Rwanda: Imigongo – the Evolution of Rwanda’s Traditional Designs

Since 2016, Giselle Benimana has maintained the same morning routine. She wakes up to do work the uninitiated may deem ‘disgusting,’ but not to her.

She dips her hands in a bucket of cow dung in which she douses ash to minimize the smell. She then keeps using the mixture to design frames over the lines she has drawn in equal patterns, all with her hands.

She moves her fingers effortlessly, making zigzags, spirals, diamonds, or squares, according to the design she wants.

Then, she dries the boards under the sun for a day or two depending on how hot it is. She later adds primer before painting the frames according to the design she wants to make.

The most dominant colours of her artefacts are black, white and red.

The outcome of her handiwork is most beautiful Rwandan traditional design pieces known as Imigongo that are much revered both by Rwandans and foreigners alike.

Benimana is currently an employee at Imigongo Art Centre located in Kayonza district, where she works with other young people who make a living from the same thing.

The centre is one of the remaining few companies manufacturing Imigongo traditionally; with cow dung and ash being the major materials.

You see, in Rwanda, it is not only in history that cows were much depended on. Apart from producing milk, their dung was also used for different things beyond the fertilizers that it is known for in contemporary times.

Traditionally, Rwandans used cow dung to screed the floor and walls of people’s homes. This was also the case with Charles Ashimwe’s grandfather’s house, as he remembers it.

“I grew up seeing my grandfather’s house like that. Cow dung absorbs dust, so it was used as a construction material,” Ashimwe told The New Times.

In 2018, Ashimwe thought of how to preserve the beautiful culture which he thought was not given much, or at least enough attention.

He came up with an idea to hire a few artists to design Imigongo just like it was done traditionally; with cow dung and ash. He later found Imigongo Art Centre where Benimana and her colleagues are employed currently.

However, this art design is not ‘dung art’ as some say, according to Ashimwe. It is art based on colour, geometry and modelling.

“This is geometric 3D art. It is not about the cow dung. Dung was the major ingredient because it was the only available at that time. It shows Rwandans’ reliance on cows,” Ashimwe added.

Indeed, Imigongo is just one of the countless African geometric patterns known across the globe. It is also just one of the many Rwandan designs that were put on different things like baskets, pots, and mats.

The designs, which are also geometrical include igikari, itangaza, ivuba, ingembe and umuraza, commonly put on baskets. Because many can’t differentiate these, they end up calling them imigongo too.

The Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy combined 136 of them in their book “Traditional Decorative Patterns.”

According to the book, the practice of decorating with geometric art is traced hundreds of years before the birth of Christ on ‘urewe’ ceramics.

For Imigongo, the design is traced back in the 18th century, in the Gisaka Kingdom – part of the present-day Eastern Province – during the reign of Kimenyi Getura, whose son Kakira was known to be unusually clean and neat.

Prince Kakira is also known to have been creative with his hands, to design among other things, imigongo.

He conceptualised many designs in one of his father’s houses which he later converted as the reception area for high-level guests to his court.

The practice then became common, but initially among high ranking officials, until the rest of Rwandans adopted the culture. Now, it is still done and in many different ways.

Fashion and graphic designers have made it easier for anyone to not only have Imigongo frames hang in their houses, but also wear these designs, such as made in Rwanda haute couture worn by high end customers, although even those with limited means can rock the design.

Even businesses and institutions have adopted the designs as their trademarks. For instance, the Kigali International Financial Centre logo, Visit Rwanda’s website, and some business houses are designed with imigongo and other geometric traditional designs.

Royal cows, Inyambo, are decorated with imigongo print ribbons, and so are Intore’s attire (male traditional dancers).

Nevertheless, this traditional design was at the verge of extinction in the 90s, but revived again in early 2000s, according to Ruzindana Rugasa, the Ministry of Youth and Culture spokesperson.

“From the year 2000 is when the practice to design decorations traditionally was persistently increasing. But when the ‘made in Rwanda’ campaign started, that is when the Rwandan fashion industry grew and just like every country has their identity, Rwandans identified with imigongo design,” Rugasa said.

This was echoed by Patrick Muhire, a fashion designer and owner of Inkanda House, a fashion house that among other designs, used imigongo too.

While he acknowledges that geometric designs are not limited to Rwanda only, he still finds it commendable that Rwandans relate to the designs, including imigongo.

“I started using the design on my debut sandals collection when I figured that actually, men needed sandals too. People liked it a lot,” Muhire said.

He added that he further used the designs on shirts, which also earned him more customers than before when he was designing with Kitenge.

While Muhire says people are slightly losing interest in the designs because “they are everywhere,” Rugasa believes more designers should adopt it because it defines Rwanda’s tradition.