Nyabingi the goddess of abundance





We don’t know our own culture, the white colonizers were so thorough in destroying our history that we can only see fragments of it. Around 20 years ago I was talking to a Rastafarian friend who heard I was Rwandan, he went deep into the story of Nyabingi “the spirit of Nyabingi was meant to protect Rwandans and all black men, Rwandans should have prayed to their mother to save them. The white God divides you, your culture unites. They have grieved Nyabingi and will be cursed.” It took me ages to understand what he meant, I am not superstitious but understanding our pre-Christian beliefs can help us understand and unite ourselves in the present context. There are so many things we do and don’t know why, Rwandans spit, if not literally as you will be fined, but ritualistically “Apppptooooo!!” we disdain and spit symbolically but that comes from curses. I curse you to die, spit to seal the curse. So back to Nyabingi, the Jamaicans revered her since 1896, when Marcus Garvey heard of a rebellion led in Rwanda and southern Uganda by a warrior-goddess called Muhumuza he was spurred into action. Muhumuza was possessed by the goddess Nyabingi, her son Mutabazi was a direct rival to Musinga, the Germans backed Kanjogera and that was that. This battle between Kanjogera and Muhumuza divided us into the nations we are today, the Kiga, Bahororo, Bahima, Basongora, Ankole, Bahweju, Bahaya, Toro, were with the British, while the rest went with the Germans and Belgians.



The myth vs reality

Muhumuza was trying to portray herself as fulfilling destiny, it was foreseen that at the moment when Rwanda was on the verge of collapse, she would be saved by the Spirit of Nyabingi, then her son Mutabazi would reign in peace forever. She has many names Nyabingi, Nyirabingi, Nyamwinshi, Nyabwinshi, Nyamingi, according to the dialect but the Myth is the same. She was claimed to be the daughter of Ndori Ruganzu, but other kingdoms claim her as well. She was the goddess of plenty, of abundance, of fertility, of love, of comfort. In prehistory she is the daughter of Gihanga the creator god, even after she died she possessed women who acted as her mediums. People would pray to her for good crops, love, comfort, and as an intercessor to Gihanga who was more severe as a father. So at the time when Rwanda was being colonized was total disaster, imagine 100 ebolas, measles, mumps, TB, whooping cough, polio, smallpox, flu, killed 35% of all people. Equal to that was the destruction of livestock, some 70% of all animals died, that includes the antelopes, elephants, lions, even the fish in the river. New diseases that we had no immunity to, so crops were not planted, people ran away to Uganda, Congo, TZ, and it must have been an apocalypse. Into this breach step two women, Muhumuza came out of nowhere so Kanjogera had to depose Rutarindwa because the rebellion in the North was threatening to sweep them all. Muhumuza led many rebellions in the North, the last was in 1928, she died peacefully in 1945.

The context


At the time it was only Nyabingi who was seen to be able to save Rwanda, there was no Umuganura in 1896 and people feared to eat the food cursed by Gihanga. Kangojera had no choice but to recast herself as a savior Queen, her son Musinga was seen as Mutabazi who will save Rwanda, and it worked. To understand the history of this you have to remove the Berlin Conference borders from your mind. To the Bachwezi Empires of the Great Lakes, Kitara is the oldest dating from 700AD and the rest are fragments of the Empire. In these empires women were co-rulers, even disproportionately powerful because they had two thirds of the power. The Queen-Mother, King and Queen all ruled as a triumvirate, the Mother performing ritual-spiritual purposes, The King as Military head, the Queen had Administrative powers. The ancient Kingdoms of Mpororo and Busongora had most reverence for Nyabingi, Ndori is said to have come from Busongora. During the 16th century a Rwandan Prince Murari fled to Busongora and became a lover of Queen Kitami and she promised him soldiers to fight his borther  Kigeli II Nyamuhesha. Rwandan troops followed Murari into Mpororo and destroyed the palace at the capital Rujumbura, they moved north into Busongora and destroyed the Kingdom and its capital Bunyampaka. Mururi and Kitami had a child called Kahaya Rutindangyenzi, he became the king of the buffer state Ndorwa. Kitami died of a toxic bee sting, and her Kindgom was in disarray, a tiny bee diverted history. Her top generals formed two buffer states, a newer Mpororo and Ndorwa to the south, Kitami was sanctified as a manifestation of Nyabingi who would return to save them.


The virgin birth

The reason why Muhumuza was taken seriously was scientific proof, she was a pregnant virgin, senior chiefs who doubted her were invited to inspect her intact hymen. How could this be? Without going into too much detail, it involved a very thin straw reed and deviousness. We must disavow our modern thinking to understand Nyabingi, like, women on their periods were seen as blessed by Nyabingi, the goddess of fertility had possessed her and she was in a foul mood. It was a blessing to come home and find your wife in a mood, throwing pots around and screaming. Women were encouraged to let it all out once a month as therapy. Barren women would pray to Nyabingi and give offerings at her shrines, if she blessed you with menstruation then it was a future abundance. Women had central power in our culture, in rituals and spirituality, in confession and advice. Our ancient kingdoms reflected this in how power was distributed, between the physical and the spiritual, military strength was not enough, you needed spiritual and administrative power as well. The home reflected this, with the grandmother often living with you and having sway in matters. So Nyabingi was Venus and the Virgin Mary in one, a virgin and also a goddess of sex and fertility. To fully understand this you must understand the former kingdoms that predate Rwanda, we have a common history and culture.

Our modern world

If you are a Seventh Day Adventist in Rwanda then you come from a former house of Nyabingi, the followers of Nyabingi converted en masse around 1917 because it was the only form of Christianity acceptable to Musinga and Kanjogera. That forever put the Adventists at odds with the Catholic Church in Rwanda, as they are elsewhere. Adventists were one of the targeted groups in the Genocide, even Hutu Adventists were massacred because the religion was wrongly seen as Tutsi. In understanding our prehistory we understand ourselves today, we have labeled it all as “Ubupfumu, uburozi, ubupagani” but it is still in our subconscious. When a Western Evangelical comes talking about “The blood, washing in the blood!” it connects because that is what we used to do in it same rituals. Catholicism took hold because we could equate Nyabingi with Virgin Mary and Mutabazi with Jesus, and find other parallels which meant it wasn’t alien, plus we were monotheistic so it could translate. To see a Saint of Rwanda revered as patron saint of the Rastafarians, second only to God, above Selassie, is a sign that our culture resonates. Nyabingi may not have been real in the literal sense, but she was an idea, of hope, abundance, self-determination, and the intervening hand of God. When we say “Wokabyara we” we refer to her, her fertility, Nyabusa is her cruel sister “Nyabusa we” we beg her. She is particularly revered in the Northwest, the most fertile part of Rwanda, as Bakiga climbed the mountain the volcanic black soil was seen as blessed by Nyabingi. We really need to study our culture, it has the answers to all the questions we have. We need to decolonize education, understand our true context and use our culture to heal ourselves and others. Just like Jamaicans mobilized to independence by having late night prayer sessions with the Drums of Nyabingi calling to her spirit to guide them to fight against the British. It worked for them. What would it do for us?




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1 Response to Nyabingi

  1. Amata says:

    This is amazing. I love the mental emancipation in this.

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