Indigenous and ancestral knowledge: Case study of the Eastern part of Rwanda


Recognizing and integrating Rwandan knowledge in the various approaches to fight against climate change

Mountains of Rwanda
Teaser Image Caption
Rwanda, the "Country of a Thousand Hills"

Understanding where we come from is critical in order to fight for what we want, and it can also help us build our strength. One of the major causes of climate change and other related issues is the separation of the natural system from daily life. There is need to recognize and integrate Indigenous and local and traditional knowledge in the various approaches to fight against climate change. This is one of the reasons by this contribution looks at the culture, history and ancient practices in the Eastern part of Rwanda, combining some literature with the recollections and the wisdom and experience shared through narration by some elders. 


Rwanda is known as the “Country of a Thousand Hills” because of a belt of volcanic mountains in the northern part and numerous rolling hills across the country. The capital city is Kigali. Rwanda is a landlocked country that covers 26,338 km2 and has a population of approximately 13 million people. As of 2021, it was one of the 46 least developed countries. Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Burundi border Rwanda on the east, west, north, and south, respectively. Rwanda was founded in the 11th century (1081 A.D.) by King Gihanga Ngomijana. Gihanga's son, Kanyarwanda (a word signifying Rwanda itself and the name of the people of Rwanda, Rwandans), succeeded him. Rwandans speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, which is their mother tongue. Following the arrival of European colonizers (Belgium), French became an official language.

Rwanda before colonization

Pre-colonial history of Rwanda is characterized by the oral history. King Gihanga Ngomijana established the ancient kingdom of Rwanda in 1081 A.D; he is known as the creator of dynasty and he reigned until 1114. He was the son of a blacksmith and woodwork expert called Kazi. According to oral historians, Rwanda began with the core of Gasabo, later, other hills were conquered and annexed by many kings of Rwanda kingdom but the expansionist period was mostly carried out by Mwami (king) Ruganzu I Bwimba, who began his reign in the last decade of the 15th century. Rwanda's original country, known as “the Rwanda of Gasabo”, was a small territorial entity located in the current district of Gasabo, along the valley of Lake Muhazi. Rwanda's kingdom was ruled by kings (abami) of the Abanyiginya clan, one of 15 Rwandese clans. This clan was key in the development of the Kingdom of Rwanda. 

Imana (God) was the absolute ruler of the universe for ancient Rwandans (before colonization; i.e. before 1894). Even though there were no temples dedicated to Imana, the Rwandese prayed to him and thanked him. They named their children after God's attributes, such as Rurema (the creator), Ruhanga (one who gives life to something that never existed before), Iyakare (the alpha), and so on. The word Imana (God) refers to both the creator and the essence of life, as well as the fertility of land (earth) and humans. This fertility essence manifested itself in a variety of objects used to forecast favorable outcomes. However, the Imana concept discussed above is not the same as the one found in Christianity. Their faith was concerned with the survival of ancestors after death. The latter were divided into two groups: benevolent ancestors and evil ancestors. 

The religion of “Guterekera” (appeasing the spirits of ancestors) was founded on the belief in life after death and the interrelationship of the living and the dead. Man and animals, according to this belief, are made up of a visible part, the body, and an invisible part, or “shadow.” When the body died, it became a carcass, and the shadow escaped from it. The shadow was mysteriously transformed into “spirits (umuzimu)”. Because spirits could interfere with the living with both good and bad intentions, they were sometimes feared and inspired religions. At the family and clan levels, Rwandese practiced various ancestor rituals. Nonetheless, spirits could be contacted after death. The religion that praised them was much larger than family and clan. The religion of “kubanda” was for Ryangombe, an ancestor who lived around 1510 and was well known in Rwandan kingdom for performing various miracles. It was affirmed that the ruling class accepted his (Rwangombe's) religion as a tool to facilitate the dominance of culturally assimilated people (shared by narrator and elder Verdiana, age 76).

The king was acknowledged as a kingdom priest who connected the spirits of ancestors with the divine world. Some things were also referred to as imana (god), such as the king, chance, divine science animals (bull calves, rams, chicks), talismans containing items obtained from sacred animals, diviners, some sacred trees such as erythrin trees that provide sanctuary to spirits or places of tradition for the ancestral founders of lineages, and places where objects of commemoration for religious functions were kept. People who are benevolent and generous are also referred to as “imana y'I Rwanda (god of Rwanda)”.

The monarchy's fundamental law was contained in the Ubwiru (dynastic esoteric code) institution, which included specific rites meant to prevent real or imagined misfortunes such as granting fertility to soils, animals, and people, as well as annexing and conquering foreign territories. Religions from other countries came with German and Belgian colonization (Christianity and Islam). Those religions also have an impact on changes in people's living conditions, spirituality, and the way they think about and understand longevity, life, and the environment


Umuganura (Harvest Festival) defined Rwanda in the same way that other rituals did, it was celebrated on the first rainy days. It was more than just a celebration; it was a reminder to all Rwandans of their unity as people, which must be preserved. During this royal ceremony, four main plants (also known as first seeds) were used: pumpkin, sorghum, millet, and isogi, with sorghum being the chief amongst these seeds due to the fact that it was the most staple food at that time. People believed that the harvest was given to them by their ancestors, it was celebrated at both the household and kingdom levels, with the king expected to preside over the celebrations. The Batsobe clan was given the honor of organizing the ceremony on a kingdom scale. Various parts of the Rwandan kingdom would be represented and gathered at the royal court to present their harvest. However, this was not just like other harvests; Rwandans would present agricultural harvest as well as livestock, usually calves; this represented new life the mothers with new babies born in that year would present their babies; it was a ceremony of new life and strengthening the Rwandan nation

The umuganura is still celebrated on the 5th of August each year, though not in the same way as it once was. It represents and provides an opportunity for Rwandans, particularly the young generation, to reflect and remember the positive values of Rwandan culture and unity: Recognize accomplishments in various sectors of the economy, commend the efforts of those involved, and plan for increased harvest in subsequent seasons. 

Activities practiced in ancient Rwanda

Animal husbandry (particularly cattle husbandry) and agriculture were the two most important activities in ancient Rwanda. Pottery, honey collection, and hunting were among the other activities. The agriculture was more traditional and organic; the soil was still fertile, organic fertilizers were used where possible, and the agriculture was rain fed. Many Rwandan hills were densely forested, with trees, shrubs, and grasses that were ideal for grazing. Rwanda has four climatic seasons: two rainy seasons and two dry seasons; rain was evenly distributed in the early days, as opposed to recent days. Nowadays, we mostly experience prolonged rainy and dry seasons. We also experience some extreme events such as flooding, landslides and droughts that have never been experienced before by our elders, these lead to death of people, loss properties, damages of farmlands and famine as well as poverty. The soil from different parts of the country is no longer fertile (shared by narrator and elder Ngabonziza Jean Baptiste, aged 64).   

Traditional clothing and items

In ancient Rwandan kingdom, Rwandans used to wear traditional clothing that was distinct from modern clothing imported from elsewhere. They differed from modern clothing in terms of the materials used, as well as the way they were made and worn. The clothes ancient Rwandans wore include inkanda (made from cow skin; it was a type of women's clothing), ishabure (made of sansevieria and was worn by young ladies), impuzu (was made from ficus bark and worn by men), etc. They used traditional musical instruments such as ikondera, and traditional home use items such as imbehe (wood plate), inkoko (flat woven basket),  indoshyo (mingling stick), imisambi (woven grass mat),  ikibindi (water pot), agaseke (a small basket),  urusyo ( a big grinding stone), inkongoro  (milk pot) and many others that served various functions in typical Rwandan traditional homes. All of these objects were made from selected trees, clay, and grasses.

Traditional dance

Traditional Rwandan songs and dances were widely used in social gatherings, ceremonies, storytelling, and festivals in the pre-colonial period. It was the way of showing variety of societal economic activities and the happiness that resulted from them. Intore (known as warrior), the most well-known traditional dance, is a carefully orchestrated routine composed of 3 components: hero/warrior ballet danced by men and women, respectively. It was an army dance; the movements and gestures of the Intore dancers represented fighting tactics. Traditionally, music has been passed down orally, with styles varying according to social group. Drums are extremely important, with royal drummers holding high positions in the King's court (Umwami). Drummers usually perform in groups of seven or nine people. Another dance was igishakamba, which represented cattle rearing, in which they danced in a top-open oval shape with their hands above their heads to represent the shape of “Inyambo” horns from long-horned cows (shared by narrator and elder Nikuze Odette, age 66).

Nature and ancestral knowledge (by narrators)

The ancient Rwandans had sacred trees that could not be cut down because sacrifices were made beneath them; these were Sycamore and erythrin trees that provided sanctuary to spirits or places of worship for the ancestral founders of lineages, as well as places where objects of commemoration for religious functions were organized. In any case, Rwandans were prohibited from cutting down trees (Mukamurenzi Mariya, ages 70).  Ficus thonningi (umuvumu) is yet another tree with a long history in Rwanda. When there was a disaster or a lack of rain and it was desperately needed, or when Rwandans wanted to wage war, a group of people from the king, who were in charge of performing the rituals always performed the rituals under the Ficus thonningi tree. As a result, they began to believe that the tree was god. These rituals were performed using animals such as the sheep or chicken but mostly they used a bull. Wet periods in ancient Rwandan kingdom aided forest growth and vegetation cover while also limiting erosion of calm water; heavy rains raised lake and river levels. Drought would sometimes devastate many forests, causing Rwandans to suffer, but it was not always intense. As a result, lakes and rivers water levels fell (shared by narrator and elder Nikuze Odette, age 66).    

Lessons from ancestral knowledge and practice for addressing climate change today 

Rwandans in the ancient Rwandan kingdom used and wore environmentally friendly items and clothing. This is due to the fact that they valued nature because their lives depended on it. They knew they couldn't cut some trees because they were sacred, so they performed rituals under them and even worshiped some of them as gods. The use of traditional items prevented the use of environmentally hazardous objects. Because the soil was so fertile, there was no need to use artificial fertilizer, which degrades the soil. All of the narrators and storytellers agreed on one point: things have changed in the modern era, due to unprecedented patterns in rain distribution and drought. Modern practices are more concerned with mass production than traditional practices, which are more concerned with nature. Local knowledge is so strong that it provides insight into how humans interact with their natural surroundings. It provides empirical evidence for why we need Indigenous knowledge capacity building. Understanding where we come from is critical in order to fight for what we want, and it can also help us build our strength. One of the major causes of climate change and other related issues is the separation of the natural system from daily life. There is need to recognize and integrate Indigenous and local and traditional knowledge in the various approaches to fight against climate change.