She is one of the renowned and much revered figures in Rwanda, yet Maria Yohana Mukankuranga maintains a low profile with a humble persona — something which has endeared her to millions of Rwandans.
For many, Maria Yohana, as she is commonly known, is not your ordinary “Rwandan woman” but a liberation icon, a custodian of culture and a champion of women emancipation in her own right, even as she ponders retirement from the limelight.
The 74-year old remains an iconic figure in Rwanda for her contribution to the liberation struggle in the early ‘90s, throughout the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi and its aftermath as well as Rwanda’s reconstruction and rebirth—all captured in her music.
Apart from being one of Rwanda’s Liberation icons, Maria Yohana is a symbol of true Rwandan culture and cuts a mother figure to many people in the country, right from musicians, politicians and young girls pursuing their dreams who look up to her.
As expected, this year she took part in commemoration activities of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, singing at the official closing of the commemoration week, which was held at Mount Rebero.
“Music is my life, not just any music, but traditional Rwandan music that touches our culture and values,” the graceful singer says.
She is a common face on big events, whether it is continental meetings or state visits by heads of state or national events such as the genocide commemoration and liberation anniversaries, doing what she does best — singing.
She is known for a number of songs, the most famous of them being Intsinzi, which can be considered the ‘second national anthem.
Intsinzi is a song of victory, which was composed for the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) after it successfully stopped genocide.
It is a song that connects to all Rwandans from all walks of life. It is played whenever there is a victory, whether it is after elections, a sports victory or any competition where a Rwandan or Rwanda as a country emerges triumphant.
She has several other songs to her name, some including Urugamba rurashyushye, composed in the early ‘90s and played a role in motivating RPF fighters during the liberation struggle.
Maria Yohana was among the well-known morale boosters during the liberation struggle, composing and recording several songs which were used during the four-year struggle.
For her, the struggle was not just an effort to liberate the country, but rather a journey to which she lost her two sons who were killed during the war.
In her words, Maria Yohana says she was motivated by the status of being a refugee and having no country to call home.
“Nobody wants to be a refugee. We always had that dream of coming back home one day and never lost hope,” says Mukankuranga, who lived in refugee camps in Uganda for a bigger part of her life before returning home.
As a refugee, she was a teacher in refugee camps but in her free time, she focussed on teaching young children about Rwandan culture and traditions.