On my way to Gwinkwavu, I dropped by Imigongo Art Center for a cup of coffee and a quick bite. This happened in June this year. It was my first trip to the Eastern Province since March.
Why am I writing about something that happened four months ago? Because I have seen the picture I took on that day. The picture in question has rekindled memories of that stopover. Besides, it’s never too late to tell a memorable story. The older the story, the better. An old story brings in an element of history. Stories are like fine wine. They get better with age.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to stop by a coffee shop set up along the highway. As I always say, there is something about coffee that is irresistible to some of us. I was served by a familiar barista who didn’t recognize me until I took off my mask, cap and sunglasses. I had covered my face like a fugitive on the run.
The ongoing phased reopening of the economy was taking shape. Life was gradually coming back to normal. Will life ever be back to normal? I am not sure. What I am trying to say is that the aroma of fresh coffee was back in the air and the artists had resumed painting after a long hiatus.
The neighboring Akagera National Park had been reopened. Safari cars were back on the highway. Although the road to recovery didn’t look rosy, signs of the light at the end of the tunnel were there.
Later in the afternoon, while returning to Kigali, I passed by the cafe one more time. As I said, it’s hard to bypass a coffee shop on the highway. Before I walked in, I washed my hands thoroughly. It was 2 p.m. but I had washed and sanitized my hands a dozen times since morning.
After another coffee break, I spent some time learning how to do Imigongo paintings. This art originates from an area formerly known as Gisaka in present-day Kirehe District, Eastern Province. It was invented by Prince Kakira in the 18th Century. Over the years, the art evolved to suit the advanced needs of modern designers and architects.
After learning one or two things about imigongo art, I interacted with artists briefly. I am still struggling to decode the meanings of their complex paintings. Sometimes, even simple illustrations raise more questions than answers. The last time I was there, I had looked at a painting of women carrying jerrycans and wondered, "Is the painting addressing the lack of running water in those women’s households? Is it communicating the spirit of working together? Could it be both? Am I missing a broader context here?
My previous visits to art galleries created more questions than answers. On this mid-June day, I chose to confront the artists responsible for the creation of those paintings and demand answers.
After a crash course on the art of studying paintings, I returned to the gallery to test my newly acquired knowledge. I looked at the combination of color and texture. I observed the juxtaposition of objects. I mused over shadows, shapes and dimensions. I paid attention to little details and slowly began to get into the minds of the artists.
The author is visiting all 30 districts of Rwanda. His tour of Kayonza is sponsored by Imigongo Art Center, Silent Hill Hotel, Jambo Beach, Ihema View Campsite, Akagera Rhino Lodge and Ikaze Rwanda Tours & Travel