During the European colonial era, Africans from all across the continent fought back to expel these downpressive forces, in order to regain their rightful independence from exploitation and tyrannical rule. A notable anti-colonial resistance movement, led by a lady named Muhumuza (also spelled Muhumusa), took place in the early 20th century in south-western Uganda. Muhumuza is seen as one of the many fantastic Warrior Queens in African history.
However, the whole movement itself began with the Nyabinghi religion, or cult, which came about many centuries before Muhumuza’s birth. Nyabinghi was one of the several prominent religions in the Kigezi district of Uganda in pre-colonial Africa.
According to oral tradition, in the 1700s, a queen, named Nyabinghi, was sovereign over the Kingdom of Karagwe, a north-western region in what is now known as Tanzania; Karagwe was one of the Great Lakes Kingdoms of East Africa. The modern day district, of the same name, in Tanzania would have been a part of this large, ancient kingdom.
Queen Nyabinghi then married Ruhinda, a chief of the short-lived Mpororo Kingdom, which spanned the area we would now recognise as south-western Uganda. Ruhinda remained in Karagwe, and devised a plan to overthrow Nyabinghi in order to take complete control of her kingdom; he succeeded with his plan and had his wife killed. It is said that the spirit of Nyabinghi terrorised Ruhinda and his stolen kingdom years after her passing, as well as anybody who enabled him to conduct a coup d’état against her.
The Nyabinghi cult started soon afterwards, and it provided a sanctuary for many people targeted by regimes at the time. As stated by the cult’s members, her spirit was to be maintained through manifestations exclusively within further generations of women in the nearby region. Nyabinghi priestesses, known as bagirwa (singular form: mugirwa), followed processes named okutweija and okuterekyerera in order to induct their daughters to the cult. This induction was necessary, because any non-inducted woman would have been unable to become the next personification of the Nyabinghi spirit. As a result, bagirwa introduced their daughters to the system at the earliest possible convenience, so that they would have had a large number of eligible women who would have been in the position to inherit the spirit once its former owner died. This ensured that the work of Queen Nyabinghi could be continued. In later years, the belief became less restrictive, and the first Nyabinghi priests also came into existence.
The Abami (singular: Mwami, meaning King) of the Kingdom of Rwanda became increasingly aware of the Nyabinghi following, and since it began to grow rapidly, it was common for a Mwami to demand that suspected heirs of her spirit to be targeted and murdered, in an attempt to negate any powerful, rebellious forces from arising. This shows that the large potential power offered by Nyabinghi’s spirit was feared greatly at the time.
In the centuries between Nyabinghi’s death and the rise to prominence experienced by Muhumuza, the religion had gained huge support, becoming a bastion of anti-establishmentarianism in response to Tutsi rule in Rwanda and its associated territories. Most adherents to Nyabinghi belonged to the ethnic group known as Bakiga (“people of the mountains”), as many of them were peasants and they too wanted to see social change.
Muhumuza was the widow of Kigeri IV – Rwabugiri, the Mwami of the Kingdom of Rwanda towards the end of the 19th century. Rwaburigiri was known as one of the most powerful Abami in the history of Rwanda and the first to have come into contact with Europeans. Muhumuza was left widowed after Rwaburigiri was betrayed and subsequently assassinated by his stepmother, who was working with the Europeans, in order to install her own son in power, Musinga. The negative influence of the European colonial powers was almost instantaneous; this led to years of instability in the region, which was followed by continuing animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu people, culminating in the Rwandan Genocide almost two centuries later in 1994, whose ugly legacy is prevalent today in present Rwandan society. Muhumuza and her son, Ndungusi, the rightful blood heir to the throne, were forced into exile in the mountains.
Initially, due to the fact that they were former royalty, both of them were not received well by the peasants. However, the two of them quickly learned to live with the Bakiga, and it is here where Muhumuza was exposed to the Nyabinghi teachings. From a non-adherent, she rose to be a mugirwa, and eventually gained full leadership, thanks to her powerful character, intelligence and charisma, and was revered as the next reincarnation of Nyabinghi herself. This gave her the religious and political legitimacy she required to gather a large enough following to support her desire to rid the Kingdom of its puppet ruler and to restore Ndungusi as the rightful Mwami.
She became increasingly hostile towards the European colonialists, who were manipulating Musinga to enforce themselves in the region. Muhumuza was arrested and jailed in 1908 by German and collaborating Rwandan forces for her continued aggression against the colonial powers. She was released two years later, and immediately returned to overthrow the puppet government, to no avail. She changed her tactics thereafter; she returned to a region named Ndorwa and, in an audacious plan, founded a new kingdom there. The support for this was huge, from both the Nyabinghi and locals who were also disgraced by colonialism. In 1911, Muhumuza launched her last attack against the opposing forces, in the form of an ambush on members of the Anglo-Belgian-Germany Boundary Commission. By this time, the British had also got involved in Rwanda, and they responded to this by killing 40 of Muhumuza’s fighters, as well as shooting her in the foot before finally capturing her. Muhumuza, with her tactical acumen and deeper understanding of the harm colonialism would have brought to the country than many of her followers, was seen as too great a threat to integrity of the colonial control, and was thus deported to Mengo, in Kampala, where she died in 1944/1945. She never got an opportunity to return to Kigezi.
Although she had been expelled, she had inspired a whole anti-colonial struggle in Rwanda in the name of Nyabinghi. The British were so fearful of what could come, that they wrote the Witchcraft Act of 1912, which outlawed practising “non-orthodox” beliefs such as Nyabinghi, in order to reduce the political power it provided. This struggle continued on a large scale until around 1928, when the last uprising, led by a man named Ndungutsi, was quashed by government forces, and he, along with 20 of his followers, were arrested and kept captive.
The legend of Queen Nyabinghi was one of the most defining in history of the Ugandan/Rwandan region, through supporting fights for freedom and justice, most notably during the early colonial era. While the dissident forces were unfortunately overpowered by the European weaponry, their valour and passion, inspired by Nyabinghi and women such as Muhumuza, is a story to behold and to remember.
A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700-1900 – Rhiannon Stephens
Politics, Religion, and Power in the Great Lakes Region – Murindwa Rutanga
Encyclopaedia of African History – D. Kiyaga-Mulindwa