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Saturday, August 15, 2009

African Cultural History

Yesterday, Butare, which we learned is being re-named like many Rwandan towns, so not only are signs lacking, but when you do find one it is labeled for a town that you never knew existed:  Huye.  Huye does have a marines-back-slap-charge-into-battle sound to it . . .but the town is a real University town. Various faculties are scattered throughout the community, with a main campus, trees, paths, young people lounging on benches.  As Joel put it, the Charlottesville of Rwanda.  We met up with one of our former Uganda interns, Joel M, who is working in Congo and happened to be attending a conference at the University studying new methods to use computer-based geographic information systems to protect the environment.  Fascinating applications of gps data to agricultural encroachment on parks, or pockets of chimpanzee populations.  We hiked through the town and into an arboretum, a forest planted in the 1930's by Americans and Australians to explore importation of various timbers into the Rwandan climate.

But the main reason we drove all the way down to Butare (nearly the Burundi border) was to visit the National Museum.  This was a gift from the Belgians to celebrate 25 years of independence in 1987, and it is said to be the best preservation of, and monument to, African culture on the continent. It feels like a Smithsonian institution, modern, spacious, attractive, organized.  But behind the glass panes are examples of pottery and baskets, spears and beads, loin-cloths and cooking pots, all from Rwanda.  Some of the artifacts are ancient, but most are from the early colonial era.  In the center of the museum an entire traditional grass hut has been erected, with woven mats on the floor and stools and a bed, which you can enter and explore.  There are striking black-and-white photos of people before their styles of dress were muted by Western culture.   There are musical instruments, translated poetry, and an analysis of the 5-note scale (penta-something, I was going to remember the technical term for Sarah, sorry!).  I was fascinated by a photo of an older woman giving a young baby an enema through a reed, labeled "kwina" in Kinyarwandan, but translated "cleansing" in English . . . very close to "kwiita" in Lubwisi and a cultural practice that I've found very harmful and pervasive in our place.  A reminder that not everything traditional is good . . . 

I enjoyed the afternoon devoted to the serious study of African culture, the way it is displayed as something of value, something to be preserved and honored.  Made me wish we could do something similar on a small scale in our community center, before the terrible pressure of popular western consumer culture erases all the distinctives.  

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