Why Did Rwanda’s Fiercest Woman Die Teaching Black Magic in Kampala?

Muserekande, born c. 1870, was one of the wives of King Rwabugiri of Rwanda. On his death in 1895 there was a succession dispute led by the Beega clan who championed Musinga, a son aged 15. Muserekande escaped, changed her name to Muhumuza (“She who gives rest from tyranny”) and attempted to make her son, Bulegye, king. She spearheaded a coalition in the rebellion that split Rwanda into the north seeking independence and the south.

Muhumuza was initially successful but the arrival of European invaders completely changed the dynamics. From 1897 on, the Germans supported Musinga — then 17 years old and probably easy to manipulate — and they ruthlessly suppressed all resistance. However this took time, nearly ten years.

Muhumuza adopted Nyabingi and soon went further, claiming to be her personification; normally Nyabingi mediums acted as plaintiffs and messengers. The Rwandan monarchy historically had little love for Nyabingi, preferring Ryangombe, an ancestral military deity. They actively suppressed Nyabingi as a threat and they were not alone, as many clan rainmaker chiefs thought the same.

WHAT IS NYABINGI?

Nyabingi (“she who has or brings wealth”) is a fertility goddess and a spirit. She was the basis of the ideology of resistance before and during colonial conquest.

Nyabingi belongs to female earth energy and is concerned with fertility (particularly covering women, livestock and crops), health, prosperity and success. It complements and is interdependent with male earth energy that is concerned with the forces of nature and power (especially focused on the political power of divine kingship).

It is a mistake to view Nyabingi as a homogenous set of beliefs and practices or a specific religion with a hierarchy of leader mediums, officers and disciples. The relationship between Nyabingi and its practitioners varied with the person and his or her social circumstances, and could focus on health, spirituality or military action.

In their individual capacity Nyabingi mediums solved problems that could not be resolved by other spirit mediums. The procedure was that a supplicant would approach a medium and explain their problem and would be told what to bring as offerings.

The main issues for Nyabingi used to be barrenness among women, childhood illnesses, cattle mortality, crop failures and problems with malevolent spirits and ancestors. While they were common in the 19th century, in the 20th century they were used infrequently and somewhat reluctantly. Then it was regarded as dangerous and only used as a last resort in times of extreme crisis; afterwards most people would have nothing more to do with it.

Nyabingi mediums were expensive and demanded high fees for their services including livestock, food, honey beer, young girls, labour and other services.

The Germans captured Muhumuza in 1908 at Kamwezi and interned her in Bukoba until 1910, when she was either released or escaped.

She then proclaimed herself queen of Ndorwa (an area historically as far north as Kabale) but she wasn’t very successful in gaining allies. Many Bakiga clans, particularly the Basigi, who resisted Rwabugiri’s three invasions in the 1870–80s, had a natural antipathy to Tutsi aristocrats.

Muhumuza instructed her followers to search for the sacred drum, Kalinga, and claimed that upon finding it Bulegeye would become king and all her followers would receive cows from underground. She predicted that bullets would turn to water.

By this time the English had arrived and severely hampered her efforts; she now had three sets of enemies. While she had little love for Europeans she never attacked them directly, preferring to focus on chiefs loyal to them. This led to an influx of refugees to Ikumba, the headquarters of colonial administration, seeking protection. She became more of a threat when she set up camp at Ihanga Hill, between Ikumba and today’s Kabale (founded in 1913).

A surprise colonial attack under Capt. Reid, who commanded a contingent of King’s African Rifles and local levies, led to a six hour battle and her defeat; about 40 of her Bakiga allies were killed. She was captured lightly wounded in the foot.


District Commissioner Coote gave this impression of Muhumuza:

By dint of years of training, she has acquired a high falsetto voice and professes inability to walk normally, her method of position being on tip-toe in a crouching position with the aid of two sticks. The chiefs with scarcely an exception trembled whenever her look was directed towards them… (she made) most notable efforts to exercise some form of hypnotism over me.

The arrest caused complications because the area had not yet been formally incorporated into the Uganda Protectorate therefore the Kigezi administration had no power to try her. The Governor ordered her deportation to Kampala, with four servants and some cows.

She was not a prisoner; by 1931 she had 15 courtiers and servants and ‘admitted’ to 70 cows; in other words, the English didn’t know how many she had — surprising given taxes and compulsory rinderpest inoculations.

Most of Muhumuza’s income came from the sale of milk. It seems that she was living a comfortable life as an exiled royal and had many admirers and visitors, whom she initiated into Nyabingi rituals. She was known as Nabere in Kampala.

Her reputation was such that the English were afraid to let her go. In 1931 District Commissioner Rogers wrote that:

The fear of this is still apparent. I understand that considerable court is still paid to the woman Muhumusa now resident in Kampala and the chiefs at the recent full baraza, were emphatic on the subject of her potential danger and non-return.

M. J. Bessel, a cadet in the Kigezi colonial administration, gave a very sympathetic portrait when he met her in the 1930s:

She is over 60 years of age but still has all her wits about her and is a lively talker. Fate has certainly dealt hardly with her, for the success which she missed by a short interval of three years would have made her a very much honoured Queen-Mother with far more than the usual measure of influence and authority at the court of the Mwami of Ruanda.

Muhumuza died in 1944 or 1945.

photo from E. M. Jack’s “On the Congo Frontier”; it was taken in 1911 came with thee following caption: THE WITCH-DOCTOR MUMUSA. Mumusa is the central figure. Near her are women and followers; K.A.R., askaris, native levies, etc.

Responses

  1. Some small changes to the above. Musekerande was not an official wife of Rwabugiri as listed by the noted Rwandan historian, Alexis Kagame, but may have been a mistress while on his numerous military campaigns. There is no actual evidence that Muhumuza is the same person as Musekerande who was reported to have drowned in the late 1890s some years before Muhumuza became prominent. There is no evidence that Bulegye existed except for his name, his birth as the king’s son was not celebrated by his courtiers as was normal. A child was found when she was captured in 1911 whose name and fate are unknown. The battle skirmish was probably much shorter than 4 hours as Ihanga was surrounded on three sides by riflemen who attacked in rotation. Many of her men were killed; the wounded were killed or brought to Ikumba for treatment. She was one of several military leaders, with Rukara, Basebya, Ndungutse and Katuregya, that sought to take advantage political vacuum in a divided Rwanda created by the 1896 Rucunshu coup that brought Musinga to power . I wonder if she taught her Nyabingi knowledge in Kampala as she received an annual pension from the Kigezi Native Administration that was probably doubled in 1938 after a government inquiry as to her wealth when her cattle herd was decimated by disease. I suspect she gained some status and protection as an alleged ex-queen and didn’t want to create any problems for herself knowing she could never return home

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