Artisans Of Rwanda: A Visit To Gatagara Pottery Near Kigali

african pottery

Louis, the expert potter at work at the Gatagara Cooperative

Thinking about doing something exciting out of Rwanda’s capital city but don’t have much time? A visit to Gatagara is the perfect day trip offering a memorable hands-on local experience. Located between Ruhango and Nyanza, Gatagara is a 90 minutes drive only from Kigali.

Pottery Experience with Gatagara Cooperative

This practical pottery experience offered by Vayando takes you to the heart of traditional pottery making by giving you the chance to try your hands at creating your own piece. Local artisans take you through the entire pottery-making process and show you how and where they work.

When I visited Gatagara I made a small vase, which was much harder than I thought it would be. You need to be delicate and not apply much pressure with your fingers, it really is an art and a lengthy process. After working with the clay you’ll let it dry for a few days, and bake it in the oven twice — once before you add the paint, once after. Travelers who don’t always have the luxury of time don’t get to participate in the whole process but get the chance to work the clay which is the most interesting part anyway.

It is important to remember that making the clay itself can take up to two years. Once made, it can remain stored for three years until the stock is finished.

african pottery

Preparing and Storing the Clay

Lasting Tradition

The most incredible sight is watching the technique, largely unchanged since the late 1970’s when the cooperative was first established with the help of a Belgian ceramist. Also, the clay that they use is locally made as they have all the resources they need around them, both on the hills and in the swamps. The only difference is in terms of coloring and finishing; hues are imported from abroad, mainly Belgium.

There are today 12 artisans and one accountant making up the pottery cooperative. One of them, Louis, has been there since the very beginning. Since pottery is the Batwa’s main occupation – a minority group in Rwanda that constitutes less than 1% of the population – and Louis is a Batwa, the skills of pottery-making have been transmitted to him by his family and community since his young age.

Initially, there were 17 local potters working at the cooperative before the genocide. Only Louis remained and decided to become a teacher, sharing his skills and expertise to fellow members in his community who were interested in the art of pottery-making.

african pottery Gatagara: Home Of Rwanda’s Original Potters

Originally, Gatagara was home to the indigenous Batwa, also known as Twa. The country then was separated into three social classes — the Bahutu which were the majority, the Batutsi and the Batwa. Each had their own role in society and the Batwa, referred to as pygmies, were known to be potters.

As the home of Rwanda’s original potters, Gatagara is famous for its stunning pottery produced by local artisans. Using the traditional pottery technique of the Batwa while adding a modern touch in the range of products, coloring and finishing, the artisans are well-known all around the country. What also makes Gatagara unique is the availability of all materials within 5-to-10 miles of the cooperative.

On a visit to Gatagara, you will get the chance to meet Louis and some other local potters to discuss about every aspect of pottery making. The visit takes around 1.5 hours. Once you set a date and book your experience day on Vayando, you get the chance to visit anytime between 9am-noon and 1pm-5pm on that day. The fee — $15 USD per person — goes in its entirety to the local cooperative supporting their projects, and the livelihoods and living standards of the artisans. You also get a 2000RWF credit (~$2.75) which you can spend on buying a locally made product at their beautiful shop.

King's Palace's Roof in Nyanza

King’s Palace’s Roof in Nyanza

Combining The Hands-on Experience With A Visit To Nyanza

The Gatagara pottery experience is also the perfect side activity for travelers on a visit to Nyanza, the capital of the Kingdom of Rwanda before the country gained its independence in 1962.

Visitors to Nyanza can visit the grounds of the beautiful King’s Palace, now a museum which is also home to the stunning Inyambo, Rwanda’s royal cattle. These magnificent cows are like no others. They have impressive horns, are trained to listen to their keeper’s songs and accompany him in his movements and are of cultural and historical importance. At the time when Rwanda was a monarchy, Inyambo would parade at royal ceremonies heavily decorated with jewellery.

african pottery

The Inyambo and their Keeper

It is also worth visiting Rwanda’s National Art Gallery showcasing beautiful contemporary artwork in a complex originally built to serve as the palace of King Mutara III Rudahingwa who passed away before he could ever live in the building.

By Sarine Arslanian

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Sarine Arslanian is a writer, documentary filmmaker, researcher and photographer with a passion for travel, arts and culture, society and development. She graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Development Studies.

2 Comments

  1. It’s unfortunate that the genocide affected the ability of the potters to stay and share the craft. From the art gallery, to the palace-museum, to pottery with Louis, you’ve done a great job of showcasing options for tourists to the area.

  2. I’ve been to Gatagara pottery numerous times to purchase some pieces, but finally had time to go through the whole process from the wheel to the kiln. Jean (shown in the picture) is amazingly skilled and is a great teacher. The coop members are very kind and helpful. I did feel that the leader of the cooperative, Jean Pierre, was asking for unreasonable amounts of money for every stage of the process. The members confided that he usually pockets most of the money; so I suggest to bargain hard with him, then give large tips to the actual workers, like Jean.

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