Feminist Kiki Katese Is Revamping Traditional Drumming in Rwanda

Words by Loe Guthmann

Born in Rwanda but raised in the Congo, Odile Gakire Katese, also known as Kiki, returned to her homeland as a young adult in 1997. She knew little of the local language, Kinyarwanda, and struggled to settle down in the land that was supposed to be her home. But she knew that she belonged in Rwanda, and thus she held on.

It was an exciting time for women in Rwanda. In the aftermath of the genocide, 70 percent of the population was suddenly female. For Kiki, it was the opportunity to try out something radically new. So in 2004, she founded the first female drummer group in Rwanda: Ingoma Nshya, or A New Drum.

Though Rwanda has been celebrated for its efforts in promoting gender equality, drumming women were, and still are, frowned upon by parts of the population. It is no surprise then that Ingoma Nshya doesn’t have it easy. Tom Tom spoke with Kiki to find out more about daily challenges as a supervisor, the importance of empowerment, and the art of drumming in Rwanda, a long-held tradition in the East African country.

Tom Tom:
Kiki, when you founded Ingoma Nshya in 2004, female drummers in Rwanda were unheard of. What were you thinking?

Kiki Katese: At the time, I was working at the University Center for Arts and Drama at the University of Rwanda. I noticed that women were quite absent in the cultural landscape of Rwanda. Yes, you could find them in dancing, but you didn’t really find them in other traditional fields, including the most common form of entertainment in Rwanda: drumming. As a woman, I wanted to take ownership of the drum in a new, different, feminine way.

What were your biggest challenges at the beginning?

First, finding volunteers. Female drummers were an absolute taboo in Rwandan society. Put yourself in their position: These women were risking isolation from their communities, so they expected something in return. But I was not in a situation to make promises. I told them, “Let’s do this, just for the sake of being the first ever.” And I think this kind of mindset was difficult for the group. Second, we didn’t have any financial means. Luckily, we already had drums at the university. We only made two investments: one financial investment for the drumsticks and, more important, the investment of time, power, and energy. In the end, the raw “material” were 15 women. That is how it started.

So what did you do next?

We rehearsed for four years. Once we received some funding, we could bring in some structure. But before that, our hands were tied. Finally, in early 2008, we received some funding, and traveled to Senegal, sent by the president who had received an award for gender promotion. When we came back, there were 127 women waiting for us, expecting to learn how to play the drums. Because suddenly they realized what drumming could provide for them; suddenly, it wasn’t a joke anymore. No, drumming was an opportunity.

How did you handle the increase in interest?

For a year, we trained these 127 women. We only had 20 drums, so we were creating rhythms with our hands; drumming on our thighs and hips. At the end of the year, in December 2008, we borrowed 100 drums, and created our festival. It was the start of the Rwanda Drum Festival—a magical moment for us. Since nobody was inviting us, we simply established our own festival.


Sounds like a great success.

Yes, but, at the same time, it was exhausting financially, because you feel guilty. These women sacrifice their time and end up going home empty-handed. So I decided to reduce the size to the best 20 drummers. We have been working with these women ever since.

How did you narrow it down to 20 drummers?

It was tough. Most of the women were good dancers; they had a sense of rhythm. However, some of the women never mastered drumming. It doesn’t work naturally. Sometimes the body just refuses. And then there are others who, simply put, fly. They take the sticks, and it just clicks.

Without any musical background, how do you develop new rhythms?

We are not skilled musicians. Which makes it difficult to create new rhythms. As artists, we want to evolve. Therefore, we brought experts from France, Senegal, Brazil, Burundi. They taught us different techniques. And now, musically, we are becoming more aware of what we are doing.

Sometimes they ask me why I am so exclusive. And I answer, “It’s because we have such few opportunities.” The few opportunities that exist should benefit women, as they really need them.

Some conservatives argue that you are disrespecting traditions.

The tradition of drumming in Rwanda is dying. It is not practiced anymore. If anything, female drummers are keeping tradition alive. The only drummers remaining in this country—it’s us! In Rwanda, traditionally, drumming has a sexual connotation; the drumsticks being the male genital organ, the drums being the female genital organ. Thus, naturally, we cannot play the drums, these people claim. Yet culture is dynamic. I find it remarkable that we even need to have this discussion. Don’t just close that door of opportunity for us, but shift your perception. We can’t transform ourselves into men. All we want to do is play the drums. We bemoan that our heritage is forgotten; at the same time, we build obstacles for those who make contributions in culture. In a nutshell, drumming made me a feminist. This is where we are now. Other drumming groups don’t need to worry about legitimacy; we, in contrast, need to negotiate ours.

How do people react to your struggle for women empowerment?

Sometimes they ask me why I am so exclusive. And I answer, “It’s because we have such few opportunities.” The few opportunities that exist should benefit women, as they really need them.

What is your next goal?

Making Ingoma Nshya sustainable. Drumming should be a job that pays bills. Our members are vulnerable women. They didn’t go to school. They have never left Rwanda, let alone their village. Achieving this goal is difficult, though, if you don’t get support from society. We need to secure our future and our rightful place in Rwandan policy now. Otherwise, looking back, we will just have been an experiment in history.


What experience made you happy and sad all at once?

We once got $10,000 USD from a donor. When I was telling my colleagues at university about it, they were shocked: “People give you money so that you can drum? You must have a sweet tongue. If I were you, I would take the money and build some proper business for the women. Don’t waste the money and their time.” People don’t see the bigger picture, that it’s about empowerment. They say, “You’re drumming, so what?”

How many drums does your group use?

Ingoma Nshya is restoring the umutagara, the full drumming ensemble. We use five different drums. The bass, the leading drum called ishakwe—it’s the smallest one, has a very high tone, and is supposed to be on the outer edge; inyahura, which has a medium tone; and igihumurizo and impuma, the drums with the deepest tone.

What was your most bizarre moment with Ingoma Nshya?

Tradition says that you cannot pass through a circle of drums. To get somewhere, the women would go all the way around the drums. I said to them, “We are already breaking taboos, why not break another one?” [laughs]

And to finish, when is your next gig?

In March, there is a drumming festival in Goma, the Congo, to celebrate International Women’s Day. If we get the means, we will be there, drumming.

This was originally published in Tom Tom’s Spring issue. Read the full version here.




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