No longer a moto-taxi novice!

No longer a moto-taxi novice!
No longer a moto-taxi novice! It can be exhausting but it's great fun!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Imigongo Co-operative (cow dung art)

The Imigongo Art Co-operative, in Kakira, near Nyakarambi
Detail from the wall of the co-operative.
Finally the opportunity arose to arrange to make a picture for myself at the Imigongo art co-operative.  I raised the possibility of my doing something quite a long time ago, using Viateur as a translator and I knew that it was not out of the question.  Then many weekends were filled with other things and the chance to follow up only came this last week.  I had been at a school near the workshop and wanted to collect some Imigongo pictures ordered by other volunteers to take to Kigali for them.  My friend, Barnabé, whose school English club I had been visiting was walking home with me and agreed to come with me while I collected the pictures.  It was interesting to see and hear his response to the art.  He had never set foot in the building although he passes it at least twice every day.  He said he did not like the traditional work and when he heard the prices of the modern designs he was astonished. He said he would only buy one when he had built a new house and had a nice living room to display it.  As I suspected the whole concept of buying pictures for the walls at home falls outside their expectations and is certainly beyond their budgets.  You do see religious prints on the walls at home, or decorated biblical references and quotations, but even Basilice, the manager of the Imigongo co-operative has none of her work at home.

Two examples from our living room.
An example of the traditional geometrical designs in black and white

Another traditional design with other frequently used colours.
Originally these decorations were used to decorate the inside walls and even sometimes the exterior walls of houses but now the designs would only be seen in some churches.  The modern equivalent can be seen in the black and white concrete and cement planters along the main street of Nyakarambi, which are really crude examples.  Some new houses use similar designs quite effectively - one nearby has lilac walls with white designs which looks very strange in this green and brown environment.

Anyway back to the Imigongo workshop.  Luckily today the only French speaker in the group was there that afternoon and sorted out the ordered pictures for me.  Backed up by Barnabé in case of misunderstanding I explained to Basilice that I was an artist in England, especially in pottery and that I would like to make my own picture.  She seemed really pleased and I arranged to go there the following Saturday with my design ready.  I had designed a picture of a male Intore dancer using photos I had taken and also looking at the style of the picture of drummers I had bought from the co-operative.  I enlarged the design to fit a 40x60cm board, one of the standard sizes they use, and walked along there on Saturday morning. Until Basilice arrived, about half an hour after me I just sat and watched the six women artists painting pictures. 

Women artists working on the modern designs which feature many colours.

 They were a little shy and my Kinyarwanda didn't go far!  When Basilice arrived she took me to the gallery part in the other building and then she and another woman brought me a table to work on, a selection of boards and some carbon paper, which is used to transfer designs from paper to the board. 

One woman painting the black and white design, another working with the cow dung. 

Basilice liked my design - I had noticed that none of their pictures featured dancers, which is partly why I chose that subject and she left me to transfer the picture to the board. She  returned in a little while with a ball of the cow dung material they use to form the ridges which are the feature of both traditional and modern designs.  In traditional patterns the geometric designs are picked out in grooves and ridges of contrasting colours.  In the modern designs the ridges separate the different elements of what is being portrayed, like a drawn line.

Ridges of the cow dung mixture forming the drawn lines.
Basilice is not used to cameras, hence the blur and the dodgy framing!

Basilice adding the master touch to the almost finished first stage.
Basilice showed me how they form the ridges from small coils of the paste and smooth it with water.  The wood of the board is not treated in any way and it is quite hard at first to make the stuff stick!  It is like a mixture of papier mâché and clay, but a greener colour.  It is very fibrous and has an organic but not unpleasant smell.  I think I was told it is made with cow dung, ash of burnt banana skins and cows' urine.  Like clay it becomes firmer as it dries and you can add to it at any stage just like paper clay, or soften it with water.
Basilice worked with me for most of the time (I may have mentioned before in a different context that Rwandans really like to co-operate and help each other) and it would have been rude to tell her to let me get on alone.  She is a very precise worked and constantly referred to the original drawing, pointing out variations from the correct line.  She is also very good at doing very fine detail for which I would have needed a tool. As lunch time approached the other women came in one by one to see what the "umuzungu" was up to.  Fortunately they seemed fairly impressed, at least with the design, if not the workmanship!

This the picture I commissioned and which inspired my design for this first attempt. (Drummers)

Much to my surprise, at 13.00 Basilice invited me to come to her house for the lunch break.  It is a neat brick built house only 100 metres from the co-operative, with a lovely garden.  I noticed through the open back door that she has a goat, hens and a cow in the back.  There were many young people coming and going out the back, who are students from the local high school who lodge with her and stay at the weekend too. She has two sons, 17 and 12, but her husband died seven years ago.  I guess that the presence of the adolescents in the house is what allowed her to invite a man to her home for a meal, contrary to local custom.  She/they? had prepared a meal of beef stew, rice and plantain, which was very good.  Basilice showed me her photo album which had photos of a visit to Belgium in 2004 when they were opening an Imigongo exhibition in Ghent.  The photos included ministers, ambassadors as well as the museum directors and the Rwandan visitors.  It must have been quite an experience for her, though she is quite well travelled, having visited Kenya and other neighbouring countries with her late husband, who was some kind of lawyer. My lunch at Basilice's house was a delightful and totally unexpected pleasure, illustrating the warmth and generosity of most Rwandans.

After lunch we returned to the workshop, where the women were continuing their painting. We virtually finished after another hour and I had to leave about 15.30 to meet a visitor at home.  I suspect that Basilice will have improved some of my work when I see it next as she continued to smooth out the ridges as I left.  She asked who was going to paint the picture and was happy to hear that I wanted to do the whole thing myself.  All in all it was a day with much more to it than I had dared hope for - one on one tuition and technical help, French conversation and a lovely lunch.  The other women greeted me enthusiastically as I took my leave using a few simple Kinyarwanda phrases.  Unfortunately for me the co-operative does not work on Sunday so I will not get back there until two weeks later as I will be travelling from the Education training in Kigali next Saturday after the "umuganda" morning finishes.

Below are some examples on display in the sales area of the gallery.

Traditional designs in this size (20cm x 30cm) cost about £5.  this small modern one would be £10. My 60cm x 60 cm, Drummers cost about £30.  Very inexpensive compared to UK prices for art works!

To be continued.....


  1. Hi John

    You don't know me, but I'm a new member of the York VSO group. I too am a teacher and am intending to volunteer in the next couple of years. Your blog is fascinating. I particularly enjoy reading about your life and work in Rwanda. The South African posts were also interesting as we visited Cape Town two years ago, and will be passing through again this summer. Keep the posts coming and keep up the good work. I hope to meet you at the York group when you return.

  2. Hi, John,

    Thanks for posting the Imigongo images - so beautiful. My church is hosting a fundraiser for a school in Rwanda, and as we're working on the invitation, we've been looking for some images that would represent Rwanda. Would you mind if we used an image or two of Imigongo from this blog article to use on our invitation?


  3. Hi John
    thank you very much for your interesting text and fotos. I have been there visiting the Imigongo atelier. It is great.
    thanks a lot

  4. Hi John,

    I am trying to contact the cooperative, you don't happen to have the contact nu,her of anybody there?