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Umuganura

Overview

The word Umuganura can be translated as ‘First-Fruits Festival’ in accordance to its meaning in traditional Rwanda. Etymologically, the word Umuganura comes from the verb “Kuganura” which literally means tasting the first fruits of the harvest. In Rwandan Culture, it was prohibited for a family to eat the fruits of their harvest before having had their elders taste. This was called “Kuganuza”.

The traditional Umuganura, which has been described as Rwanda's pre-colonial National Day, was not a harvest festival, as it is sometimes thought today, but a first fruit festival. It was therefore celebrated before harvest. Umuganura was a day of feasting, and giving thanks to God and the Ancestors, not only for the harvest, but also for all the good things in life. The festival was also an occasion to bring together Rwandans from all social ranks in a bid to cement the social fabric of the Rwandan society.

Umuganura festival, at a national level, was marked by processions and march-pasts, parades and fashion shows, as well as a set of traditional games. As part of efforts to reconstruct Rwanda and nurture a shared national identity, the Government of Rwanda drew on aspects of Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and adapt its development programs to the country’s needs and context. The result is a set of Home Grown Solutions - culturally owned practices translated into sustainable development programs. One of these Home Grown Solutions is the First-Fruits Festival, also known as Umuganura.

Umuganura was reintroduced as national event in 2011 by the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda (INMR). This was motivated by the desire to bring together the younger and older generations to share and learn about the diverse, rich and unifying experience of the Rwandan tradition through a yearly celebration of achievements from all sectors that contribute to the development of the country.

History of Umuganura: a pivotal event

Historically, Umuganura was a major celebration of the traditional year. Indeed, the high point of the year in pre-colonial Rwanda. One of the 17 sets of the Ubwiru ritual texts provides detailed guidelines for the celebration of this festival.

Umuganura was a day of feasting, and giving thanks to God and the Ancestors, not only for the harvest, but also for all the good things in life. In pre-colonial Rwanda, where literacy and writing were inexistent, Umuganura was a dating reference. Examples of events that were dated from Umuganura include several kings who are said to have been enthroned or have deceased so many weeks or month before or after Umuganura; the occupation of Rwanda following the defeat and death of King Ndahiro Cyamatare in 1510 - the “disaster of Rubirwinyundo” - being remembered as “eleven years without Umuganura” ; and the visit of German explorer Richard Kandt on June 14, 1898 being remembered as having taken place two weeks after the court had celebrated Umuganura at the Gitwiko royal residence, while his fellow countryman Von Ramsey’s earlier visit on March 22, 1897 had taken place a few days before the beginning of the fast and abstinence period, Icyunamo, one of the preparatory events to Umuganura.

The First-fruit Ceremony was believed to “infuse the harvest with the blessing of the ancestors” – the particular family’s ancestors as well as the royal ancestors who were concerned with national welfare. That is the reason why Umuganura celebrations also served as an occasion to announce acts and decisions of national significance like King Kigeli IV Rwabugiri (1840 – 1895) introducing a new and last known royal drum, Mpatsibihugu, during the 1844 Umuganura festival.

Procession of traditional Umuganura

The ritual part of Umuganura was performed within the family. Thereafter, the family could invite neighbors and other guests to take part in the celebrations. The reason was that in traditional religion, each family honoured their own blood-line ancestors. Only after the family offerings had been accomplished could the people then come together for a wider celebration with other members of the community.

The national and local authorities were no exception: they first performed family rites, then held parties for their local communities and other guests – and these later attended the functions only after accomplishing their own religious duties, and eating a ritual meal within their own families. Honouring elders – living as well as departed – was a key feature of this observance. The key values inherited in Umuganura were unity, sharing and conviviality. Sharing and conviviality were central to the First Fruits festival, and even gate-crushers abavumbyi were welcomed, for it was not permissible to withhold food and drink from anyone on that day. This injunction was taken very seriously that even during the more recent times in modern Rwanda, when traditions had weakened their hold on people’s attitudes, people made special efforts to save enough money to have enough food for family and guests as well as callers in ceremonies. < p>

The idea of national unity was graphically represented by the First-fruits communion meal, sharing out the spherical bread, umutsima, which represented restored unity. This symbolism was tied to the grain – sorghum and finger millet – as the major Umuganura crops: the seeds symbolised the people, and the sphere of umutsima symbolised unity in the family, the community and the nation. The sharing of that unification bread, a blend of the seeds, which had been scattered in the fields and were now re-gathered. The physical sharing of this physical bread was thus an outer, visible sign of the inner process of restoring and strengthening national unity. Thus, through the yearly Umuganura ceremonies, the entire people were repeatedly made conscious of their being a living community, a culturally and politically defined entity.

At national level, the Umuganura Festival was marked by processions and march-pasts, parades and fashion shows, and various traditional games. A special feature of Festival was a fair or exhibition known as ‘Ikoro’ , during which the best of everything were on display, not just agro-based produce, but also crafts and artisanal items, poetry and other literary genres, musical compositions played on a variety of instruments, etc. As a matter of fact, all activities in the country were in evidence: agriculture, animal production, hunting, pottery, ironworking, etc., either featured in the rites, in the symbolic objects used during the ceremonies, or in the distribution of royal gifts.

Umuganura: Abolition and Resilience

Like mentioned above a major function of Umuganura was to reinforce unity and right relations within the family and the local and wider national community. For this reason, it was the special target of missionary and colonial persecution, leading to a formal prohibition by the colonial administration in 1925, after deporting the ’Umwiru Gashamura’, who was the priest responsible for the organization of Umuganura. The colonial authorities had understood that this festival was a major source of Rwandan society’s cultural resistance to colonial activity.

Umuganura was suppressed, but it did not die. It was no longer celebrated as a national festival, but it was very much entrenched that families and neighbourhoods continued to observe it, despite the dangers of persecution. Umuganura observances were secret or discreet in areas more closely controlled by missionaries and their agents – catechists, parish council members, or other spies – and rather more open, relatively speaking, in regions where surveillance was less tight, notably in the northern parts of the country.

In the latter regions, the celebrations continued unabated through the decades, while in the regions tightly surveyed by missionaries, Umuganura slowly dwindled to small-scale set of rituals performed within the confines of the home: after a discreet rite of offering and thanksgiving, the family shared a first-fruit meal, with neighbours dropping in now and then. But whether discreet and low-key or more open and fulsome, the festival did resist. Indeed, few rural communities could not consume their sorghum harvest before performing the requisite rites of offering and thanksgiving.

And when, during the Second Republic (1973-1990), a decision was taken to restore the festival officially, it was found that the people had indeed never abandoned the celebration, but had continued to observe it within their families and communities. In 1990, a research on informal sector support policies in Rwanda noted that one reason why Rwandans, especially women, joined tontines was to save money for their Umuganura-related shopping. In the post-genocide period, some Districts organised some form of Umuganura celebrations, as a means of promoting unity and reconciliation through ‘Ubusabane’ – sharing. For instance, collections of surplus food were organised for donations to an area which had experienced a bad harvest. Such activities have continued under encouragement by local authorities, and in recent years, the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda has made efforts to give the festival a wider scope.

Umuganura today: Celebrating a broad range of achievements and outcomes.

After the reintroduction of culture- based initiatives such as Abunzi, Gacaca, Imihigo, Ingando, Ubudehe and Umuganda, Rwanda now has Umuganura Festival. On this day, Rwandans come together to reflect on the value-based home-grown solutions and how everyone can be part of the country’s development journey. The goal is to recognise achievements and efforts made in various sectors of the economy and come up with efficient strategies to increase national harvest in future seasons.

Umuganura today has broadened its meaning from formally being agro-based harvest to including achievements from other sectors that contribute to national development such as: health, education, ICT, sports, mining, infrastructure, culture, tourism and more. Accomplishments in all the current areas of government and private sector activities at all levels were fitted into the modernised Umuganura. The aim here, like it was in ancient Rwanda, is to thank God and Rwandans for the harvest and to strategise for the next season to ensure that the harvest is good. In an effort to promote Rwandan cultural values, current Umuganura brings together Rwandans of all social backgrounds without exclusion just like the historical celebration of ‘Umuganura’ was a unifying factor for all Rwandans through acts of sharing what they had produced either at the family level, in the village or as a kingdom. This kind of tradition in Rwanda will always bring to view the past with the positive cultural values that can be used to continue building, uniting and reconciling Rwanda as a nation.

Different ministries and public institutions in Rwanda partner with the Private Sector Federation to organize and ensure the success of Umuganura. In this events’ framework on the national level, various activities like the exhibition of achievements in every province, evaluation and signing of performance contracts Imihigo and parades of the National Ballet, Drum troupes and Police Fanfare take place.

The celebration of ‘Umuganura’ contributes to the education of the young generation on the value and power of safeguarding the country’s cultural heritage for edutainment purposes. Umuganura as an event will help raise awareness among Rwandans, friends of Rwanda and policy makers on taping into the culture to create initiatives for the current development of the country and to foster unity in diversity and self-reliance. Umuganura has been one of the inspiring pillars of dignity and solidarity of Rwandans since hundreds of years back. It is in this essence of unity and brotherhood that it is now the pillar of self-reliance resulting from economic performance, family welfare and national dignity. Rwandans remember that culture grows and reconstructs. Drawing into the culture to face the country’s current challenges contributes to the spirit of unit and solidarity, the real identity of Rwandans and leads to a nation of dignity, self-worth and respect.

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