Writing women back into Rwandan history: A graphic novel approach

Publication Date

An African nation with a recent troubled past has a proud record of equality in parliament. We now have new resources that will shine a light on women’s experiences in Rwandan society before the colonial period.

Nyiragitwa, daughter of Sacyega

Rwanda is largely known to the outside world for what official sources have labelled ‘the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi’, whereby extremists affiliated with the nation’s ethnic Hutu majority attempted to exterminate the nation’s ethnic Tutsi minority, as well as its political moderates. However, in the post-genocide period, the nation has been lauded internationally for its efforts to promote gender equality. Most notably, Rwanda leads the world in women’s representation in parliament, with women holding 63% of seats and an additional 52% of cabinet seats. These advances are especially welcome given the patriarchal nature of Rwandan politics and society, at least in the 20th century.

However, little is known about Rwandan society prior to its colonial period (Germany, 1895-1916; and Belgium 1916-1962), particularly regarding gender norms and women’s access to power. It is this realisation that prompted our team in 2017, with support from the RSE and the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC), to launch a scoping project that explored Rwandan social bonds from a historical perspective. We spent a year translating oral traditions that had been narrated by former court officials and documented in Kinyarwanda and French by the historian Jan Vansina during his fieldwork from 1958 to 1960. This resource has increasingly revealed understudied oral traditions about women who lived during the Nyiginya kingdom that ruled Rwanda from the 16th century until 1962. These oral traditions are proving invaluable for revealing the complexity of Rwanda gender norms across different periods, regions, and social classes, and the varied forms of power that women could exercise in their everyday lives.

To help bring these stories out of the archives and into the hands of interested Rwandans, in 2018—with further support from the RSE and RALC—we began working to create a graphic novel series. Our first graphic novel, Nyiragitwa, daughter of Sacyega, has just been published in Kinyarwanda, English and French with the Rwandan publisher, Mudacumura Publishing House. It highlights a story about a woman named Nyiragitwa who allegedly lived during the 17th century. The graphic novel offers provocative insights on what life for semi-elite Rwandan women might have been like during this period, including their potential ability to become independently wealthy and exercise significant political power in their communities. We hope it will be a starting point for more historically-informed efforts to write women back into Rwanda’s early history.

Nyiragitwa, daughter of Sacyega is sold on Amazon, through Muducumura Press as well as in Rwandan bookstores.

Dr Erin Jessee is a Senior Lecturer, History, University of Glasgow, and an RSE Small Research Grants awardee (2017). With thanks to Jerome Irankunda, Director of Students Affairs at the University of Tourism, Technology and Business Studies, Sylvere Mwizerwa, Research Assistant, and Christian Mafigiri, Artist.

This article was originally written for the ReSourcE magazine Spring 2021 edition, focusing on issues of equality and diversity.