Our name comes from the Rwandan hero Ndabaga. We take inspiration from her bravery in defying traditional gender roles. Ndabaga triumphed when she took it upon herself to excel in the world of men, and we honor her legacy by elevating our sisters who follow in her footsteps.
The story of Ndabaga is a keystone of Rwandan folklore.
Ndabaga was born in the shadow of war. Before she was old enough to remember him, her father went off to serve the king in his army. According to law, healthy men must serve the kingdom into old age, only earning a peaceful retirement upon being replaced by their son.
Ndabaga had no brothers, though, so her father’s fate was to die a warrior in the king’s service. Ndabaga ached to know her father was growing old with no hope of relief, no chance to come home to his family. But what could she do? There was no course of action for a daughter to relieve a father. Only boys and men were trusted to perform the physical feats of a warrior.
Until Ndabaga decided otherwise.
She spent her days training. Ndabaga pushed the limits of her speed, her strength, her stamina. She ran and jumped, she learned to wield a spear and a bow and arrow. She learned to fight, and soon she fought better than any boy her age in her village.
She was almost ready to approach the king.
The final step was one familiar to girls ages since who would question their gender identity. She bound her breasts, flattened her chest so that she would appear as a man. This way, she could relieve her father of duty as his son.
Ndabaga–disguised as a man–immediately proved her worth to the king by demonstrating her skill in those masculine tasks she practiced. Her father was finally free to return home to his family, and Ndabaga was free to rise in the ranks of the king’s service.
She excelled in all the war games put on by the warriors, and she excelled in war itself. Among grown men, trained from childhood in the masculine arts of war, Ndabaga found no match. Before long, she caught the king’s attention and was promoted as a leader of her peers.
As often happens when women achieve distinction, the men around her started thinking she did not deserve it.
They had noticed that Ndabaga never bathed with the rest of the warriors, and always dressed in private. Rumors circulated that Ndabaga was really a girl in disguise, and when they reached the king’s ears he demanded that Ndabaga prove her gender in a fighting contest.
Surely if she were a girl, she would be thrown down by the true warriors in the king’s service. But every man she fought, she beat. She was better than all those who were supposed to be naturally gifted fighters due to their masculinity.
Finally, the king asked her outright: Are you a man or a woman, Ndabaga?
Ndabaga answered truthfully, explaining that she had never gotten to meet her father, who was growing old and tired in service of the kingdom, because he had no son to replace him. She felt it was her duty to take up the responsibility of fighting for the king so that her father could return home in peace.
Amazed by this exceptional woman, the king took Ndabaga as his wife and queen.
But that’s not all. The king’s eyes were opened. In response to Ndabaga’s story, he changed the law that required men to fight as warriors into old age, and sent those without sons to relieve them home to their families.
Ndabaga was able to make life better for her country, and she proved that women were capable of the same feats as men. From the dire situation she found herself in comes the famous Rwandan saying, “Ibintu byageze iwa Ndabaga,” which speaks of desperate solutions for desperate situations.
Ndabaga continues to inspire girls in Rwanda today by teaching them to aspire to excellence in whatever area they choose, regardless of societal expectations placed upon them because of their gender.
Ndabaga’s sisters are everyday heroes, empowered by their gender and sexuality and authors of their own stories.