Traditional and Modern: what do we gain and lose?

A man sings a song, arms wide and then up to the sky, like the horns of the royal cows he is singing about.  The lyrics of the song acknowledge each cow and their qualities.  We had the rich opportunity today to see the cows and hear this song.  As the man sang, the long horned cows stood still seeming to listen.  As soon as he was finished they all immediately went to go eat.  It was a very theatrical moment.

Today we played the role of tourist and left Kigali to visit the King’s Palace in Nyanza, which is in the southern part of the country.  It was a refreshing and broadening experience to drive through this beautiful country.  Rwanda is called the land of 1,000 hills.  Today we experienced the rises of the hills, the views from above and then winding down the hill and seeing many, many people walking up carrying heavy loads.  I was struck by the amount of weight people carried, often on their heads:  jugs of water, lumber, sticks, food and of course many women carrying babies on their backs, often in addition to whatever cargo they had on their head.  We also saw many people using bicycles to carry large and heavy things.  The hills are very steep so the men were pushing their bicycles up the road with heavy cargo over the back rim: testing the limit of the bike’s frame and tires.  We saw one man with big metal doors on his bike.

We were treated to the perspective of looking up or across a valley to see the houses nestled in the mountains.  In the valleys we saw people tending to their fields.  There is a softness of the landscape that is captivating.  The main sound in the van as we took our long journey was the sound of the cameras clicking away as we tried desperately, again and again to capture this place.

Today I kept thinking about ‘modernization’ and what we gain and what we lose in the process.  In Rwanda, the people who were tending their fields use traditional methods without machines.  I question what balance would be thrown if it were possible to to use machines.  Is there enough crop to need a machine?  Does having machines replace human labor and care, have a benefit here?  Who would it benefit?  What traditions would be lost?

The idea of modernization was highlighted at the King’s Palace.  We visited both the traditional palace as well as the modern palace that was built by the Belgians.  It is worth noting that the Belgians came in 1932 and until then the traditional palace was used.  The King at that time resisted becoming a Christian and he was deported by the Belgians.  The Belgians then broke with tradition in choosing a new prince.  Traditionally in Rwanda the prince is not necessarily the first son of the King, but is a son that is born with a sign:  a seed in his hand.  The Belgians said that the son that was born with the sign did not have enough experience and chose another son, whose palace they then built.

The traditional Palace is constructed of a series of huts.  The main hut being for the King.  There is meaning and purpose in everything.  Our guide shared with us about many of them.  There were many rituals or protocols relating to the King’s hut from how to gain the ear of the King to why the King and Queen both had to have separate entrances to the bedroom.  One that we all seemed to like was the need for a woman to always keep a pot of beer next to the King’s head.  The beer eased conversation when talking about the kingdom and responsibilities.  It eased things in regards to, “the task of a man and wife” (quote from our tour guide) as well.

There were separate huts for the beer maker and the guardian of the milk.  The milk guardian needed to be a virgin woman so as not to spoil the milk.  The guardian of the milk had status and her family was taken care of.  There was also a separate beer hut.  Big containers of beer could be shared by 4 people with 4 straws.  If there were two people who were in a disagreement, the ‘guilty’ one would provide the beer.  He and the person he was in disagreement with would drink first, symbolizing that the problems were over and then the others would join in.  If they did not finish the beer they would bring it somewhere so other’s could drink.  The government has required that this no longer be practiced this is no longer practiced for sanitary reasons regarding sharing the straw.  We did get a few pictures of us all pretending to drink beer and letting our problems dissolve into the past.

We then visited the modern Palace.  The Queen lived there after the King’s death in 1959.  At some point she was moved elsewhere.  During the genocide she knew she could be killed at any moment, so she put some of her furniture and possessions in the homes of her neighbors.  She was killed in the genocide and her things were destroyed or taken.  The only items in the modern palace were those given back by her neighbors.    We walked through this palace, but there were not any ritual or meaning in the way it was built.  It was modern – that is what made it different.  Again, what is gained and what is lost?  The way I looked at the furniture in the rooms were related to the Queen; these were the things that were salvaged.

Outside of the King’s Palace is a shady area of Acacia trees.  The canopy of Acacia trees spread quite wide.  The shady spot under them have been a refuge for cows and people.  There is a tradition of a community gathering underneath one of these trees to work through their problems.  This idea has been used post-genecide in creating gagaca courts.  Of course we had to take a picture CUNY students underneath this tree focusing on problem solving.

These trees are being cut down.  According our tour guide, there is a growing number of people in Rwanda and the land is needed to grow food and the tree canopy takes up too much space.

After a fun and wonderful visit to the Palaces we climbed in the van and the sound of clicking cameras, and the rumble of the road lulled many of us to sleep, while others watched the scenes of life in Rwanda pass by.

I am honored to be in this country.



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