Meet Ngirabagenga, a Visually Impaired Traditional Musical Instrument Player | New times
I first met Jean Marie Vianney Ngirabagenga in Nyabugogo on Christmas Day where he was playing traditional songs with a choir who happened to be his own children. They reminded me of a traditional Von Trapp family from the movie The Sound of Music.
What makes Ngirabagenga extraordinary is not only that he plays a local instrument well; it is the fact that he plays with it even with his visual impairment.
He plays umuduri, a Rwandan string instrument. It is a musical bow consisting of a string supported by a flexible wooden string holder or a bow 125 to 135 cm long. Children sing as he plays.
Many people with disabilities like Ngirabagenga try to get their daily bread by begging in public places and depend mainly on what people give them. But Ngirabagenga thought of other ways to survive. And his skill with umuduri not only made him popular in his area, but also ensures him a decent upkeep for his family.
Ngirabagenga and her children performing in front of onlookers.
Born in 1952 in the district of Gicumbi, Rutare sector, this father of seven children became blind at the age of 13 following a measles attack. He lost both of his parents around the same time and that’s when he started playing the instrument. He now lives in the Gasabo district, Gatsata sector.
Ngirabagenga’s first wife died, leaving him with two children, the eldest, 22, and the second, 19, who became street children after their mother died.
His second wife had five children but abandoned him and the children, leaving him to fend for himself.
Life has become difficult, not with his disability and having to take care of five children on his own. So, he took a third wife who now helps him with the children.
âI love her because she promised to help take care of these children and we will have more of our own when they get older,â he notes.
Ngirabagenga does a bit of farming on the side when he is not performing.
Ngirabagenga says he tries to achieve a lot in life and never gets tired of playing his traditional instrument for people to make money.
âIt was tough, but we survived and are doing well,â he says.
In 1986 Ngirabagenga started singing, along with other traditional singers of this period.
He says he received 60,000 Rwf as an award for his performance by the National Council for the Disabled (NCPD).
Ngirabagenga was also part of a group of 30 called Itorero which he led in 2003, helping them compose and sing traditional songs.
âI haven’t had the opportunity to study but I can advise people on the right work strategies to survive,â Ngirabagenga rejoices.
Ngirabengenga says he had no inheritance but bought land in 1996 with his income from playing the instrument at the time. The land cost him 700,000 Rwf at the time. âMy land is now worth Rwf 5 million,â he says.
âWe were born 10 children and our father had two wives. My brothers had enough land but I didn’t have anyone to support me so I gradually managed to save money with my songs and bought my own land, âhe says.
He currently earns around 25,000 Rwf per day from his performance. Her children have wallets in which they put the money donated by the public; they then collect the full amount and place it in their father’s wallet at the end of the day.
Ngirabagenga has a few songs to his credit, like Wari Mwiza Mukarukundo, Musanabera and Ijuru Ni Iry’abemera, a gospel song, among others.
He is also a poet with several poems in Kinyarwanda and poetry idolizing the beauty of cows. He sometimes trains other people in poetry.
âWithout my talent, I don’t think I could have survived with all these kids,â he says.
Ngirabagenga did not acquire writing skills like other visually impaired people, so he writes his songs with the help of his daughter.
Teach children to sing
Ngirabagenga does not perform alone, he is always with his children and they sing together for the audience. While he plays the instrument, the children sing and so does he.
He says he tries to encourage every child to develop a passion for traditional music.
“It’s always a pleasure to see him sing with his children, even the little ones who might only be three years old sing like an angel,” said one spectator.
The artist plays his instrument for work and for pleasure.