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Africa’s Progress Must Draw from Its Fertile Heritage – the Rwandan Example

Having only a foreign language to elaborate high-level knowledge restricts the area of what is thinkable.
Credit: The NewTimes

By promoting “home grown solutions,” the Rwandan state has chosen to find in its history answers to the challenges of the present generation. This is a rare undertaking when the so-called “globalization” tends to impose a single model of existence and way of doing things. This ambitious challenge, which could certainly be useful for many African nations, has been particularly beneficial for Rwanda. Here’s how.

In the context of a country that has experienced the abyss of genocide, drawing from the past to address the challenges of the present affirms that the history of this country is not a story of inevitable destruction. On the contrary, Rwanda is creating an opportunity to rebuild memory and historical consciousness. While the genocide was an attempt to make a clean sweep of the past by means of destruction, the willingness to implement endogenous solutions reseeds the present with forgotten yet fertile seeds.

The practices and ways of doing and thinking of ancient Rwandans are replete with treasures of intelligence and humanity that the present generations can draw on to build a better world for themselves and for future generations.

But attempting to think in terms of “homegrown solutions” requires the mobilization of collective intelligence to link the past and the present, which helps the present generation to inherit the best of the history of a human community and bear fruit today and tomorrow.

The practice

Once these ambitions were clearly defined, the next task was to put them into practice as projects, a process that was rather arduous, to say the least. For one thing, colonial practices were fundamentally based on the promotion of a new world and on the devaluation of the ancestral practices and values of subjected peoples. For instance, behind the closed doors of the first missionary boarding schools, Rwandan schoolchildren were cut off from the traditional forms of oral transmission that structured their collective memory. They were also deprived of the organic assimilation of traditional social values.

Indeed, colonial schooling was a workshop of acculturation through the overvaluation of “Western modernity.” It was also an enterprise of amnesia of the real history of the pupils’ ancestry in favour of the learning of a truncated past where the cleavage between groups, instituted as racially distinct, was promoted as the first and ultimate principle of social relations.

Language as resistance

However, despite the extent and influence of the acculturation devices, the collective memory of Rwanda could not be totally destroyed because it is inscribed in the Rwandan language itself, and it emerges in the very flesh of its words.

Indeed, a language is much more than a means of communication or a particular way of designating things. It is a collective construction that draws its origins from an immemorial past and preserves the traces of generational values that have thrived to date.

Language forges a way of apprehending the universe when its sensitivity passes from one generation to the next. Consider the vocabulary of greetings: the French word “bonjour,” literally “good day,” but it does not mean exactly the same thing as its Greek equivalent greeting “khaire” (rejoice, enjoy) or the Hebrew “chalom” (peace) or the Arabic “saalam” (be in peace).

In Kinyarwanda, daily greetings express the traditional philosophy and the meaning of a fulfilled life for Rwandans in their forms of questions and wishes. In the morning, people say “Mwaramutse.” Formed from the verb “Kuramuka” (meaning “to spend a night alive; to arrive in the morning in good health; to survive one day”), this question and wish literally mean: “Have you woken up alive? ” or “did you wake up in good health?” If people meet again after not seeing each other for more than a day, they say “Muraho,” meaning “are you alive?” or “Muracyakoma?” which means “Are you still making movement (not still or frozen)?” At the end of the day, the question-wish becomes “Mwirirwe”: “Are you still alive?”. And to bid one another farewell, people say “Urabeho”: “Stay alive!” or “Urakarama!”: “Live long!”

The banal and phatic nature of these expressions makes us forget their deep meanings, but these ritual formulas testify to a concern for life and an awareness of the precariousness of existence.

Other phatic expressions such as “Uragatunga” (“be a large landlord”) are wishes of prosperity. The wish “Amashyo!” (“May you have many herds”), usually said at a meeting by someone who has the birthright, is followed by the answer” “Amashongore!” (“May you have a lot of heifers!”). The commonest wishes relate to fertility: “Urakabyara” (“May you give birth”), “Urakabyara uheke!” (“May you have children and raise them,” which implies “May you be healthy to see them grow up”), “Uragaheka” (“May you carry a cradleboard”), and “Girabana!” (“May you have children”), etc.

These ritually exchanged formulaic expressions underline the importance of a fulfilled life; in this case, fruitfulness, prolificity, longevity, wealth and living in harmony with the community. “Gutunga” (to possess), “gutunganirwa” (to live happily, peacefully, in prosperity) and “kubyara” (to generate a large offspring and to see it grow and flourish) thus define a fully realized life.    


By using such everyday sociability formulas, we are heirs of a unique social history. This history, crystallized in words, partly shape our human sensitivity. Becoming aware of this fact allows us to perceive what the common values in our community are, and consequently may help to guide our daily actions as well as political decisions.

At this political level, the Rwandan language preserves the memory of fairness and due exercise of authority. The root word “gab” is indeed identifiable both in the words associated with power, authority and virility and in the vocabulary relating to exchange, gift, and reciprocity.

Thus, the verb “kugaba” can, on the one hand, refer to “(of a country) to be sovereign;” “to command, to reign over, to govern;” it can also mean “to make a decision, to promulgate, to organize, to order the troops.” The same verb can, on the other hand, mean “to give, to receive, to offer, to make a present; to yield, to grant in usufruct, to redistribute”. Similarly, “kugabana” can mean “to become invested as the leader (of); to obtain command (over)” or “to share something; to receive something, to receive a gift, to be rewarded with a gift because of its merits”.

Through these examples, it is clear that the language has crystallized on the same radical semantic fields of authority and generosity. It can be assumed, therefore, that for these principles to have been transmitted for centuries, it has long made sense to Rwandans and that it was expressed in social practices.

Crucially, the history of Rwanda shows that the process that led to the genocide is part and parcel of the distortion of the meaning of some of these virtuous words of Kinyarwanda. This is notably the case for the word “ubwoko,” which designates, among other things, “clan membership” before the colonial period and which has been semantically degraded to mean “race” and then to “ethnic”, or for the words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” which designated relational statuses and whose meanings were perverted to designate “distinct races”.

Another example of such perverse linguistic manipulation can be identified with the word “ubuhake.” This Kinyarwanda word has been translated as “serfdom” by mutilating all the previous social and cultural meanings of this word. Translating “ubuhake” as “serfdom” inoculated a foreign European feudal fantasy in this word and in the practices it designated. It also prophetically assigned a deadly destiny to fantasy. Serfdom implies serf’s revolt. And indeed, the bloody “Révolution sociale assistée” that ended the Rwandan monarchy has been told as an imaginary decal of the French 1789 Revolution.

However, “ubuhake” literally means “cow pregnancy,” which reflects the fecundity of life – life in its moral dimension to the potency and spirit of giving. The word “ubuhake” derives from the verb “guhaka,” which means both “to carry a pregnancy” when speaking of the cow and “to adopt” a cattle receiver. For the “shebuja” or “father of the servant” (cattle raisers or agriculturalists alike), “ubuhake” was a contractual link that, from the outset, aggregates several dimensions: social, economic, political and spiritual. It is part of a logic of reciprocity of gift and counter-gift aimed at ensuring a social balance and protection.

If “ubuhake” created a hierarchical link between donor and receiver, this link could only be established between people who mutually recognized their dignity as partners in the gifting process called “umuhana,” which means “the one with whom we exchange gifts” and “with whom we can share the beer.” Between the donor – “shebuja” – and the receiver – “umugaragu” – of the first cow, “umunyafu” was woven into a filial link.

Kinyarwanda keeps track of this link since the word “shebuja” (se-buja) literally means “Father in terms of ubuja” a word that establishes a familial relationship. Thus “umugaragu,” which was translated as “vassal” or “client” in colonial literature, should more appropriately be rendered as “social son.” This translation reflects more accurately the family imagery that permeated Rwandan social relations. To this social son afflicted by economic misfortune, his “shebuja” could give a cow which, in this situation, is referred to as “inshumbushanyo,” which derives from the verb “gushumbusha”: “to send back” and aggregates the idea of counter-gift and moral obligation of support and reciprocity.

Moreover, “ubuhake” was only one of many modalities for cow donations. Thus, the Kinyarwanda distinguished, among others, between three types of cows: “inka y’ubumanzi”  (literally “the cow of bravery” granted by the “mwami” or a leader to those who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield), “inshyame” (cows received to replace those who had been decimated by an epizootic disease) and “inshumbushanyo” (the compensatory cows handed over by the “shebuja” to his “umugaragu” that are afflicted by misfortune).

These examples are only illustrative of the power of historical memory for Africa’s introspective inspiration. They highlight the original meanings of some of these Kinyarwanda expressions, their manipulation by translation, and the deployment or the occultation of its primary meanings. These are the products and the producers of human stories very different from each other.

Significantly, and more practically, the Rwandan state has recently implemented a homegrown measure known as “Girinka” or “One Cow per Poor Family.” Clearly, this practice is consistent with the original gift spirit that was crucial in precolonial Rwanda. Rwanda Governance Board official documents note this about the practice:

“The word Girinka can be translated as ‘may you have a cow’ and describes a centuries-old cultural practice in Rwanda whereby a cow was given by one person to another, either as a sign of respect and gratitude or as a marriage dowry. […] The program is inspired by the Rwandan Culture. Girinka goes back in the annals of Rwandan 17th century history as a social protection measure, especially in favor of children instituted by King Mibambwe. The concept of Girinka was first introduced by King Mibambwe Gisanura (+ 1660), who decreed that “no Rwandan child was ever to lack daily milk again while others had plenty”. Since then, Rwandans have given cattle to one another, or milk to those in need. Girinka program was revived by President Paul Kagame who in 2006 initiated the program after seeing the extent of malnutrition and stunting among Rwandan children.”

Studying the Rwandan language enables us to understand a whole section of the social history of Banyarwanda and this linguistic introspection can be a source of inspiration in the search for homegrown solutions that can be adapted to the present time in response to the most pressing challenges society faces.

Language policy in education

For such introspection to be possible, however, Kinyarwanda must not be marginalized in the educational space. Students, teachers, and researchers must be able to develop their thinking in their mother tongue so that they can, on the one hand, best deploy their thought and their sensitivity, and on the other hand, enable the evolution of contemporary Kinyarwanda. If it is not one of the languages of development of knowledge, Kinyarwanda will be confined to the periphery of private domains.

In ancient Rwanda, the mastery of language, poetic art, and oratory jousting were fundamental social practices that were learned, especially during the evening wakes and in the “Itorero”. Young “intore” were supervised by two main trainers. One was involved in dance, sports and military exercises; the second was responsible for linguistic and artistic practices. The latter introduced them to the composition and the declamatory arts of their praise (guhiga), pastoral poems (kwinikaza) and epic poems (kunaguza). This training contributed to forging the subtle form of thought and intelligence that the Rwandan concept of “ubwengetypifies.

A tale reports that “ubwenge” is one of the three virtues created by “Imana.” The other two virtues were “ubupfura” (the heart and soul’s nobility) and “ubumwe” (the art of being fully human among other humans). These qualities were at the heart of the formation of “Itorero.”

This conceptual and ethical trilogy is the fundamental matrix of the Rwandan “ethos” upon which any homegrown solution must be based. Indeed, this fundamental principle could also be worded in the form of a question: How can we, as Banyarwanda, learn together to develop for each other our Ubuntu (another crucial concept that Rwandan people share with many other African Peoples), which could be defined as “the sense of generosity that expresses our humanity.”

The learning of foreign languages ensures openness to the world and enhances the possibilities of exchanges. The incorporation of an additional language allows us to discover another relationship to the world. It helps to make people become aware of the people who shaped our sensitivity and identity. These potential benefits notwithstanding, having only a foreign language to elaborate high-level knowledge restricts the area of what is thinkable.

The globalization of teaching and using simplified English, which some call “Globish” (contraction of “global” and “English”) runs the risk of having a perverse effect, especially since its original aim was to commercial transactions. To this end, Globish is unequivocally effective; however, imposing this (variety of) language on people beyond the commercial sphere, as the sole language of trade and international relations, would insidiously lead to assimilating all the objects of the world into commodities and reducing the construction of a common world to a narrow utilitarian sphere.

Moreover, thinking about the problems of a society in a language that is not only foreign but also uncontrolled by the majority of the country’s speakers inevitably leads to proposing off-the-wall solutions to the realities experienced and felt by ordinary people.

On the contrary, thinking endogenous solutions that make sense for the whole community enables Africans to reconnect with their history and ancestry, as well as with their languages and the value systems preserved in them. In other words, for Africans to be reconciled with themselves and who they are as a people, they must undoubtedly draw from their fertile heritage to resolve challenges of the present times and to face the future with confidence. This is what, without exception, successful societies have done.


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