A letter of gratitude

In Beauty by Celine Isimbi

To the Rudasumbwa—Dusabimana Matriarch:

Thank you for teaching me—in subtlety—to embrace the beauty of the little moments. 

I remember Saturday mornings with you, as we got ready for church. The weekends that we the cousins would spend with our grandmother. You’d wake us up early to bathe (bucket and water style), have breakfast, and then the dreaded hair combing fiasco would take place.

Imagine this; three girls all sitting and waiting in line for our grandmother to comb out every kink and coil of our 4c, thick, Black, Rwandan hair. As we waited in anticipation, we would have a lovely cup of Rooibos tea and some peanut butter sandwiches, made with a thick helping of peanut butter. This sweet tea and overly thick peanut butter was a showing that you did everything in overflow—an overflow of love, sweetness, grace and beauty. 

Many tears were shed during those mornings wishing for the hair brushing ordeal to end. It was a constant repetition of brush and hair oil, brush, hair oil and repeat. Throughout the ordeal, I remember you saying: “Ugiye mu rusengero ukeneye kwambara neza” (You going to church, so you need to look good), and “umusatsi wawe ni mwiza cyane kandi ugomba kubyitaho”  (you have beautiful hair that needs looking after). Hair was a special thing between us all and if only I knew just how special it was, it would not have taken me 19 years to figure that out. 

This was because those warm Saturday mornings soon stopped happening and life, I guess, separated us. I was a foreign kid who didn’t quite fit in at a South African primary school; despite having the accent, speaking the language and only ever really knowing South Africa being foreign was who I was in a society so afraid of the “other”. I remember that time spent with you was the time I got to bask in all my otherness, and the time I felt most at home despite my poor attempts at speaking our native language —Kinyarwanda—and your attempts at understanding my English. 

In those years after our Saturday mornings ended I lost that familiar connection in an effort to fit in with all those kids whose hair wasn’t quite coiled up and skin quite so dark! I wonder what version of me I would be today if we continued on with our Saturday morning rituals and life didn’t get in the way… 

Beyond the hair brushing ordeal, it was now time to adorn ourselves in neatly folded and ironed dresses and You, in your vibrant patterned Imikenyero. I now realize that adorning ourselves in Igitenge and your precious Imikenyero was a way to show the world that we embraced every part of Rwandan heritage—from styling our 4c thick Black Rwandan hair to dressing in our beautifully patterned materials.

To Rwandan women, Imikenyero is a very important part of our celebrations for church services, weddings and traditional ceremonial events like the Intore dance. Imikenyero—also referred to as Mushanana—is a traditional ceremonial dress that is worn by women in Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda; in Rwanda, it is referred to as Imikenyero. The attire consists of a wrapped skirt that bunches at the hips and then sashes over the arm, and is worn over a plain tank top. The fabric ranges from monotone to vibrantly multicoloured, which is lightweight and flowing, and when worn, the colours pop off the beautiful East African skin of the women. 

For the women in my family and particularly you, Maman, you left your home and all that you knew. To flee for safety in foreign lands, lands in which you did not speak the language. Adorning yourself in Imikenyero every Saturday and brushing out our beautiful, Black, thick hair was your way to stand boldly in Rwandan beauty traditions. If only eight-year-old me understood what it meant to carry your culture in the patterns and materials of the clothes you wore and to carry languages and connections within every strand of hair. Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt the need to assimilate so much so that at 20 years of age, I am now yearning and searching for those connections on land oceans away from Home, from You. I would not be tongue-tied when asked “Where are you from?” and have to provide an itinerary of the places I’ve been to. I would have a simple answer of: “I am from Rwanda, the Land of the Rudasumbwa-Dusabimana matriarch,” because I knew exactly what it was like carrying my culture in every strand of my hair and the words I spoke. 

The act of oiling our hair, brushing it out and then ironing out our dresses; for You, Maman, was your way of showing us—your granddaughters—that we needed to appreciate the beauty of our features and to remember that we come from a long line of Rwandan women who did the same – uri mwiza. And now at 20 years of age in a strange country where the warmth of those Saturday mornings are but a mere memory… I understand

Forever grateful, 

Celine, your granddaughter