed IKIRIRI and is allowed to go outside. The eight baby is also
given the name which refers to this number. Traditionally, the bridewealth consisted
of eight cows. When male children get married and start their own families,
they are given UMUNANI "eight" meaning inheritance probably because
it was the custom to give eight cows.
Number 12 is also a magical number probably because there are twelve months
in a year.
The royal council in Rwanda also had twelve ABIRU. Jesus had twelve disciples.
There are twelve signs in the Zodiac and the Chinese cyclical lunar year uses
twelve animal symbols also.
Number 40 also found in many cultures is a magic number. Jesus fasted 40 days,
the mourning in Rwanda lasted 40 days, criminals were given 40 lashes and the
Muslims say that the thief's days last 40 days. Siku za mwivi ni arubaini.
Numbers are used to refer to airline flights. The flight numbers don't have
anything to do with the number of flights or the sequence of flights. Street
names also use numbers or people's names. In sports (soccer, football, basketball,
etc.) numbers are used to refer to indivivual athletes.
2.2.6. Costumes and body wear
Costumes and body wear also give information about social status as seen in
ceremonies and official functions. These costumes are worn at visible spots
namely the head, the chest and the arms. It is interesting to note for instance
that kings in all societies wear crowns and carry a scepter. Hair plays an important
part also. In traditional Rwanda, girls wore crests amasunzu and shaved when
they got married. People also kept their hair unkempt during mourning and shaved
when the mourning was over. The Tibetan monks also shave their hair. Married
women with children also wear a maternity crown urugore.
Muslim women and nuns wear a veil.
In many cultures, necklaces, bracelets and rings have a double meaning: they
are used as decoration or as symbols of status, title, reward or promotion.
Body piercing, scarification, mutilation and painting are also symbols.
Gestures, the use of body movement, to convey information is also universal.
The most common gestures are of those of the head and the hand. Although some
of the gestures look the same interculturally, they don't convey the same meaning.
Like other semiotic systems, gestures within the same culture can also be ambiguous
because they may be polysemous. That is the same gesture may have different
meanings or different functions. Clapping in Kinyarwanda is used to thank somebody
after a speech event but it is also used as a music accompaniment. A handshake
is used in greetings but also in thanking. Hitting a finger on another finger
is used by school kids to ask questions to the instructor but the same gesture
is also used to swear revenge to somebody. Raising the middle finger is an insult
in the American culture, making the V-sign with two fingers, a symbol for peace
and crossing fingers a sign for good luck. Clearing the throat is a natural
reaction when there is something wrong there but this is also used to warm the
interlocutor of the presence of an intruder so that he or she should change
the topic of the conversation. It is also a polite way used by somebody to draw
the attention of people to let them know of his or her presence . Finger-pointing
is univesally used for blame. Spitting on the floor is a sign of disgust, disappointment
and low opinion of somebody. Betting is done by having the little fingers of
the betters cross and having a third party breaking them. Questions can also
be asked by raising the finger next to the thumb. Disapproval is expressing
by moving the head sidewards whereas approval is down by moving the head downward.
To put a hand in the forehead kwifata ku gahanda i s a sign of contempt and
insult whereas to make a mouth noise with the tip of the tongue raised in the
palate gucura ingoni, is an indication of displeasure. Making a noise, rolling
the tongue in the mouth kuvuza impundu i s used in many African cultures, to
show joy such as in wedding, return of soldiers, visit of high dignitariies.
Scratching heads is a sign of confusion, shrugging shoulders a sign of caressness,
and patting somebody's back is a sign of support, in many cultures.
Not only can you tell the function of the building (church, business, home,
hospital, school, etc) by its form but you can also tell the general philosophy
or cultural values of the society by its architecture. In California, for instance,
homes don't have fences because the owners want them to be seen. They are there
to decorate the landscape. They are an exhibition of social status. Front porches
have disappeared, however, because the owners want to be home. They don't want
intruders or to strike conversations with people they don't want to deal with.
The sense of community and neighbourhood atmosphere are not reflected in the
architecture. All activities are inside the house and barbecue and picnic are
done in the backyard. Home owners want privacy and relaxation after a long day
of hard work. The lifesytyle is thus different from certain rural areas in the
South where front porches are still found so that people can converse with people
who pass by the sidewalk.
Traditional Rwandan architecture was also characterized by the circular form
of the house, the compound-fence, the kraal and the fireplace. The Rwandan compound-fence
had a figure eight shape, the main house was at the intersection. Ficus trees
imivumu and euphorbe trees imiyenzi were the only type of trees used in the
compound-fence construction. The cattle and the kraal were in the front compound-fence
whereas additional houses for children were in the back compound-fence where
only family members were allowed. The front of the front compound-fence had
a large cleared area called umuharuro which was dusted everyday. This area was
used for chatting with neighbors. The house had a conic-shaped roof. The front
door porch , igitabo, had a semi-circular shape also.
This style changed with the arrival of Europeans who introduced a rectangular
shaped house and compound-fence. Most of these houses known as ibanda also lacked
the front part of the compound-fence. Each part of these houses (pillars, rooms,
walls, etc) had a specific shape, name, function and symbolic signification.
Kanangazi , the front door pillar and Muteruzi, the roof holder pillar also
had symbolic and mystic meanings.
Today, the new government is introducing still another foreign conceipt called
imidugudu, village and city dwelling concepts with people who are not related
living in the same agglomaration. The new living system doesn't , unfortunately,
allow the existence of compound-fences which have allowed this traditional cherished
3. Traditional Rwandan national symbols.
The three symbols, pillars of the rwandan nation, were the king, the drum and
All three of them were interdependent.and symbiotically related. Many historical
narratives (Ibitekerezo) state that when Rwanda did not have a king, the drums
refused to talk and cows refused to give birth and give milk. This is the case,
for example, of Ruganzu Ndori when he was hiding kubunda at her aunt in Akaragwe
k'Abahinda (of the provinces of present-day Tanzania). When the king toured
the country he was welcome by the beating of drums and the parade of cows. The
beating of drums and cow parade were done also when there was a visit of foreign
dignitaries. Cow parade kubyukurutsa is still done today at wedding ceremonies.
That the king, the drum and the cow are symbols of the Rwandan society is also
found in the performance of folktales. The opening and the ending formulas of
folktales, which are used to let the audience know that they are entering a
fictional world (beginning of story telling) and that they are coming back to
reality (closing) contain them also. To wit:
Ngucire umugani, nkubambuze umugani,...harabaye, ntihakabe, hapfuye imbwa n'imbeba,
hasigara inka n'ingoma. Let me tell you a tale, let me wake you up with a tale,
...there was, there shouldn't be, there died dogs and mice, there remained cows
Si jye wahera, hahera umugani, nti kura dukurane mwana w'Imana, n'inka n'ingoma.
I am not the one who is ending, it is the tale which is ending. I just said:
Grow and let's grow together, child of God, of cows and drums.
The ancestor of Rwanda, Gihanga is referred to as Gihanga cyahanze inka n'ingoma`,
'Gihanga who created cows and drums'.
The word ingoma 'drum' is ambiguous'. It also means the king's reign. Ingoma
ya Rudahigwa means Rudahigwa's reign. Now it has extended to mean any politician's
Interestingly also the same linguistic form kwima is used to refer to the coronation
of the king and the mating of the cow; the linguistic expression guteka is also
used to refer to the sitting of the king on the throne exercising his royal
functions, and for the cow to mean to cease to give milk.
A special vocabulary was used when refering to them, their attributes or activities.
Euphemistic expressions were used also when referring to them.
Here are some of these euphemistic expressions
The king does not die gupfa, he gives gutanga
The king does not sit kwicara, he cooks guteka
The king does not lie down kuryama, he puts himself to sleep kwibikira
The king does not get up kubyuka, he ... wakes himself up kwibambura
The king is not buried guhambwa, he is asked to come to the rescue gutabazwa
The king's corpse is not umurambo but a big log umugogo
The king's stomach is not inda, but a milk gourd igisabo
The king's arms are not amaboko but drumsticks imirishyo
Drums are not carved kubazwa, they are kwamvurwa
Drums are not covered gupfukwa, they are created kuremwa
Drums are not made warm gushyushywa, they are smoked kwoswa
Drums are not sliced gusaduka, they get beauty spots kuribora
Drums are not silent guceceka, they possess gutunga
Drums are not hung kumanikwa, they are put on a leash kujishwa.
Drums are not carried on head kwikorerwa, they are created kuremekwa.
Drums are not covered by animal skin uruhú, they are covered by bed cover
Drums are not put away, they are sent to help to milk gukámiisha.
Myths also surround these symbols. A king was supposed to be different from
other human beings. Mystery surrounded his birth. He had special supernatural
characteristics: he was born wirh special features (kuvúukana imbuto
) 'to be born with fruits'. There was a symbiotic relationship between the king
and the nation and sometimes the king and the nation were almost identical.
The country therefore depended on the physical and mental health of the king.
If he was weak, the country became weak, if he were sick the country became
sick. It was thus necessary to make sure that the king was fit all the time.
If something wrong happened to him, he had to be eliminated. That a king was
a national symbol was shown by the fact that he was above ethnic groups once
on the throne. He took a royal name and when commenting on his former life,
people would say that when the king was a Tutsi...
Rwanda had two types of drums: drum-emblems and ceremonial drums. These drums
belonged to the king. Ceremonial drums were used in national festivities such
as national harvest, announcing the king's arrival, used in dances (intore dances),
or announcing the king's daily activities (Indamutsa) or announcing a very important
message or warning people that war has been declared (Impuruza). The latest
drum-emblem drum was Kalinga. It was accompanied by CYIMUMUGIZI, MPATSIBIHUGU
and KIRAGUTSE. The drum was also like the king. For instance, if the enemy captured
the drum, this meant that the country was already defeated. It didn't matter
how high was the casualty.
To show how important cows were, they were considered like military companies.
Wherever there was a military company there was also a corresponding cow company.
The military company had its name and so did the cow company. Whenever, the
king or another important dignitary was visiting there was a military parade
and a cow parade. Even today, the cow parade still takes place it there is a
wedding. An example is provided below:
Umutwe w'Ingabo Umutwe w'Inka
(Military Company) (Corresponding Cow Company)
Impamakwica Ingaju z'i Giseke
Abarasa Ingaju z'i Sakara
Like national heroes, cows also had poets who created praise-poems for them.
Many rwandan names are about cows, many folk songs are about cows and cow vocabulary
has influenced the language.
In retrospective, it is becomes evident that Belgians had a well-studied systematic
plan to destroy Rwanda in order to be able to maximize the exploit ation of
its natural and human ressources for a very long time. It was thus necessary
to start with the destruction of these three national symbols first.
The destruction of the monarchy institution was started by the colonial Belgian
power when in 1931, they deposed King Yuhi Musinga, who had refused to convert
to Christianity and was sent in exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The
throne was given to his oldest son Mutara III Rudahigwa. The coronation, however,
lacked the traditional Rwandan custom. It was usually Abiru, royal ritualists
who selected the next king, who was born with royal symbols kuvukana imbuto.
Rudahigwa, however, later on became legitimate in the eyes of the people by
his superb performance and his anti-colonial and pro-independance ideas. He
died mysteriously in Bujumbura and many people are convinced that he was killed
by Belgians because it is they who also killed Prince Louis Rwagasore of Burundi
and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo because of their nationalism. It
is also ironic for Belgians to be the ones to push for the abolition of monarchy
in Rwanda when at home they still have their own kings!
To destroy the cow as a national icon, the colonialists tried first to exterminate
the cattle by introducing the tsetse fly in cattle-raising regions such as Bugesera
and Mutara. This was done to make people in those areas who were self-sufficient
economically to start doing the kind of job that the colonialists were interested
in and to force them to do forced hard labor uburetwa. With the arrival of Europeans,
owning cows became also a heavy burden first because taxes had to be paid on
each cow and secondly because each cow owner had to provide at least one liter
of milk every day to the European administration even if none of the cows was
producing milk. This painful experience of being forced to provide milk to the
colonial power was known as umugogoro. The most traumatic action for Rwandans
by Belgians was seizing cows for butchery. Rwandans usually never kill their
cows for meat. Only young bulls or sterile cows are. The Belgians gave sole
licence to Count Altema de Burgrave to seize and kill Tutsi cows for meat. He
instantly became a multibillionnaire.
The drum-emblem, Kalinga, was vilified by Eurpean missionaries, especially Bishop
André Perraudin when in his sermon and writings in 1959 called it primitive,
a sign of sauvagery and that it was not really a national emblem but instead
a tutsi symbol of hutu domination (Bernard Lugan, 1997: p389). The drum, however,
was not typical to Tutsi or Rwanda but happened to be an emblem for many former
4. In search of new symbols
Rwanda as a nation is no longer. It will take every patriot and all Rwandan
authorities (political, religous, academic, activists) to forge a new identity
for the Rwandan people. Despite its painful past with massacres and genocide,
Rwanda is still a beautiful country with its thousand hills, valleys, lakes,
a variety of fauna and flora which decorate its beautiful landscape. This "Switzerland
of Africa" will definiteley always inspire poets, musicians, painters,
writers and photographers. There are many landmarks that make this country the
pearl of Africa namely its volcanoes, its rivers Nyabarongo, Akagera, its lakes:
Muhazi, Cyohoha. Rwandan artists can make them known not only to Rwandan nationals
but to the outside world as well. In other countries, these types of landmarks
have been immortalized by their artists. Everybody knows about the Paris river,
the Seine, the London river, the Thames. People all over the world have heard
of the Mississipi river. We know the natural world wonders such as Yosemite,
the Grand Canyons, the Niagara Falls, ... from post cards, paintings, literature.
It is the responsibility of the government to create tourist areas such as national
parks, cultural museums, national monuments for national heroes for foreigners
and nationals to visit.
Rwanda has many heroes such Rwanyonga rwa Mugabwambere, Bisangwa bya Bigombituri,
Nyiringango ya Nyagahinga, Kanyandekwe Imangu, Rukemampunzi, Kamanzi, etc. Before
colonialism, these national heroes were known to everybody through historical
narratives ( ibitekerezo ) and praise-poems ( ibyivugo ). These heroes and their
respective praise-poems should be incorporated in the new school curriculum
for school children not only for them to know about their national history and
be proud of but also to appreciate this great national literature.
There is no single monument for national heroes in the whole country . It is
a shame that King Mutara III Rudahigwa who fought for independance for his country
or Fred Rwigema who liberated his country from supremacist regimes and whose
army stopped genocide don't have one. Mali has erected the Palace of Martyrs
in its capital city Bamako as a gesture of national reconciliation after the
dictator Musa Traoré massacred hundreds of pro-democracy students. To
achieve national unity and reconciliation, the new Rwandan government has to
build many monuments for genocide victims and national heroes.
National holidays which celebrate the cultural heritage such as the harvest
festival umuganura which was celebrated before colonialism should be reintroduced.
This national project of rehabilitating and recreating national symbols will
not be an impossible and a towering task if all patriotic forces want their
motherland to be become a nation again. Some musicians such as Cécile
Kayirebwa, Florida Uwera, Sentore and the group Ingeri have already started.
For Rwanda to be a nation again will not be difficult because as the saying
goes "where there is a will there is a way". If ancestors were able
to create the Rwandan nation and to maintain its cultural and territorial integrity
for centuries why would it be difficult for the new generation to do the same
with its experience and know-how
Kimenyi, Alexandre. 1988. Kinyarwanda and Kirundi Names: A Semiolinguistic
Analysis of Bantu Onomastics. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Kimenyi, Alexandre. 1990. U Rwanda Rugari rwa Gasabo. Pan-Africa Publications:
Barthes, Roland. 1967. Elements of Semiology. London: Cape
Sebeok, Thomas and Umeker-Sebeok, Jean. 1976. Speech Surrogates: Drum and Whistle
Systems. The Hague: Mouton.
Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1931-59. Collected Writings. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
Note: This article appeared in Wihogora Rwanda, Vol.4, 1.