Centuries of music, dance, history and hospitality are wating for you in Rwanda
While it might have been the gorillas that entice you to Rwanda, it’s the people of Rwanda who will keep you coming back. Ancient traditions of honour and hospitality run strong here, and anybody who takes the time to discover Rwandan culture for themselves will find a proud and unique people, happy to welcome you into their lives and introduce you to their traditions. Music and dance play an indispensable role in everyday life here, and performances range from dashing demonstrations of bravery and prowess to humorous songs, light-hearted dances, and rural artistry with roots in traditional agriculture. Traditional songs are often accompanied by a solitary lulunga—a harp-like instrument with eight strings—while more celebratory dances are backed by a drum orchestra, which typically comprises seven to nine members who collectively produce a hypnotic and exciting explosion set of intertwining rhythms. Below we list different cultural experiences that you can easily incorporate into your trip to Rwanda.
The finest displays of Rwanda's dynamic traditional musical and dance styles are performed by the Intore Dance Troupes. Founded several centuries ago, the Intore, (The Chosen Ones) who performed exclusively for the Royal Court, were given military training and taught the technique of jumping which forms a significant part of the dance. Performed wearing grass wigs and clutching spears this dance is a true spectacle of Rwanda.
Live dance performances can be seen at cultural villages, museums and as entertainment at many lodges and hotels across Rwanda. The Iby’ Iwacu cultural village in Musanze, and the National Museum of Rwanda have regular performances and daily dances occur at the RDB office at Kinigi, Volcanoes National Park.
A distinctively Rwandan craft is the Imigongo or cow dung paintings that are produced by a local co-operative in the village of Nyakarambi near the border with Tanzania. Dominated by black, brown and white whirls and other geometric shapes, these unique and earthy works can be bought in craft markets throughout the country.
Weaving and basket making is a traditional art still used today to make dry containers for storing food and medicines. These are also known as peace pots and had traditional values such as to commemorate weddings or as a welcome gift.
Pottery is one of the oldest forms of art in Rwanda and can still be seen in many towns today using traditional Batwa techniques. Known for its good quality clay these potteries are still widely used for cooking and storing liquids.
Kigali City Tour combine historical and cultural attractions of the Kigali city and can be booked at the RDB reservation office, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org
The genocide memorial in Kigali is included on every city tour and is a must-see. Rwanda’s painful past has haunted the country for years; however, their impressive recovery story has turned them into an inspiration. The genocide memorial acts as a humbling reminder to those present and honors those lost. This is a worthwhile visit for travelers who want to gain insight into the history of genocide in Rwanda, it will also help travelers appreciate how far Rwanda has come. The memorial Center is open every day from 8am to 5pm, but the last entrance is at 4pm. It opens at 2pm on Umuganda Saturdays (the last Saturday of every month when Rwandans get together for community clean up). There is no fee to enter, however, audio guides are available. The Center is located in Gisozi.
While the largest memorial is in Kigali, the genocide touched all corners of Rwanda, and as such there are many emotionally charged memorials located throughout the country. Some are as simple as a quiet garden space for contemplation, while others are larger and hold relics, remains, and exhibits on the genocide itself. Beyond the main memorial centre in Kigali, a few of the memorials that belong on any Rwandan itinerary include:
Nyanza Genocide Memorial: This site, in the grounds of Kigali’s Ecole Technique Officielle, holds the graves of more than 10,000 Tutsis who were massacred here during the genocide. Today several concrete memorials mark the spot, and it’s been used as a main site for genocide anniversary commemorations.
Ntarama Genocide Memorial: Set in a village south of Kigali where more than 5,000 people were killed in the grounds of a church, the site today has been turned into a memorial garden, and the interior of the church holds the personal belongings and skeletons of hundreds of the victims, including everything from clothing, to toys, to identification. Guided visits are available.
Nyamata Genocide Memorial: Along the main road south of Kigali, this is another church where people sought protection but were ultimately slaughtered. 10,000 people were killed here in 1994, and today their personal effects fill the church. Two crypts underneath the grounds hold tens of thousands of bodies, and guided visits are available.
Murambi Genocide Memorial: Set in a former technical school just north of Nyamagabe in Rwanda’s southwest, the Murambi memorial is perhaps the most significant, and most wrenching of all of Rwanda’s genocide memorials. Up to 50,000 people were murdered here, and the mass graves so large, that the heat of the surrounding decomposition preserved many of the bodies, which now populate the bare dormitories of the school. To better explain the events leading up to the massacre, an interpretive centre was opened here in 2011.
Dating back to colonial times and translated from Kinyarwanda as “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”, Umuganda is when Rwandans from all walks of life come together to work for the good of their neighbourhoods and their nation as a whole. The last Saturday of every month, shops are closed, buses stop running, traffic disappears from the roads, and Rwandans set aside their personal business for the morning and contribute their efforts to public works projects around the country, which can include litter cleanup, tree planting, building houses for the vulnerable, and more. The social and economic benefits of umuganda are easy for all to see (Rwanda isn’t the cleanest country in Africa by accident!), and whether or not you have special skills to contribute, all visitors are warmly invited to take part; given the range of projects addressed through umuganda, you’re sure to find one to fit your interests. Though the national museum of Rwanda (today’s Ethnographic Museum) was only established in 1989, the country’s network of compelling museums has expanded rapidly since then, and today there are six sites all across the country administered by the Institute of National Museums (www.museum.gov.rw). From ethnography to environment and art to architecture, the national museums of Rwanda are among the finest in East Africa, and with locations around the country, it’s easy to fit at least one of these fascinating spots into any Rwanda itinerary.
Ethnographic Museum (Huye): Rwanda’s first museum, this beautiful space sits in wide, tranquil gardens at the edge of Huye city and was built here in 1989. It covers an impressive array of topics on almost anything about Rwanda you can imagine: banana beer, basketry, geology, cosmology, farming, cattle, music, dance, poetry, history, tools, and transport are all profiled here, and there’s a highly regarded craft centre on site as well. If you see one museum in Rwanda, this should be it.
National Art Gallery (Nyanza): Set in a wide colonial building atop the gorgeous Rwesero Hill and just outside the small agricultural town of Nyanza, the National Art Gallery is a fantastic surprise—it’s not very often you find such a cultivated selection of artwork on a lovely green hilltop out in the countryside! Still, here it is, and it has been showcasing both traditional and contemporary Rwandan artists for nearly a decade now. They host a variety of rotating temporary exhibitions as well, and many international artists have exhibited here.
King's Palace Museum (Nyanza): On another fantastic hilltop just opposite the National Art Gallery, this is the former palace of King Mutara III (also known as Rudahigwa), who built his palace here in the 1930’s. Today, visitors can tour an impressive and historically accurate reconstruction of the royal compound and marvel at the intricacies of the traditional architecture. A colonial building which was also used as the palace for a time sits next door and contains a series of exhibits on the monarchy and court customs that history buffs won’t want to miss.
Presidential Palace Museum (Kigali): While today it’s no longer home to any presidents, both Juvenal Habyarimana and Pasteur Bizimungu called this home for almost three decades from the 1970’s to the year 2000. Today, it’s a fascinating window into Rwanda’s modern history, and the remains of President Habyarimana’s plane, shot down in 1994 just before the genocide, can be seen in chunks on the lawn. There are whole rooms of preserved presidential furnishings, and cultural exhibits as well.
Natural History Museum (Kigali): In a 1900’s building named for Richard Kandt, the German naturalist and once-governor of Rwanda, this new museum sits in a leafy garden with impressive views over Kigali. Inside you’ll find a number of historical exhibits and photographs of the early settlement of Kigali, along with numerous displays on Rwanda’s endemic species of flora and fauna, as well as information on the physical and geological history of the country. Relics from the German – British battles of WWI that took place in Rwanda are also to be found here.
Museum of the Environment (Karongi): Scheduled to open any day now, Karongi’s eagerly anticipated Museum of the Environment is set to be the only museum of its kind anywhere on the African continent. Focusing on the Rwandan climate and environment, the museum will feature a rooftop garden of medicinal plants, and a number of exhibits on Rwandan resources, including energy and its production. Visitors will also gain an understanding of climate change and its impacts, and what we, no matter what country we live in, can do to mitigate its negative effects.