Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, has introduced strict controls over the country’s renowned drumming rituals, banning female drummers and limiting the sacred tradition to official events.
“It is strictly forbidden to those of the female sex to beat drums. They can however carry out female folk dances accompanying the drums,” read a decree seen by AFP Thursday, that was signed late last month.
All groups seeking to perform “cultural shows” must from now on register with the ministry of culture and are not allowed to perform outside of official ceremonies without authorisation from the ministry.
Burundi’s ritual dance of the royal drums was in 2014 placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, which describes it as “a spectacle combining powerful, synchronised drumming with dancing, heroic poetry and traditional songs.”
It says the “entire population of Burundi recognises it as a fundamental part of its heritage and identity.”
Today, the drums are played for entertainment: but for centuries they were a sacred rite, symbolic of a united kingdom – a powerful memory for a country whose recent history has been scarred by civil war and political crisis.
In the country’s Kirundi language, the word for drum — “ingoma” — is the same as that for kingdom.
In modern times drumming groups have flourished, performing at weddings, graduation ceremonies and baptisms.
While traditionally a male-dominated field, several female drumming groups have emerged in recent years.
The presidential decree, signed on October 20, said that if an organiser gets permission to have drummers perform at an event, he must pay the Treasury a fee equivalent to 245 euros ($280).
This figure is to be paid daily if the group performs abroad.
Burundians on Twitter slammed the decree as an “authoritarian slide” and a “sign of increasing efforts to control Burundian society”.
“This decree means the drums no longer belong to Burundian citizens but to the government”, said Pacifique Nininahazwe, an exiled civil society leader.
Last month Burundi’s government adopted a plan to revise the constitution that, if voted in by referendum, would allow Nkurunziza to serve another two seven-year terms from 2020.
The country was plunged into crisis when Nkurunziza sought — and went on to win – a third term in 2015. Between 500 and 2,000 people are estimated to have died in the ensuing turmoil, according to varying tolls.