The culture of Rwanda is varied. Unlike many countries in Africa, Rwanda has been a unified state since pre-colonial times with only one ethnic group, the Banyarwanda, and a shared language and cultural heritage. Eleven regular national holidays are observed throughout the year, with others occasionally inserted by the government. Additionally, the week following Genocide Memorial Day on 7 April is designated an official week of mourning. The last Saturday of each month is umuganda, a national day of community service, during which most normal services close down.
Music and dance are an integral part of Rwandan ceremonies, festivals, social gatherings, and storytelling. The most famous traditional dance is Intore, a highly choreographed routine consisting of three components – the ballet, performed by women; the dance of heroes, performed by men, and the drums. Traditionally, music is transmitted orally with styles varying between the social groups. Drums are of great importance, the royal drummers having enjoyed high status within the court of the Mwami. Drummers usually play together in groups of seven or nine. The country has a growing popular music industry, influenced by East African, Congolese and American music. The most popular genre is hip hop, with a blend of rap with raga, R&B and dance-pop. Popular local artists include The Ben and Meddy, both of whom have won awards.
Clothing was traditionally made from bark cloth and animal skins. Traditional female dress, called the mush nana, consists of a floor-length skirt with a sash draped over one shoulder, worn over a tank top or bustier. A traditional hairstyle consists of a bun decorated with beads and tied in place by two ribbons that pass across the forehead and over the bun, crossing above the ear. A comb is placed above one ear beneath the crossing point of the ribbons. This costume is often worn by female dancers in Intore dance troupes. It is no longer common daily wear but may be worn at weddings, church services and other formal events. At formal events, the traditional dress for men includes a Western-style dress shirt tucked into a wrapped floor-length skirt. A beaded necklace may be worn with this outfit, particularly during weddings or by the musicians during traditional dance performances. Male dancers may wear a wrapped skirt without a shirt; they wear beaded straps that cross over the chest.
Rwandan cuisine is based on local staple foods produced by the traditional subsistence agriculture. Historically, it has varied among the country’s different ethnic groups. Rwandan staples include bananas, plantains (known as ibitoke), pulses, sweet potatoes, beans, and cassava (manioc). Many Rwandans do not eat meat more than a few times a month. For those who live near lakes and have access to fish, tilapia is popular. The potato, thought to have been introduced to Rwanda by German and Belgian colonialists, is now also very popular. Ugali (or bugali) is a paste made from cassava or maize and water, to form a porridge-like consistency that is eaten throughout East Africa. Isombe is made from mashed cassava leaves and served with dried fish. Lunch is usually a buffet known as mélange, consisting of the above staples and possibly meat. Brochette is the most popular food when eating out in the evening, usually made from goat, but sometimes tripe, beef, pork or fish. In rural areas, many bars have a brochette seller responsible for tending and slaughtering the goats, skewering and barbecuing the meat, and serving it with grilled bananas. Milk, particularly in a fermented form called ikivuguto, is a common drink throughout the country. Other drinks include a traditional beer called urwagwa, made from sorghum or bananas, which features in traditional rituals and ceremonies. Commercial beers brewed in Rwanda include Primus, Mützig, and Amstel.
Arts and crafts
Traditional arts and crafts are produced throughout the country, although most originated as functional items rather than purely for decoration. Woven baskets and bowls are especially common. The south east of Rwanda is noted for imigongo, a unique cow dung art, whose history dates back to when the region was part of the independent Gisaka kingdom. The dung is mixed with natural soils of various colours and painted into patterned ridges, forming geometric shapes. Other crafts include pottery and wood carving.
Traditional Rwandan housing was constructed from locally sourced sustainable materials. Historically houses were dome-like round houses made from cedar poles, linked with bamboo and reeds and thatched with grass or banana leaves. During the colonial period clay walling became common, at first for circular thatched houses, the walls of which were sometimes decorated with bold geometrical patterns, and subsequently as rectangular houses reflecting European influence but retaining the clay-filled timber framed walls. More recently, these have been replaced with adobe or sun-dried brick walling. Clay tiles, often baked locally, were used for roofs, as well as thatch. The government has a programme to replace these with more modern materials such as corrugated iron, but these are not produced locally.
Literature and film
Rwanda does not have a long history of written literature, but there is a strong oral tradition ranging from poetry to folk stories. Many of the country’s moral values and details of history have been passed down through the generations. The most famous Rwandan literary figure was Alexis Kagame (1912 – 1981), who carried out and published research into the oral tradition as well as writing his own poetry. The Rwandan Genocide resulted in the emergence a literature of witness accounts, essays and fiction by a new generation of writers such as Benjamin Sehene. A number of films have been produced about the genocide, including the Golden Globe nominated Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs, which was filmed in Rwanda itself, and featured survivors in the cast.