The palace was a large brick residence with a wide verandah
in the style of a European villa.


Mwami Rudahigwa received all the gifts with cool indifference
as he sat impassively on the verandah with Queen Rosalie.

Thousand Hills

by Rosamond Carr

A Feudal Kingdom
chapter 16, pages 109-113

In retrospect, the 1950s in Rwanda were the waning years of a great kingdom. Its manifestations were as florid and baroque in their own way as were those preceding the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire prior to World War I. It is undeniable that many of us heard faintly in the distance the rumblings of dissent, but none of us would have predicted that life as we had known it was about to change irrevocably...

When I first came to Rwanda in 1949, the mwami, or Tutsi king, was Charles Mutara Rudahigwa, who - at six feet, nine inches tall - was, during his reign, the tallest monarch on earth. Rudahigwa's reign had not been an easy one, though. He had succeeded his father, Yuhi Musinga, who was deposed by the Belgian administration after a thirty-five-year reign on account of his contempt for Christianity and his fanatical adherence to the past....

Rudahigwa's mother had been Musinga's first wife. Although Rudahigwa was the eldest son, Musinga had numerous wives and many children. Traditionally, the successor to the throne was one of the king's younger sons, as the strength of Rwanda was symbolized by the virility of the king. According to legend, the true heir to the throne must be a child born holding in his tiny hands the seeds of millet, squash, or other plants indigenous to Rwanda - an indication from their god, Imana, that he was destined to rule. The identity of this infant who was to become the successor was confided by the king to three trusted courtiers - members of the royal council, called "Abiru" - who revealed it publicly only after the king's death. After giving birth to the royal heir, the young queen never bore another child. She lived apart from the mwami and dedicated her life to the nurturing and protection of the young heir to the throne.

At the time of Musinga's deposal in 1931, Rudahigwa had already attained considerable recognition and prominence as a subchief. He was fluent in French (which endeared him to the Belgians) and acquiesced to the Belgian demand that Rwanda adopt Catholicism as its national religion. Accordingly, the Belgians chose Rudahigwa over his many brothers as Musinga's successor and proclaimed him mwami. Throughout his reign, Rudahigwa struggled to maintain the delicate balance necessary to appease the Belgian administration and, at the same time, preserve the supremacy and omnipotence of the mwami over his subjects.

* * *

My first introduction to the mwami and his royal court was in 1956, when the Hollywood film King Solomon's Mines, based on H. Rider Haggard's adventure classic, was shown to the king and queen and the royal courtiers. The movie, which was partially filmed on location in Rwanda and starred Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, contains some of the most authentic African dance sequences on film, including a dazzling depiction of the dance of the Intore, such as I had seen performed in Gisenyi on New Year's Day of 1955.

Solomon Movie

The showing of King Solomon's Mines had been arranged by the American Consulate in Leopoldville and took place in the royal city of Nyanza. Many of the European residents of Rwanda were invited, myself included. The mwami and his queen, their courtiers, and the Tutsi nobles who took part in the film were all present, as were a number of Belgian officials and priests from a nearby mission. It was a mild, clear night, charged with an air of excitement and wonder. A large screen was erected in the middle of a wide dirt road. On one side of the screen, chairs had been set up for the invited guests. On the other side (the back side), a huge crowd of Banyaruanda sat with expectant faces waiting for the movie to begin.

The king and his entourage made a ceremonial entrance. One would be hard-pressed to find a more majestic figure than this giant of a monarch who could trace his family dynasty back more than four hundred years. Rudahigwa and his courtiers were dressed in traditional white robes with flowing togas knotted at their shoulders, and his queen, Rosalie Gicanda, was wrapped in billowing layers of pale pink.

A disheveled young American arrived with the movie reels just before sundown and began to set up the projector....The soundtrack for the film was in English, and as a result, the Africans were unable to understand the dialogue. Restlessness and murmurs of disappointment rippled through the crowd until the action sequences progressed to the familiar landscape of Rwanda. From that point on, the spectators provided their own soundtrack with cheers and improvisional dialogue, as they followed the safari adventure across the desert to the royal city of Nyanza, shouting with glee each time they recognized friends - and in some instances themselves - on the big movie screen.

The city of Nyanza was almost entirely devoid of Western influence, as the Belgian administration had refrained from intruding upon the royal seat of the Tutsi monarchy. There were no hotels, and outside visitors were discouraged. When the movie ended, the king and his entourage and most of the invited guests assembled at the one small restaurant in town for sandwiches and drinks. The rumpled young American sat as far from his royal hosts as possible and spoke to no one. I longed to speak to Mwami Rudahigwa and the queen; however, unsolicited conversations were frowned upon. Accordingly, my overtures were limited to smiles from across the room, for which I received the briefest nod of acknowledgment...

chapter 17, pages 115-119

In June of 1957, I had the opportunity to witness the royal court in all its spendor when I journeyed to Nyanza to attend the three-day Jubilee celebration marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reign of Mwami Rudahigwa. Thousands of spectators came on foot from great distances to pay homage to the king. Others came packed like sardines in the back of trucks, singing joyfully as they bounced along in billowing clouds of dust over the winding roads that led from all corners of the realm to the royal city of Nyanza.

I was accompanied by Karin Bielska's three children, their dutch housekeeper, and my houseboy, Edouard. We brought along tents and hampers of food and pitched a campsite in one of the lovely groves of eucalyptus trees outside the royal village. We had departed Gisenyi long before sunup and arrived in Nyanza just as the royal procession was beginning to make its way slowly toward the stadium. The scene was as colourful and majestic in its own way as was the pageantry of the royal courts of Europe. The long cortege was made up entirely of Tutsi nobles - their imposing height accentuated by the white togas they wore fastened at their shoulders and the long white robes wrapped around their slender bodies.

Rudahigwa, the queen, and the queen mother were carried into the stadium on ornate typoys borne upon the shoulders of Hutu servants. The king was dressed in white and wore a long cape of royal blue draped about his shouders. His headdress was a cascading plumage of white sisal attached to a wide band of blue and white beads, with long beaded fringe that parted over his face and fell to his shoulders. The queen, Rosalie Gicanda, was dressed in a white gown wrapped in a cloud of white tulle. The queen mother, Kankaza Nyiraruvugo, wore a headdress similar to that worn by the king and was dressed in a pink tunic and a voluminous skirt of soft white fabric. Her shoulders were draped in a shawl of white organdy banded with gray silk. The queen mother ruled the kingdom in partnership with her son, and was therefore almost as revered as he. She closely resembled the king in physical appearance and was so youthful-looking she could easily have been mistaken for the queen. The three monarchs maintained expressions of solemn dignity - neither smiling nor acknowledging the enthusiastic greetings of the cheering crowd.

The ceremonies opened with a Catholic Mass conductd by Monseigneur Bigirumwami, the first ordained African bishop in the Belgian territories of the Congo and Rwanda-Burundi....

At the conclusion of the Mass, the entire assemblage made its way to the royal palace through a wood of eucalyptus trees. I marveled at the specter of the tall figures dressed in white who seemed to float gracefully beneath the trees in the filtered sunlight. Their towering height and regal bearing evoked a feeling of wonder and awe. The men walked in pairs, often holding hands, as is the custom in Rwanda. Women, in groups of four or five, chattered animatedly among themselves in hushed voices as they approached the palace.

At the edge of the wood, we joined the crowd on a small square of lawn in front of the palace to witness one of the most solemn rituals of the festival - the presentation of the royal drum, Kalinga, the sacred symbol of sovereignty. Kalilnga itself was never beaten. Rather, other drums were beaten in its honor. It was said that the sacred drum was ornamented with the genital organs of enemies killed in battle. Kalinga was always kept well guarded from public view, and I was therefore surprised to learn that its presentation was to be one of the events at the Jubilee. The presentation did take place; however, the drum was so heavily swathed in layers of white cloth that its shape and size were completely obscured. It was borne upon a litter carried by Batwa men, followed by Hutu women singing a symbolic song. At the end of each verse, the women would raise their arms in gestures of subservience to Kalinga.

The palace was a large brick residence with a wide veranda in the style of a European villa. Following the ceremony, Batwa men presented their offerings to the king. Among the gifts were cows with newborn calves, ornate pots of honey, drums, leopard skins, and carved stools - all of which Rudahigwa received with cool indifference as he sat impassively on the veranda with the royal family and Belgian officials.

The afternoon festivities reconvened at the stadium. Awaiting the king was a glittering array of gifts that streteched from one end of the stadium to the other. Many were presented in pantomine or ancient tribal ritual. Among the gifts were a grandfather clock, a motorboat, and a Mercedes Benz. The early kings of Rwanda toured their kingdom in small, beautifully thatched grass huts attached to long horizontal poles, which were carried on the shoulders of servants. A perfect replica of one of these "touring huts" was presented to Rudahigwa, who in fact toured his kingdom in a Lincoln convertible. Again, the extravagant gifts and their presenters were not acknowledged at all.

When I expressed my thoughts to Edouard, who was standing right beside me, he looked at me in stunned disbelief. "But, Madame," he said, "everything in Rwanda belongs to the mwami! The land, the crops, the people, and the animals are all his!" Why, indeed, would a person be grateful for a gift that already belongs to him?

The most beautiful cows in the land, called "inyambo", were ushered into the stadium by royal attendants. These sacred cows were kept solely for the pleasure of the king and for exhibit on holiday and special occasions. They were magnificent beasts, adorned with beaded necklaces and tiny antelope horns. Their great lyre-shaped horns were ornately decorated. Their hoofs were brightly polished, and their udders were painted white.

All of Rwanda's traditional ceremonies were enacted during the festival, making it a truly historical pageant. Tutsi women, dressed in skirts of brightly dyed cowhide, represented the queens of the early kings. Attached to their headbands were two fifteen-inch-long antennae covered with tiny red and white beads, and their ankles were encircled with hundreds of bands of a special grass called "ubutega"....

The highlight of the festival was the dance of the Intore. One hundred dancers with brilliant, multicolored sisal headdresses streaming about their faces tossed their heads and pounded the earth with their feet in perfect rhythm to the beating drums, leaping higher and higher into the air. We left the field amid the ceaseless roar of spectators. It had been a dazzling spectacle, and although we did not know it at the time, it was to be one of the last such celebrations of the great Tutsi dynasty.

* * *

Soon afterward, there began to be indications of open dissension between the Tutsi monarchy and the Belgian administration. Rudahigwa feared the newly enacted Belgian reforms were undermining his power and that the democratic principles advocated by the Europeans threatened the supremacy of the Tutsi race and the continuation of their rigid caste system. Rudahigwa deliberately incited hostility toward the Belgian authorities among his chiefs and courtiers.

On the morning of July 27, 1959, a rumor began to circulate throughout Mutura that the mwami was dead. The workmen gathered at the drying house and begged me to tell them if this was true. I went to the house and turned on the radio - dialing station after station. I finally picked up a frequency from Brazzaville in the French Congo that reported: "The Mwami of Rwanda died on July 25 at Usumbura. The cause of his death has not been announced." I immediately returned to the drying house and told the men what I had heard. They received the news in stunned silence, then left the plantation and returned to their homes.

I was left alone to ponder what the true circumstances were and what the repercussions would be. I was shocked to learn that Rudahigwa was dead and felt apprehensive about the future. The official explanation of Rudahigwa's death was announced the following day. It was reported that on July 25, while in Usumbura, Rudahigwa had complained of a severe headache. He was taken to the hospital where he was treated by his Belgian physician. As he was leaving the hospital, he suddenly grasped his head in his hands and crumpled to the floor in a lifeless heap. The forty-eight-year-old monarch was pronounced dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Almost immediately, speculation was rampant throughout the land that the mwami had been assassinated. Indeed, many of us feared that he had been murdered by the Belgians, perhaps by lethal injection. Two independent European doctors were called in, and both concurred with the original diagnosis. Due to mounting tension within the country, an autopsy was advised. The queen mother flatly rejected the idea, and the autopsy was never performed....

The funeral services were held in the royal city of Nyanza on July 28, 1959, in the presence of Monsieur Harroy, vice-governor of Rwanda-Burundi;...Mwami Mwambutsa of Burundi; Bishop Bigirumwami; and other dignitaries of the Catholic Church. I did not attend, as I had been advised that, with the widespread suspicion that the mwami had been assassinated, the attitude toward Belgians in particular and foreigners in general was very antagonistic.

The funeral was, in effect, the last great manifestation of the Tutsi dynasty in Rwanda. Friends later described the event as being fraught with tension....

A long procession carried Rudahigwa's body to the sacred burial ground. Grand Chief Kayihura of Gisenyi stepped forward and shouted in a voice strained with emotion that the mwami could not be buried until the royal council, Abiru, had designated his successor. Complete silence fell upon the crowd as a member of the royal council came forward and announced that the childless Rudahigwa had chosen as his successor his young half-brother, Jean Ndahindurwa, who had taken the name of Kigeli V.

A wild roar erupted as a young man - seven feet tall and astonishingly thin - stepped forward to greet his subjects. Instantly, all hostility was forgotten as the people cheered their new sovereign. The power of the absolute monarchs of Rwanda was nearing extinction, however, and the reign of Mwami Kigeli V would last less than two years.

~ end of excerpts from LAND OF A THOUSAND HILLS by Rosamond Carr ~


Rwanda former king eyes return (King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa says he was forced from his throne illegally). BBC, Aug 17, 2007. Go to RWANDA KING WANTS RWANDA

Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~