Meet the women drumming their way to prosperity

Meet the women drumming their way to prosperity

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.

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.

See them in action.