As my time in Rwanda is coming to a close, I am now more than ever appreciating the cultural arts of this country. The past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit various art centers, cooperatives, and businesses to learn to dance, sing, and create as the Rwandans do. Throughout my experiences, you will notice a common motif: cows. Rwandans love cows, and this is expressed throughout their art.
- Intore Dance
Through a dance steeped in tradition, one can get a glimpse at what Rwanda values as a
culture. For example, when they lift their arms during dance, they imitate the valuable horned cows. Also, they dance to the traditional drum, an instrument which is pertinent to understanding African cultural arts. Their dance is strongly tried to their East African identities. Here, dance is not an ability unique to the experts; everyone dances, and no one is told that they “can’t dance.” Dance is a custom of celebration at weddings, a form of worship at church, a community-building activity. In a country such as Rwanda that is becoming more and more westernized due to globalization, dance preserves an integral aspect of their culture. When I learned the dance, I felt that I was participating in their culture more so than I was before.
Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers claims in order to create, the maker must serve his creation, and in order to serve it, he must love it. In order to “serve” my artwork in Rwanda, I had to learn to love cow poop. That’s right, imigongo, the paintings that decorate the walls of any beautifully furnished house in Rwanda, is sculpted from the feces of cows. When I had the opportunity to create my own imigongo, I was naturally hesitant to get my hands dirty. Once I fully embraced the worth of the work, I enjoyed the sculpting and painting. The idea of using feces to make art is resourceful, and the fact that it comes from the cow is representative of Rwandan values. Creating imigongo is a messy process: mixing the feces with ash, sculpting the ridges, coating the primer, using sand paper, and painting. Through this process, one can choose one of two views: the first, striving to forget that the source of their material; the alternate, choosing to embrace everything about the art, no matter how messy. The latter, according to the philosophy of Sayers, is superior because it allows the artist to truly love imigongo, inevitably resulting in a more beautiful product. Imigongo is a physical manifestation of something seemingly useless can be transformed into a masterpiece. In this respect, art imitates life.
- Cow Singing
The Rwandan art of cow singing includes dancing, singing, instrumental music, and poetry. Americans are not able to fully comprehend this art form because no one in the West appreciates cows to this extent. Rwandans love to sing about the strength, beauty, and value of their cows. The traditional stringed instrument used in cow singing is the inanga, which accompanies singing and dancing. The goal of cow singing is to make the cow happy, but cow singing can also make people happy by bringing together families at weddings and communities at ceremonies. One of the traditions of cow singing is naming the cow. This demonstrates that the cows are more than valuable assets to be milked of their resources. Naming the cow identifies it as an individual with characteristics worth singing about.
- Jewelry Making
My friends and I took a trip to downtown Kigali where we learned how to make earrings from local artisan Abraham Konga. He taught us how to twist the wire to make decorative spirals, hooks, and clasps for beads. If you think that I finally found an art form free from the Rwandan adoration of cows, you’d be surprised at the material of the beads: cow bones. Although I am passionate about animal rights, I love my cow bone earrings because it utilizes every part of the cow rather than discarding the spare parts other than meat, as well as the fact that it allows to further understand how Rwandans appreciate every aspect of their beloved cows, from their feces to their bones.