Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rwanda and The Umuganura Festival: Right Revival, Wrong Date

By Rose-Marie Mukarutabana
20 August 2008
It seems Rwanda is really determined to draw from its culture the means to face today's challenges. After initiatives such as Abunzi, Gacaca, Imihigo, Ingando, Ubudehe, Umuganda, etc., we now have the celebration of the Umuganura Festival every 1st August, implementing that part of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) policy of instituting "community festivals that take place every year from sector level to national level." This comes hard on the hills of another major innovation: the launching, late last year, of the Itorero ry'Igihugu Initiative.
"We have again gone back to our good traditional culture to seek solutions to some of the problems we face; this shows how rich our traditional culture was,"said President Kagame, when launching Itorero ry’igihugu. Unfortunately, it would seem that with regard to both Itorero and Umuganura, implementation has not been based on sound knowledge of our culture, as advocated by the Head of State and as indicated in the National Cultural Policy. In this paper, we shall discuss the institution of the Umuganura Festival, leaving Itorero ry'Igihugu for a future article.
Rwanda Television reports on the 1st August 2008 edition of Umuganura Festival  suggest that both the journalists and the local leaders interviewed, while rightly happy to see a revival of this traditional ceremony, appear to have only a vague idea of what this festival was about. These people need more information and training as to the content, import and intention of this wonderful festival, which modern scholars have described as pre-colonial Rwanda 's National Day.
More serious, however, is the decision to hold this festival on 1st August. Clearly, the decision did not take into account the fact that the traditional Umuganura was not a harvest festival, but a first fruit festival, meaning that it was celebrated BEFORE harvest! The grain used for making the Umuganura bread (umutsima) was collected before harvest-while the stems were still standing in fields—the idea being that no Rwandan should taste the fruits before the holding of this nation-wide thanksgiving and communion service! In fact, there a pre-umuganura blessing ceremony used to be held at the sighting Nyakanga crescent moon (May-June), two weeks before the actual festival, which the king performed at national level and the family head at local level, to bless the maturing sorghum.
Reconciling the "Ever-quarrelling Brothers"
The full Umuganura ceremony was held the Full Moon of Nyakanga, which usually occurred in early June. Nyakanga, which corresponds to Gemini, is the sign of the "brothers ever quarrelling and yet destined to unite." In Western astrology, these brothers are Castor and Pollux: they represent brothers who quarrel constantly when young and irresponsible, but learn to cooperate in harmony as they mature.
The same idea is found in the name "Nyakanga," constructed on the verb kwanga and kwangana. When King Ruganzu-Mutabazi Ndori, upon the advice of the sage Kibariro cya Myaka ya Gihe, moving the Umuganura Festival from Gashyantare to the Nyakanga Full Moon, the then "quarrelling brothers" were King Ndahiro Cyamatare and his brother Bamara, both being Yuhi Gahima's sons. Bamara had refused to accept Gahima's decision to designate Ndahiro as his heir. A devastating war of succession ensued, which split the royal family and the nation into two opposing camps. Bamara and his son Byinshi and their Banyabyinshi troops suffered many defeats, and were about to be defeated when they entered into an evil alliance with the Bashi (in current Eastern DRC ). Ndahiro was killed (in the month of Gicurasi), along his family and household, and the country suffered a terrible occupation by the Bashi, during which looting and other crimes became the order of the day.
When Ndahiro's heir Ndori was old enough to return from exile and liberate the country, he defeated the two forces, expelled the Bashi, with most of the Banyabyinshi following them across Lake Kivu . But he knew that his restoration and reconstruction efforts would not be successful without a reconciliation of the two opposing sides which had aligned with either of the "quarrelling brothers." For this reconciliation, political and socio-economic measures were accompanied with religious action. This took the form of the three dovetailing Ceremonies as described in the Ubwiru Book of Rituals (D'Hertefelt & Coupez, 1964):
(a) Icyunamo, a period of fast and abstinence which begins at the sighting of the crescent moon of Gicurasi (Aries), commemorating occupied Rwanda 's loss of independence;
(b) Ibirori bya Kamena (Taurus), also called "Icyunamuro",  a great carnival-like festival commemorating the Return of the Saviour King, Ruganzu-Mutabazi Ndori; during the festival, all evil and all sadness were "expelled" from the hearts, homes and country;
(c) Umuganura, the great Thanksgiving and Communion Feast Day held at the Full Moon of Nyakanga/Aries, commemorating the reconciliation of the "Quarrelling Brothers": one side represented by Ruganzu as the son and successor to Ndahiro Cyamatare, the other, by his evil uncle Bamara. This was "reconciliation with justice": Bamara and his son Byinshi were tried and condemned to public flogging and restitution of what their 11-year long looting spree (See D'Hertefelt & Coupez, 1964 for the texts of the rituals).
From the above, we can see clearly the reason behind the setting of the Umuganura Festival at the Full Moon of Nyakanga, or Gemini, the month during which "the Brothers who had long quarreled are reconciled, and being now as one, work together in harmony to rebuild what their enmity had destroyed."
The reconciliation was sealed by the sharing of the consecrated "irobe", the spherical bread divided into small mouthful size pieces. The sphere represents unity, and theirobe is a good symbol of unity restored: it is made from the seeds which had been scattered in the fields and are now re-gathered together into rounded unity. The physical sharing of this physical bread was an outer, visible sign of the inner process of restoring and strengthening national unity.
The decision to hold the Umuganura at the Nyakanga-Gemini Full Moon was based on a knowledge of the energies which are "in the air" at this time, and which are of such a nature that they favour and promote understanding, unity and co-operation. And for those who may have doubts about the reality of such energies, let them note that even the modern, officially Marxist Chinese, have applied this age old practice of selecting an auspicious date for the opening of the 2008 Olympics. Therefore, if our ancestors in their profound wisdom deemed the full moon of Nyakanga specially conducive to unity, we should be wise to heed their teachings, and restore the Umuganura Festival to its rightful place, at the Full Moon of Nyakanga—and also give it a truly national dimension, by the country's leadership holding an Umuganura Banquet at the capital.
It goes without saying that any and all days are good for promoting national unity. But just as Christians and Muslims are encouraged to pray every day, but hold their major festivals on certain specific days appointed by the founders of their faith, so should we also hold the Umuganura Festival at the times appointed by our Founding Ancestors. Christmas is held around the Full Moon of Capricorn; Ramadan begins at the New Moon of the month of Ramadan; Umuganura should be held at the Full Moon of Nyakanga. And if we really want to obtain the full benefits of drawing inspiration from the wisdom of our Ancestors, then we should remember that the Umuganura was preceded by the Festival of Kamena/Taurus, known as Icyunamuro, which concluded the month-long period of fast and abstinence, the Icyunamo, just as in Christian tradition Easter concludes.
Some day, the current Icyunamo, which, though not identical, has much in common with its namesake predecessor as a commemoration of the disaster caused by Abanyabyinshi, symbolizing the forces of greed, and their allies Abashi, symbolizing the forces of darkness and ignorance, will also be followed by an Icyunamuro, the May festival representing the rebirth of the nation. The three Annual Commemorations will then dovetail, one preparing the next, thus constituting an energy high three-month period during which the spirit of the nation will be cleansed and renewed, and the national work of healing and reconciliation facilitated.
When we have decided as a nation to follow the advice of our Ancestors, we should keep in mind that the list of month names we have today on our "karendari" is not the true traditional calendar: this is simply a Gregorian calendar on which Rwandan lunar names were transposed-and wrongly transposed, following an error originating from a misreading of Alexis Kagame's writings. The lunar month of Nyakanga sits astride Mai and June, corresponding to the sign Gemini in Western cultures. Gicurasi falls in March-April and corresponds to Aries, while Kamena falls between April-May and corresponds to Taurus. New Moon and Full Moon dates are now available on the web at http://www.light-weaver.com/calendar/2009.html .

Related Materials:
Gakondo: The Royal Rituals

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