Rwinkwavu and Ingomas

October 2016

As I mentioned in my previous post, Musicians without Borders (MWB) works with local musicians to “teach singing, songwriting, and music therapy, making use of Rwandan traditional culture to address the trauma of the genocide and conflict” (from the MWB website). Overall, the goal is to create sustainable music programs that can be replicated as a model for other communities in Rwanda and neighboring countries. This is how I met Yves, a local Rwandan musician who works alongside MWB as a teacher and liaison between the organization and the Rwandan population. 

A guitarist, composer, teacher, and singer, Yves is an overall role model. He works with kids from all over Rwanda in music, regardless of their nationality, health, or social status. Yves invited me to the northeastern province of Rwanda, to observe him teaching children of a small, rural village, Rwinkwavu. This village is home to the Partners In Health (PIH) hospital, which provides quality health care and support to persons with HIV/AIDS. Due to the hospital’s presence, Rwinkwavu has Rwanda’s highest concentration of people with HIV/AIDS, to be close to high quality, free healthcare. After the genocide, the average life expectancy for a Rwandan was under 40 years. PIH has assisted and cared for more than 800,000 Rwandans. It has helped transform living with HIV/AIDS from an automatic death sentence into a chronic illness. PIH has teamed up with a nonprofit, Ready for Reading (RFR), that strives to empower the Rwinkwavu community, through literacy and life skills, to create social, economical, and academic opportunities. RFR offers many classes, including computer skills and technology, reading, English, and music.

I arrived in Rwinkwavu on a Friday evening, specifically so I could see early Saturday morning activities at RFR headquarters. Upon arrival, I met one of Yves’ coworkers, Farraha. She was nice enough to show me around the RFR building and PIH headquarters. Furthermore, she invited me to stay with her that night. Of course, I accepted! Below is a picture of Farraha’s living room.


This is what a traditional Rwandan house looks like. If you think southern hospitality is nice, you should experience Rwandan hospitality. Farraha made a traditional Rwandan meal, especially for Yves and me. Most Rwandan food is eaten with your hands. You can imagine how difficult it would be to try to eat something more on the liquid side. Well, they have a way to deal with that. “Ugali” is made of cornmeal and boiling water. You mix it together until it creates a dough-like texture. Stews are a popular dish among Rwandans. When confronted with a stew, you roll a little ball of ugali in your hand, make a little pit in it with your thumb, then scoop up some of the stew to let the ugali absorb the liquid. Bam! You have a comfy, little edible bowl. Who needs spoons? I experienced a wonderful traditional Rwandan stew with tomatoes and dried fish (another common ingredient in Rwandan food) for dinner. It is quite amazing being expected to play with your food in order to eat it!

After dinner, Farraha provided a tub of water to bathe in and brush my teeth. Running water is common in Rwandan cities and larger villages. In rural villages, you have to walk quite a way to the nearest clean water pump. After getting ready for bed, Farraha and I talked about life in Rwanda and her love of Texas. After pillow talk, she kindly tucked me into bed for the evening.

The next morning, we went to RFR headquarters, where we moved all of the drums outside. Below is a picture of an “ingoma”, a traditional drum of the African Great Lakes region. It is a drum associated with the Bantu people, who are now disseminated throughout Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and parts of Zimbabwe.


I learned quite a bit about the ingoma. Surprisingly, to keep the drum well tuned, one should take it outside and let it sit in direct sunlight for 30 minutes. With modern Western drums, you tune the top of the drum that is struck, the “head”, to your desired pitch with a crank. This is done so the skin of the drum’s head can be tightened evenly, to prevent it from breaking. The ingoma’s head is attached at the top of the drum’s wooden shell with carefully laced string or twine. In order to tune the ingoma to a desirable pitch, the drum is placed outside in the sun to dry the skin. Drying the skin of the head makes the head tighter, and therefore, resulting in a higher pitch.

Back to my day in Rwinkwavu:

Children from the village quickly began showing up, knowing they would get to play these awesome drums. The morning started off outdoors, with the kids forming a giant circle with Yves, Farraha, and me in the middle. We then played a game that most of us played either in music class or P.E., in which the teacher yelled out a number and students formed groups, each containing that number of students. Those who were left standing alone were left out. I, at the time, did not speak a lick of Kinyarwandan, so I awkwardly stood to the side and laughed when everyone else laughed. (Note: This is a fantastic skill to master when traveling to a place where you do not understand the language!)

After our “good morning” song and game, Yves and Farraha picked the first lucky students to play ingomas. They even let me play a bit – check me out learning to play an ingoma in the video below! Every week, Yves and Farraha taught a group of young girls and boys to play ingoma as an ensemble, in hopes of performing around Rwanda. On Saturdays, some of the older kids from this ensemble would show younger children what was possible, if they focused on practicing their ingoma skills. The younger kids were motivated by seeing their older peers, learning real musical pieces for performance.

The most advanced of the older kids was Denise. In the picture below, Denise is playing the drum in the middle. The smaller ingoma in the middle is the “caller”, the leader of the group who tells the rest of the ensemble when to transition to the next section of the music. This drum is called the “ishakwe”.


You might wonder how these children, especially without formal education and with immense challenges to basic survival, could remember such different, incredibly intricate rhythms so quickly. They learned it all through aural memory and repetition. Yves taught the rhythms by putting words to the rhythm. It is similar to what we classical music students do, putting funny words to famous themes in major symphonies, to memorize passages for music history classes. One syncopated rhythm I learned is “I love Rwanda”. Now all I have to remember is “I love Rwanda” and the rhythm flows.

This was my first real experience working with a huge group of children in Rwanda. I learned so much about where these kids come from, their lives and difficult struggles, and how excited they are about music in their culture.

Many more stories to come, guys. As always, thank as for reading!
Fun Facts:

There are cultural traditions around milk in Rwanda. Milk is a treasured, life-saving drink.
-DO NOT spill milk
-Drink milk ONLY sitting down
-When POURING milk, pour to the absolute brim of the cup



One thought on “Rwinkwavu and Ingomas”

  1. Cool write up and great experiences – I think the tips on milk are especially difficult – pour to the brim yet don’t spill! Tricky…


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