The Lioness Behind The Reeds

The lioness behind the reeds


In 1898, a stranger came to Rwanda, he had none of the trimmings of wealth and power that other Whites had, no caravan, no army. He travelled freely and without fear, was able to talk his way out of most situations. He sat among the Royals and notables of day, they poked fun at him, when he asked to see the king, Mpamarugamba, not Musinga was brought out. They continued to poke fun at his nose, in typical Rwandese fashion, as a Jew, Richard Kandt was used to jokes about his nose, but he did not like people insulting his intelligence. “Mwambabariye, mureke k’umbeshya” the court was stunned. To see a white man speaking Kinyarwanda, with all the mannerisms and panache of a native, was truly stunning. No other white man had bothered to learn Kinyarwanda, the aristocrats there must have feared that he was demon-possessed or an ancestor had taken over him. Kandt knew that the Mwami was just a boy, so that made Mpamarugamba a fake, but he could be a powerful man, indeed, he was one of the chief ritualists. The real Musinga was brought to him, they struck a friendship that lasted a lifetime, but he knew there was a lioness behind the reeds, Kanjogera was never seen. Kandt was a brilliant explorer, not a colonialist, and as a Jew, he despised the racist theories that drove colonialism, but the Colonial Service offered him a life of adventure. He was a consummate botanist, ethnographer, linguist, geographer and the first foreigner to understand Rwanda on its terms.


The source of the Nile in Nyungwe had evaded many explorers, from Von Goetzen, to Bauman, to Von Bethe, Von Ramsay, all were led astray by their guides and left in frustration. The king had forbidden the guides from ever showing them the source, most came within metres of the source then were led away. Richard Kandt was trusted enough to be taken to the source, the river held sacred meaning, between its crescent was the Heartland, Gasabo. For them, the world was a delicate balance, mountain areas were kept free and ruled by rainmakers or ritualists, nothing could harm that balance. When the Germans began to cut giant trees than they believed held the spirits of the dead, Musinga fought to save them, one was so big it was believed to contain the soul of Ndori. Such was their attachment to nature. Kandt was taken just some hundred meters from when he was standing and saw a tiny drip under a rock. “Is this it?” he scoffed, not sure whether to trust his cunning guides, he looked down incredulously and shook his head. This tiny drip, drip, drip, drip of water is what brought the white man to Rwanda, a tiny leaking tap that God left on in that flooded the world. This drip, drip, drip, filled a pond, then a swamp, then a river, then the second biggest fresh water lake in the world and then the NILE. His guide’s words were “Caput Nili!!” and they became the name of his book, in typical understated style, he declared the question of the source of the Nile over after 5,000 years. The guide knew that this wonder was not going to satisfy the curiosity but add to it.


Kandt became a favourite at the court, he earned their trust, learned the language and customs, was always truthful, even put the interests of the Rwanda above his own nation’s. He inserted the “Equal and Distinct nations” clause into the protectorate agreement, which the Berlin masters tried to change. The fact that none of the other visiting Germans or White fathers bothered to inquire the age or what Musinga looked like, shows how ignorant they were of Rwanda. The leaders at the Court used this ignorance of Rwanda to their advantage and seemed to want to keep the Europeans ignorant as well, historians were forbidden from telling the white man our history, many were killed to discourage this. The leaders were also new in power, despite the figurehead of Musinga, this was an Abega coup, Musinga was a king, not by divine ritual, but by might. He did not have a royal drum – Karinga, he was not declared in advance by the Abiru ritualists, they said “A King’s power comes from his father, not the drum.” The truth was that power came from his mother and her military connections. Kanjogera could not claim the will of Rwabugiri because his will had said otherwise. This question of legitimacy came at the worst time possible, the early years of the 20th century were marked by further killings at the hands of Kanjogera as she sought to assert her power. This led to a clash of powers, traditional vs colonial, within the court, with the Catholic Church, and with the people themselves.


Rwabugiri had many sons, he had sons with princesses and servants, as was the King’s right then, but succession was never according to age, other factors played a part. When Rwabugiri looked down at his brood of children playing, he would have known that of all the sons playing, only one would be King, that would mean the rest would be dead or in exile. This was a game of death, princely brothers play-fought and mock-charged, one day the killing would be real, the system demanded fratricide, that was the only way you could pick the best – survival of the fittest. He was faced with a dilemma, none of the other sons had a mother who was powerful enough to challenge Kanjogera. He could not declare Musinga as he was too young and could be killed off, Muhigirwa, his eldest biological son, was unpopular but a good general. The Rutarindwa compromise was best, Kanjogera chose him because he was the weakest, and least legitimate, as an adopted child. He would be most easily replaced, but Rwabugiri knew how scheming his wife was, a weak Rutarindwa would be propped by four of the finest; Muhigirwa, Bisangwa, Sehene and Magugu.


When Rwabugiri died, the other sons rejected Rutarindwa, Muhigirwa abandoned him at Rucunshu because he wanted to install his own son. Baryinyonza and Burabyo, his other sons went over to Kanjogera, fearing for their lives. Cyitatire remained around but was always seen as a threat to Musinga, who was seen as a Mwega because of his mother’s powerbase. Another half-mythical, half-real son existed called Biregeya, his mother, Muserekande, started a rebellion in the North among the Bakiga there. The myth of Biregeya would always come back to haunt Kanjogera and her legitimacy. Kanjogera had a squad of assassins, no man was safe, and the fear of her assassins was enough to bring people to her side. Muhigirwa committed suicide, Baryinyonze and Burabyo were killed on her order, some say she did it herself. The Royal clan, the Banyiginya were decimated, yet she could not declare the Abega to be the Royal clan, she needed the cloak of her son. The power of the King was never based on might, but on rituals, Ndori came with a new belief system, socio-economic system, the army came after and was a means to expand Rwanda. She could not change the rituals, she could not change the method.


Rwanda: Methodology vs Ideology


What made her powerful was this; she realised early on that Rwanda was built on Methodology and not Ideology. It was the rituals that held Rwanda together, the King was the embodiment of Imana, who lived in his Karinga drum. The last king of the previous dynasty, Kyamatare, had to flee after he lost his drum because his mystical powers were gone. Ndori introduced a methodology that we still use today, even Hutu extremist presidents like Kayibanda used the same methodology. You cannot separate Rwanda from its structure, you can kill off a section of society but another group will take that role. The original Ryangombe cult was one of small circles or mysteries, these circles or cells, interlink across society, then the client-patron agreements form a vertical chain upwards, then the military backs it up, and the corporations feed in. Ubuhake is wired into our cultural hard drive, it is the original social contract that created Rwanda, our Magna Carta. We expect those in our government to give us protection for loyalty. Then the business plan of most investors was “get a rich powerful soldier and let him protect you and give you contracts.” This Methodology is what defines us, it cuts across borders, few Rwandans even know that from 1918-1922, Gisaka – the East of Rwanda from Rwamagana onwards, was awarded to the British and was part of Uganda for the Cairo-Cape Town railway and highway. Kanjogera still ruled via her agents on the ground, she sent taxes to Kampala while it remained a normal part of Rwanda. So the social circles kept Rwandans outside of Rwanda still under Rwandan control because of the social circles, parts of Uganda, Rwanda, Tanganyika, and Congo remained in the Sphere of the Realm.


Rwanda means expansion, boundless expansion, it has to expand to survive or it turns in on itself. Like a Death Star, it consumes all in its wake, absorbs it in other ways, no enemy of Rwanda is too evil to accommodate. Genocidaires can come back and get places of prestige, with blood dripping from their mangled hands, it is safer that way, it is safer to absorb a threat than fight it. It goes back to Ubuhake, I will protect you like a calf in a womb, if you give me your support. Borders mean nothing, the Rwandan state was able to operate across borders and imaginary lines drawn on paper. This state was a mindset, something the colonials never understood, even as they lowered their flag to relinquish control and till this day. Chiefs in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania would report to the court in Rwanda, as their legitimacy relied on the mystical authority of the King. Coordinating a nation across several borders was one the first challenges of colonialism, but even from within, the legitimacy of the King was being challenged. The old saying “you can’t have two bulls in a kraal” was apt, but the situation was exacerbated by a third contender entering the ring, the White fathers. It was this 3-way interplay between the three powers that made colonialism a pernicious disease.


So the methodology of rule across the region was generally the same, but the ideology varied, in Rwanda the prevailing ideology is changeable, like a tablecloth, but the methodology remains the same table. Today this methodology is producing great results, we are seeing development at an unprecedented pace, the names have changed but the job is the same. Mutware – District Mayor, Umuhinza – Agronomic Officer, Umushyinswe’itaka – Land Officer, Umugaba – Brigade commander, Umutware w’ibyatsi – livestock/Veterinarian. Then we have the 5 levels of govt, from the Executive, to Ntara, to akarere, to umurenge, to akagari, is still used, none of this is new, they are old structure with new names. These structures now have accountability, common purpose, technology, and funding. It shows why colonialism was a failure, because we Africans frustrated it, we didn’t know the baby from the afterbirth. Like when the White fathers asked the Court to send young boys to learn in their schools, they sent their bastard children, sons of servants, orphans, never the ones who would have power. This would have effects on them later as they failed to grasp the importance of western education, these boys became Abakarani – colonial clerks. When the Germans introduced coffee, the chiefs hypothetically accepted, then sent their cows to graze there and trample the seedlings. When Whites asked for supplies they were given rotten produce.


Wheel or Spear: Concentration vs Dispersal of power


We look at Burundi and Rwanda as two identical peas in a pod, like almost exactly the same country but they fundamentally differ in one way, Centralisation and Decentralisation. In Rwanda, we had decentralised by 1801 as the Aristocrats took over, a century of expansion followed, Gisaka, most of Ndorwa, fell under Rwandan control. When Ndabarasa took over Ndorwa in 1787, he tried to be king there, instead of incorporating it into Rwanda, like his personal realm. He died there in peace while his son Sentabyo ruled in Rwanda, but his neglect of court duty in favour of the heroic legend left tension at Court. His death meant civil war among the many ancestors of Mazimpaka, the solution was a succession cycle, 4 kings to symbolise the ages, an age of peace, then cattle, then planting, then war. These ages were seen as set in stone, it was a way for them to control the ages, by declaring an epoch to be an age of war meant an age of an expansionist policy. When Rwogera died, this posed a problem, the next Mwami would be a Kigeri king – a king of war. When the elders looked at the contenders, none of them was warlike, Nkoronko was already a grown man, playing a polite fool to avoid enemies. Only a young Sezisoni showed the bloodlust of a Kigeri, he was expansionist ideologically, this played well with the hawks in the Court. Sezisoni became Kigeri Rwabugiri, recentralised power in his hands and died before he could use it properly.


In Burundi, there was a counterforce of decentralisation, regional chiefs held sway, this lead to longer reigns, more stability and the chiefs balanced each other until colonialism brought infighting. This was like a wheel with the Mwami as the hub. While the Rwandan system had long abandoned regional chiefs, with Ndori establishing a central court, then he sent his own chiefs to rule lands that were not ancestral to them. This court system concentrated power like a tip of a spear. The centralised court brought all the power into one room, this brought the most common Rwandan phenomenon in politics to the fore, amatiku – bad-mouthing, slander for profit, scheming the downfall of all around you. It was like taking frogs and putting them in a bucket, the only way to the top is by trampling others. This centralisation had implications in the Genocide, having all the power in a small clique made it easier to kill a portion of society. In Burundi, they had a war but not a genocide, because the decentralised structure allowed only for massacres but not mass-slaughter. I normally hate it when people use genocide as the main focal point of history, but it this case, the centralisation of power made it possible to commit genocide, a final irony.


Apocalypse then


One has to understand the world that Kanjogera was living in, the 1890’s were the most apocalyptic years Rwanda had seen till then, arrival of diseases, hundreds of diseases, smallpox might have killed up to 1 million Rwandans. Rinderpest killed the cattle, it was like burning down the central bank, 60% of GDP was lost. Arrival of the white man came in two guises; a soldier and a priest, a Cassandra moment to scream a prophecy which no one wants to hear. The Ruyaga famine was cutting a swathe across the country, a mass exodus from Rwanda, some 30% left the country, Rwanda seemed cursed. She did all she could to calm the spirits, some might call her a witch, but that was the prevailing religion of the day. What troubled her most was the White Fathers, their religion posed a threat to legitimacy that the Germans were trying to use to rule. Rwanda had gone through many changes of religion before; from Spirits, to Gihanga the creator, to Ryangombe, back to Gihanga. Then there were cults like the Goddess-Queen Nyabingi, ancestral shrines, worship of nature and all side by side. These systems had different beliefs; Gihanga was more passive, Ryangombe was pro-active, fatalism vs self-determinism, yet they coincided. She could see no way to reconcile traditional Rwandan beliefs with Western ones. Today, evangelical religions are finding success using that cell structure, it goes back to ancient Rwandan cults and mysteries, Rwandans feel safest in such intimate cells of kinship, not in public worship.


When Kanjogera heard that the White Fathers had come for the very souls of Rwandans, it scared her no end, her power rested in part on brute force, but also the notion that her son was divine, therefore legitimate. The White fathers tried to do their best not to antagonise the Court, but their mere presence was enough to weaken the legitimacy of the Court. A split would form in the middle based on whether to cooperate or not with the Whites. In this drama, you would have a family divided, Musinga and Ruhinankiko in favour of more cooperation, Kanjogera and Kabare opposed by all means. All other Rwandans would get caught up in this battle at the heart of the Kingdom, many proxies died for their political masters but the main players remained untouched. At the heart of it is a Freudian drama between a mother and her son, and two brothers against each other. Kanjogera and Kabare quietly resented each other, but they had the same position on the foreigners, meaning they wanted them out, but that was not possible. Ruhinankiko had battled with his brother Kabare for supremacy, their sister was always caught in the middle from childhood. The son of Rwabugiri, Baryinyonza was a favourite nephew of Ruhinankiko, he had also sworn to protect him from harm, but as an older son of Rwabugiri, Kanjogera always feared he would plot. She summoned Baryinyonza and Burabyo, but in fear they refused to go, this confirmed her suspicions, Kabare convinced her that they were plotting and she killed them in 1899. For a man to swear to protect you and failed to do so was a major loss of face for Ruhinankiko.


Later on, a Munyiginya called Rutishereka, who was protected by Kabare, got into trouble at court with rumours swirling of sorcery. Kabare went to ask for his brother, Ruhaninkiko, to support him in saving Rutishereka, he answered “I will help him like you helped young Baryinyonza.” A not too polite NO. Your standing at court depended on your word, if you could not protect your clients, then you were useless. Rutishereka was killed with 15 of his clients, the message was clear, having the wrong patron can get you killed even if you didn’t plot yourself. Then came the first Gisaka crisis, Gisaka is the Eastern part of Rwanda, from Rwamagana to Mutara. Gisaka had been conquered 100 or more years before, but until the 1870’s the old dynasties ruled, then Rwabugiri replaced the local rulers and this always brought trouble. Gisaka was the part of Rwanda most exposed to foreign influence, one of the first missionary stations was at Zaza, and this changed the dynamics of politics very quickly. A local man called Rukura who claimed to be descended for the greatest king of Gisaka, Kimenyi IV, got a letter from a German officer claiming he could rule in the name of the German Kaiser. He got 100 Ugandan Soldiers, as well as the local regiment, the Abarasa, to support him, his rebellion was gaining ground until the Fathers told him to back down.


Although the Fathers intervened to save the Court, they showed just how powerful they were, and the court was now indebted to them. This Non-governmental Organisation called SOMA – Society for Missionaries in Africa, known as “The White Fathers” had wrecked havoc in Buganda. They were chased out in the 1888, but the chasm they caused in Buganda Society still yawns today, Catholics vs Protestants, Abafaransa vs Abingereza, this was an armed NGO. The priests were mostly from the Germanic Alsace region of France, like Father Hirth, their mission was to co-opt the leadership into Christianity and then the wider population. The fathers came to play a major in Rwandan politics, as grieved parties came to the Fathers for help, one such case was Mpumbika. He had tried to stir another rebellion in Gisaka but backed down. Mpumbika was summoned to Kanjogera to face her wrath and sword, but instead ran to the Fathers, they intervened on his behalf, saying he should lose all his cattle and titles, as well as lands. The Fathers then went to the Germans and asked that executions of chiefs be stopped until they are approved by them. The Germans told Musinga that he could no longer kill his subjects without their approval. From now on all human rights violations would have to be approved by Western powers, same till this day.


So Mpumbika survived but couldn’t resist going to court to rub it in Kanjogera’s face, he knew she could not kill him and taunted her with mock affection, which she returned in kind. Mpumbika was not as clever as he thought, Kanjogera replied with her play, Mpumbika was castrated and his balls handed to her. Then 14 of his sons and clients were killed, ending his patronage network, worse than real death in those days. Mpumbika had calculated that even though he had lost his cattle and lands, enough people owed him favours for him to make a comeback. She killed him without stopping his heartbeat, his lineage was gone, his client-base, his balls too, he tried to keep his castration by Kanjogera secret but he was always the object of smirks. So a lesson was taught, we might not have the monopoly of violence, but these NGO’s can’t protect you all the time, and everywhere. For the Germans and the Fathers it showed that the administration was willing to play around with the rules to have their way, better to cooperate or God knows what they will do. As time went by, the lioness behind the reeds strengthened her position, her main opponent was her brother, Ruhinankiko. It was he who most vehemently advocated cooperation, modernisation, decentralisation, but his sister opposed this. She used the uprisings in Gisaka, where Ruhinankiko was governor, as a reason to sack him as the Chief Chief.


Ruhinankiko was the main influence on Musinga growing up, he was widely travelled and none of these new things at Court were new to him. He was ahead of his time, learning Swahili and French, he was obsessed with western knowledge, with guns, he wanted a modern Rwandan army with guns, he devised modifications for Rwandan military formations using guns and artillery. His brother Kabare saw him as a sell-out, an example of “Inyanga’Rwanda” but he saw them as a means to an end. With Ruhinankiko gone, Musinga had to fall under the will of his mother and oppose Western influence, but give in to it at various times. Those who opposed western influence like Kabare, Kayondo, Kaijuka and Kanungu were rewarded, but even they fell under the spell of it from time to time. The acolytes of Ruhinankiko would emerge again later, the reformers called the Inshongore – named after the yapping pack of dogs of Rwabugiri. They tried to use outside influence to bring inside change, at first they were a disparate group, various lords and chiefs who had fallen out of order. The inshogore became powerful when it attracted young, educated, modern Intore into its midst, they were torn between love and loyalty for the King and the need for reform.











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7 Responses to The Lioness Behind The Reeds

  1. Very interesting! The term “Amatiku” as defined here is really insightful! be interesting to know the origins and definition of other terms in common parlance such as “Y’infura” (excuse my spelling)

  2. Ngumbayingwe says:

    There are numerous errors in the article and copy paste from “Defeat is the only Bad News’ Nonetheless, some interesting and new insights: ‘When Kanjogera heard that the White Fathers had come for the very souls of Rwandans, it scared her no end, her power rested in part on brute force’;

    One would have wished to learn more about Kanjogera as the title suggests why was she like that? and a comparison her anti-thesis Muserekande (Nyiragahumuza) whose power rested in having gained the souls of Rwandans.

    A big mistake is the branding of ibishongore as modernizer! They were the forerunner of ibigarasha, enriching themselves with the help of the colonialist without caring for the nation. Musinga was not backward he also spoke Swahili and was very keen to modernize without loosing Rwanda’s soul. A recommendation to the author: read more, don’t look Rwanda in isolation ( amatiku are everywhere, they are essentially similar to content in modern tabloids); walk the talk (if you are from Rwanda as the name of the blog suggests, learn to write it properly, am sure this will spare you some misunderstandings (e.g. the typology of abatware is not correct).

  3. rwandareview says:

    This is the problem of History, if we cannot agree on what happened 10 minutes ago, then what about 100+ yrs ago? I grew up with stories of history in the house like anyone else, if you don’t like my version then write your own, that is how we advance history

  4. rwandareview says:

    About the Abashongore, at first they were Ibigarasha, then later they attracted Intore who wanted Rudahigwa

  5. Lilian Rutera says:

    Very eye opening, so much information on Kanjogera! I do not tire of reading this stuff! I am hooked! Good job Rama!

  6. munyankara says:

    Any thoughts on the Abega clan still running the country? I was told that one of our foremost leaders (Rwanda) belongs to the Rwakagara’s branch of Abega, specifically Cyigenza wa Rwakagara. Was Cyigenza as influential as his brothers?How come we don’t hear much about him?Are you aware of anything interesting about him?
    Also I may have heard that Ruhinankiko died in exile in Gitega, Burundi. Is the latter a true statement?
    Finally, if your research and interest takes you any where near umwami Mutara Rudahirwa, I would very much like to know more about him.

    P.S: Great article by the way…I love this stuff

  7. Munyangabe Rwaramba says:

    what does Ingabe symbolize in ancient Rwanda? My sisters are Mukamangabe, Musaningabe, and me Munyangabe.

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