Rwandan women drum up hope in the Great Lakes region

Ingoma Nshya playing a concert in 2010.
 
 
Music soothes the soul and brings people together. This idea is the driving force behind Ingoma Nshya, a drum ensemble that has been challenging stereotypes. The group, which is composed entirely of Rwandan women even though drums are traditionally reserved for men, is made up of both Hutu and Tutsi women. Their music spreads the message of reconciliation in Rwanda, a country still affected by the 1994 genocide, as well as in the conflict-racked Kivu region of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where they recently played a concert.
 
Ingoma Nshya is made up of 20 women. They play traditional Rwandan rhythms as well as Burundian and Senegalese rhythms on about a dozen different types of drums. Over time, they have developed their very own, new rhythms. The ensemble puts on choreographed shows where they sing in Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda’s official languages. They recently played at the Goma Buzz’art festival in DR Congo in mid-December.
 
Ingoma Nshya in concert at the Buzz’art festival in Goma in December 2013.Video from Goma Buzz’art Festival.
 
In 2004, Odile Gakire Katese, the assistant director for the University Centre for the Arts in Butare, southern Rwanda, decided to create a women-only drums section. This was a risky move: in Rwanda, drums are traditionally reserved for men, in part because the instrument was used to mark different moments of the king’s days during the monarchy. Katese brought together women — both Tutsi and Hutu — from low-income communities, none of whom had any musical background. Ingoma Nshya (“new drum” in Kinyarwanda) became an official drum ensemble in 2008. They were immediately a big hit: in just one year, they played in DR Congo, Senegal, the Netherlands, and the United States. There, they met the creators of Blue Ice Cream, an organic ice cream company, which led to the opening of a branch in Butare. This was Rwanda’s first ice cream shop and helps fund the group today.
 
In 1994, Rwanda was torn apart in a conflict that pitted the Hutu ethnic group against the Tutsis, leading to a genocide in which 800,000 people — primarily Tutsis — were killed. The war spilled over into the neighbouring DR Congo, specifically the border region of North Kivu, which is rich in minerals and is the scene of chronic conflict. Most recently, the Congolese army, supported by UN troops, clashed in North Kivu against separatist rebels called the M23. The DR Congo government accuses Rwanda of supporting the M23, which the Rwandan government has formally denied. The Congolese army led a massive offensive last November that pushed the M23 out of the country’s borders.
 
An Ingoma Nhsya concert in 2010.

“These women spread a message of hope, as they are the living proof that a country can build itself back up after a devastating conflict”

Odile Gakire Katese is an actress, a theatre director, and an author. She founded Ingoma Nshya, of which she is the artistic director. (She does not play in the group, but supervises it).
  
We never aimed to spread a political message, but whether we like it or not, we necessarily represent the idea of reconciliation. And this is the image that prevails when we play outside of Rwanda — certainly in the United States or the Netherlands, but especially in countries that are currently in crisis, like the DR Congo today.
 
We played for the first time in Goma, in 2008. Many people tried to discourage us from going for safety reasons. But we were warmly welcomed and we have since returned several times. We went because we knew that we needed to send a strong message: first, the fact that Congolese people were inviting Rwandans was very important, and we had to accept. Also, because those who came to watch the concert saw a group comprised of people of different ethnicities that in the past had killed one another. These women spread a message of hope, as they are the living proof that a country can build itself back up after a devastating conflict. During their concerts in the DR Congo, they often interact with the public. Some audience members are sceptical about the possibility of reconciliation in North Kivu, but the women of Ingoma Nshya share their stories and show what is possible.
 
The ethnic breakdown of our group doesn’t really matter to me. We work with women who all have horrific stories in their past; dwelling on them doesn’t serve a purpose. We need to look forward: the fact that women of different backgrounds collaborate together is enough.
 
One of the group’s drummers. Photo uploaded to Flickr by EmreKanik.
 
“It’s exciting for us to be the first female drummers in the country”
 
It is also important to understand that our message is even more powerful because it is spread by female drummers, which is still very taboo in Rwanda. To shatter this taboo, our drummers needed to be better than male drummers: that’s why we developed shows with choreographies and costumes, and why we play rhythms from different cultures. We wanted to make our mark on the history of drumming in Rwanda. It’s exciting for us to be the first female drummers in the country.
 
From our beginnings in 2004, the group was in high demand for concerts, and the demand has not ebbed. There were 100 drummers at first, but we unfortunately had to downsize to the 20 most talented women in order to have a sustainable group. Through our concerts, Rwandan women can see the example of ordinary women, who expected nothing from life, whose only “diploma” was to have a husband, and who then blossomed thanks to music. This sparks new ambitions, which is great. 
 

“I was impressed by the sheer power of the sound coming from the stage”

Gaïus Kewene is a blogger in Goma.
 
I saw the group recently in concert in Goma during the Buzz’art festival. I had never seen female drummers, because in DR Congo as in Rwanda, only men play the drums. I admit that I was surprised: I thought it would be just a small concert with a couple of instruments, but I was impressed by their number, their skill on real African drums, and the sheer power of the sound coming from the stage.
 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Corentin Bainier (@cbainier). Many thanks to Gaïus Kowene who brought this subject to the attention of the Observers editorial team.
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