Three devils and a blue sea, Kanjogera’s dilemma


You see her picture, she is cunning, reserved, determined to win at all costs, fearsome even. And rightly so, she was able to kill you with words, or the short sword she kept in her draped shoals of mikenero.  She is seen as the Eve who ate the forbidden fruit of colonialism, just to install her son. Or she is seen as a pragmatist who saw the inevitability of colonialism and tried to save her Country and culture. She is also seen as the pushy mum who wouldn’t let her son Musinga grow up and take full responsibility for power. Even after her initial acceptance of German help, we had many chances to reject colonialism, but we didn’t, why? On closer examination, her compromise allowed Rwanda to stay intact, as a protectorate and equal nation (in principle) and there would not be a Rwanda today if she didn’t. Where is Ankole? Where is Bunyoro? Where is Karagwe? All equal Kingdoms at the time but they are mere districts of wider nations. Rwanda would be a District in Congo, part of Kivu, or part of Southern-western Uganda or Tanzania. Burundi also asked for the same deal, and they exist today. She seized power, and onto her slender shoulders fell the fate on a nation. The question is not what mistakes did she make, but what were the options she had? We often look back with modern perspectives, but first, we must understand the world in which Kanjogera was born.

Rucunshu was the turning point in Rwandan history, our battle of Gettysburg, or Boswell Hill, where the soul of Rwanda was fought for. Yet there is no monument, it is relatively near Kabgayi but few Rwandans would know of it. Two armies stared off on a cold morning in December 1896, the army of the Mwami Rutarindwa on the one side, and the army of Kanjogera and her brothers. The King held the hill but was not properly fortified, rain had delayed the battle by a few hours and morale was sapping on both sides. Kanjogera held her son, Musinga, close to her, she knew this was a game of death, loss meant death for both of them. She was descended from illustrious warriors and chiefs, but she knew that she was nonetheless, a commoner. She turned to her brother, the seven-foot giant, Kabare, it was now or never. The rain was a perfect cover for an attack, they caught the defending army off guard, in the momentum and frenzy of battle, it was bloody with brother fighting brother because of loyalty to one side or the other. Amid the corpses and blood, Kabare hoisted up a twelve year old Musinga as Mwami. Rutarindwa committed suicide, but not before burning the Royal Drum – Karinga, an act of vandalism that ended a 350 year tradition, and harmed Musinga’s legitimacy forever. Kings didn’t make themselves, it was their mothers who made them king by their political connections and army loyalties. The great Rwabugiri had many sons, probably eight, but only one had a mother with sufficient political and military power.  

Three poisons, which do you pick? The one that kills you quick, or the one the kills you medium, or slow? That was the set of options on the table. Rwabugiri had fought to expand Rwanda, both geographically, and socially. He waged war both on the aristocracy and other nations. The civil war of 1796-1801 had left the aristocracy in charge, a series of child-kings were chosen by the aristocracy. Gahindiro was a few months old, Rwogera was 8, Rwabugiri was 14 when he acceded, but from early on, he was determined to be different. War was a way of restoring the legitimacy of the Mwami, he was the first king since Ndabarasa to lead in battle, and he built a fearsome reputation. He was also prone to paranoia, he didn’t have the skills nor patience to deal with the devious and hypocritical aristocrats and often killed them upon hearing rumours. He placed a separate administration system to weaken the aristocracy, it is ironic to think of a king fighting the aristocracy of which he is a member, but this was an attempt to recentralise power. Externally, Rwabugiri also found that expansion brought us into contact with traders, colonial agents, Arab slavers, and this posed the inevitable question; how long before the White men came?

Towards the end of his reign, Rwabugiri was raiding deep into the jungles of Congo, a place with no cattle to raid, but he was hunting ivory to trade with Europeans. Rwanda had been trading with Swahili and Arab traders since at least the 1750’s, when imported silks, jewellery, and oddities were sold in special markets where foreigners were permitted. Bark cloth and skins gave way to Indian silks which we wear as imicenero, and Rwanda goods were sought as well, fine crafts in decorations in clay, wood, and metals, were known all over the region. The more Rwabugiri expanded his horizons, the more he saw how limited they were. With caravans passing by every few months, he must have known it was just a matter of time before the prophecy of Ndabarasa was fulfilled. Kigeli Ndabarasa had died 100 years before him, and foreseen an iron snake coming from the east that would consume Rwanda. On his travels, Rwabugiri saw all matter of things, railways, slave caravans, missionaries, armies with guns, and disease and famine followed everywhere they went. He saw a divided court, caught up in petty squabbles, he saw a new elite he had installed clearly had no experience in ruling, but he also saw the spirits were restless.   

One has to understand the world of superstition in those days, Rwanda was being attacked by new diseases, that were brought in by foreigners, or brought back by victorious armies. The worst was the Rinderpest brought by cows rustled from Uganda, it killed up to 65% of all cattle in Rwanda in 1889. This ended most of the client-patron relations that underpinned the system, more rituals were made to appease the angry spirits. Rwabugiri devised a solution, but this solution was to hasten the clash of inevitable forces that were battling at court. Rwabugiri is a tragic figure, his anger and impulsiveness caused him to kill his mother and father, both in very similar bouts of rage and whimsy. He killed his mother because a rumour had spread that she was pregnant, and he killed a man not knowing that he was his true father. It was these oedipal calamities that led him to believe he was cursed by the spirits of his parents. In his battles he had grown close to two brothers; Ruhinankiko and Kabare, two of the best soldiers and confidants. This brought him into contact with the sister of the two brothers, a tall, slender and dark woman of mystery; Kanjogera.

Kanjogera was born into a world of warriors, her father was the great chief Rwakagara, himself descended from even greater warriors like Makara, and Mutezintare. The women of her family were equally illustrious, her great-aunt Nyiratunga was Queen-Mother, as was Nyiramongi to Rwogera, the previous king. She also knew the violent side of the game, as a child she saw her father kill his sister, Nyiramongi, the Queen-mother, when Rwogera died. Nyiramongi was seen as too devious and manipulative (powerful) to be left alive, she was already in the process of installing another king, and had the power to do so. In order to spare her a cruel death from the Mwami’s Twa executioners, Rwakagara elected to kill her himself, as humanely as possible. This brought home the ruthlessness of the game of thrones, her father was racked with guilt for years but she knew there was no other way. The early reign of Rwabugiri was a bad time for the Abega, the clan to which Kanjogera belonged, first the Rugereka plot where the Queen-mother of Rwabugiri, Murorunkwere was killed because of a rumour. Then the rise of the Abakono saw Abega further marginalised but her brothers retreated to the army and saw their stars rise in battle, victories on the battlefield are undeniable, and they were rewarded.     

Rwabugiri was enthroned as a child in 1867, it was a subtle trick played on the main contender Nkoronko, the aristocrats and elite wanted a child they could manipulate. In the ritual of enthronement, a bull was slaughtered and skinned, then the skin dripping with blood was draped around the Mwami to symbolise Rwanda, then the bull was divided and the parts corresponded to Rwanda provinces and power. Nkoronko had seen a young bull being brought for sacrifice, he asked why it was so small, the elders explained it was just for ritual not symbolism. When the skin was brought forward, it was draped on a shy young teen called Sezisoni, but Nkoronko knew a secret, Sezisoni was actually his son and not of Rwogera, his brother, the last king. He accepted the selection of Sezisoni, who took the name Rwabugiri, the all-powerful and always had secret pride. However, for Rwabugiri, he always wondered why the older man backed down, he always suspected that Nkoronko would strike again and claim the throne. He killed him as a conspirator, not knowing he was his father and biggest fan. Rwabugiri loved battles because he was running away from demons in his mind, a war campaign could clear the mind, focus it on the moment, but his demons were never far behind.

This must have led him into the arms of Kanjogera, a woman well-versed in arts of war and politics, there was a vacuum at court that she slowly began to fill. She must have been the opposite to him in every way; where he was impulsive, she was calculating, and where he was destructive, she would use any situation to her benefit. She was known as a tomboy when she was young, wrestling with her brothers, Ruhinankiko and Kabare, a keen archer, she even learnt swordplay with her 7-ft brothers. She often killed her enemies by her own hand and was buried 1933 with her Inkota sword. She knew her destiny was different to theirs, she could never command armies, but she learnt quickly that she could command the commanders. Through her brothers, she managed to know how the army worked and all the intricacies involved. She met and married Rwabugiri in 1880, their first son died, ever since then she smothered her remaining son Musinga. Kanjogera quickly came to fulfil the delicate role as queen, there was a vacuum because Rwabugiri had killed his mother. It must have been Kanjogera that proposed the solution of Rutarindwa succeeding Rwabugiri, she would never have accepted unless she knew she could oust him. With the Rinderpest raging, Rutarindwa was appointed co-ruler in 1889, Rutarindwa was not a son of Rwabugiri by birth, but by adoption. Rutarindwa was supported by the Abakono, while Kanjogera headed the Abega faction.

When the first Germans arrived in 1894, they found Rwabugiri racked with illness, a court with palpable tension, and a nation waiting for a saviour – Umutabazi. Rwabugiri was persuaded to go on one last mission to Bushi in Congo, most likely to hunt ivory and skins to trade. Crossing Lake Kivu on his way back in 1895, he died of respiratory illness, most likely TB. Now the succession pact came to nothing, Kanjogera knew that if she didn’t act quickly then Rutarindwa would kill both her and her son. Rwabugiri had left powerful generals in charge to protect his will, Bisangwa and Muhigirwa were the most notable. Kanjogera used targeted assassinations to weaken Rutarindwa, so Sehene, and Mugugu were killed, the writing was on the wall, support her or die. Secretly, many generals began to pledge allegiance in secret rituals to Kanjogera and her son Musinga. But there were more pressing matters at hand, the three-way squeeze of colonial powers. Kanjogera had sat behind a screen when Rwabugiri met Von Goetzen in 1894, Rwabugiri was told that his land was given to the Germans in the Berlin Conference. It was the end of an era, end of the heroic age, but this did not sink in until the battle at Shangi, on the shores of Lake Kivu two years later. He saw his pact with Karagwe dissolved as Rumanyika went over the Germans, the northern chiefs went with the British, and the Eastern Chiefs went Belgium. What was left was our present borders, but millions of Rwandans or Kinyarwanda speakers outside the borders.

In 1896, a year after the death of Rwabugiri, a Belgian battalion was based in Congo but had set up camp in Rwanda, Rwanda was awarded to Germany, but there was still pushing and pulling of boundaries. Rutarindwa sent a force of his finest warriors to Shangi, it was an invasion so it unified Rwandans, using their traditional weapons, they managed to inflict heavy casualties, but the game-changer was the Maxim gun. The giant machine-gun mowed down hundreds of the finest warriors we had, Bisangwa, in a foolhardy move, stormed at the commander Capt. Sandaart and was shot through the head. The word was getting around of the tremendous losses suffered, Kanjogera had to move before panic set in and destroyed the Kingdom. When she made her move on Rucunshu, she knew that she had installed generals on the other side who would switch sides. Her brother Kabare hesitated, it was raining, they were on lower ground and they were outnumbered, climbing while fighting is not easy. Rutarindwa’s army withdrew leaving him exposed, all he could do was burn the drum –symbol of Royal power, and kill himself. Kanjogera knew that this was just an opening gambit, she had agreed with the other generals like Muhigirwa, to withdraw their armies immediately to put down the rebellion that would follow a transition. She had to reassert her dominance over the chiefs and their dominions, she knew that the German claim on Rwanda was only valid if her borders were intact. In this, the Germans and The Court saw they had similar interests, or the provinces would cede to other powers.

One must understand the rationale of dealing with the Germans, the Belgians came shooting, the Germans were polite, paid due respect to the Court, most would favour a polite intruder over one shooting. Secondly, in the face of such overwhelming force, it was obvious that the Court no longer had a “Monopoly of Violence” the Whites had the modern equivalent of a nuclear bomb, with cannons, machine guns, advanced tactics. Many in the court sought to use this power to their advantage, they were both afraid of, and fascinated with this new power. Colonisation was gradual, it wasn’t a sudden apocalypse, we lost our freedoms one at a time. Then you must understand the superstition of the time, the sight of these White men was like seeing Martians today, and then by the time you learn that these aliens are human like you, it is too late. Our leaders thought they were signing exclusive trade agreements that were mutually beneficial. They did not understand the world as maps, they saw circles of influence, even within Rwanda some places were considered “not worth governing” because of poor rain and soils. The thought of contiguous borders did not apply, it was about spheres of influence. The first agreement between Germany and Rwanda recognised “Two Nations of equal distinction” a major concession from the Germans, but both sides were lying, the Germans had no intention of honouring it, and on the Rwandan side – Kanjogera arranged a proxy Mpamarugamba to agree, not her son.   

Rwabugiri had an empire that stretched from Lake Victoria to the deep jungles of Congo, the irony is this; in attacking neighbouring countries he weakened them leaving them easy pickings for the colonials. In recentralising power in his hands, he made it easy for the colonials to use the system he had perfected for oppressing future generations. In killing the aristocrats he weakened the system from within and created generational vendettas. In creating parallel administration systems, he weakened the command structure of his realm. Yet all these forces were beyond his control, heavy is the head that wears the crown, for every option had major consequences. Kanjogera picked up the pieces of her husband’s country and tried hold it together. She saw the Whites Fathers attacking Rwanda’s beliefs spiritually and the Germans attacking Rwanda physically, each posed a threat, yet their interests were not harmonious. Germans wanted money, they could be bought, but the White Fathers wanted the soul of Rwanda. What followed in the coming years, was a delicate game of frustration and brinksmanship, where she held off the demands of the West with subtle resistance and ruthless zeal. The results of that struggle define who we are today, the questions then are the same now. How can we balance the needs of Western interests, without harming our own, and how can we hold on to our culture and values in the face of other values and other powers.  

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10 Responses to Three devils and a blue sea, Kanjogera’s dilemma

  1. Rugamba says:

    Great history and narration there. A few typos of names like Murorunkwere etc. Otherwise, keep up the good work of informing us Rwandans about our history. I also like your analysis of events at play. Many Thanks again. Tito

  2. Sam says:

    Wow! Very informative. Great Research Rama. However could you go tell us more about King Ndabarasa?

  3. Isaie says:

    Very impressive work! Really!

  4. Lily Rutera says:

    Ok, is it only me who has been ignorant about my history…or is everyone else like me? 🙂 Rama, very good job, am so enlightened!

  5. Solange G. says:

    Thank you for sharing this little glimpse into our history, and the important role women played in it.

  6. Ese kuri izi blog birakomera gushyiraho ama references?

  7. Mperuka bavuga ko Kanjogera yari umwicanyi mubi uhohotera inzirakarengane, akanagira ingengabiekerezo ya kabuhariwe! Ariko mubyo nsomye aha, yatatswe agirwa nk’umwere wishakiraga kurinda igihugu cye.

    Ubu se uwasomye ibi akaba yarazi ibyavugwaga kuri uwo mugabekazi arafate iki areke iki? Dore ko benshi bapfa kumirira aho gusa nta n’iperereza. Keretse niba iyi nyandiko ari nkumugani ucirirwa incuke kugirango zijye kuryama, naho ubundi ntawabyita amateka mugihe nta kimenyetso cyaho inkuru yakuwe.

    • Irankunda says:

      Francois Gatete, harya ibyo wize (twigishijwe) byo byari fite reference ra?! Ayo mateka wize nanjye niyo nize ariko ngirango biroroshye kwisobanurira amateka nyayo ufashe ayo twigishijwe ukayahuza naya duhawe n’ umushakashatsi Rama. Inyigisho nyayo nkuye muri iyi nyandiko nuko abanyarwanda kimwe mubibazo byatumye tugira ibibazo nanubu bikidukurikira ni ukutamenya amateka yacu nyayo. Well done Rama for giving us a piece of our history many of us had no idea of. Keep it up.

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