Login *:
Password *:


28-05-2015, 07:51

Nyabingi Cult and Resistance

The anti-colonial Nyabingi resistance movement had its origins in a secret society organization and was led by a woman called Muhumuza in southwestern Uganda between 1910 and 1930. The Nyabingi cult, however, dates much further back, to about 1700. The Nyabingi cult was one of the many religions in Kigezi in precolonial times. Many oppressed minorities sought and found sanctuary and refuge in the Nyabingi cult. Through the process of Okutweija, many priestesses (bagirwa, sing. mugirwa) or agents of Nyabingi (always women) dedicated their daughters to the cult, thus ensuring a pool of ready adherents. There were many such bagirwa in various parts of Mpororo and Rwanda proclaiming Nyabingi’s edicts and wishes.

Oral tradition claims that Nyabingi, a sovereign queen, ruled the northwestern Tanzania kingdom of Karagwe (Omugole) about 1700. She was later married to Ruhinda, a chief of Mpororo in southwest Uganda, who remained in her kingdom as prince consort. Ruhinda subsequently overthrew his queen, had her killed, and took over the kingdom himself. Nyabingi’s sprit brought untold woes to Ruhinda and his kingdom, including the annexation of the Ndorwa region by the Mwami of Rwanda. The sprit of Nyabingi then appeared in Kisiki, Rwanda. This new personification of Nyabingi in Rwanda was killed by Mwami Lwagera of Rwanda, seeking to negate any other famous or potentially powerful forces in his own kingdom.

Around 1860, another personification of Nyabingi appeared—again in Rwanda—during the reign of Mwami Lwabugiri Kigeri IV. This spirit possession was through Kahaya’s daughter, one of Mwami’s vassal chiefs. Kahaya’s daughter, Kanzanira, was subsequently killed on her own father’s orders, and her spirit ostensibly reincarnated in a destitute woman called Rutajira Kijuna (Rutajira Muhanda). Rutajira’s personification of Nyabingi almost turned her into the ruler of Ndorwa. She toured the country, receiving salutations of “Kisinje” (a term of salutation only due to royalty), as she cured the sick by evoking the powers of Nyabingi. Again, another Mwami of Rwanda, Lubugiri, could not stand Rutajira’s fame and on his orders, Rutajira was killed and was succeeded by her son Katondwe at Kyante Rutaji. For over two centuries, the Nyabingi cult had gained momentum and recognition, especially among the peasant Bakiga community, as a religion of the oppressed and disadvantaged. The cult remained anti-establishment and the main opposition was directed toward the ruling Tutsi class in Rwanda and its territories.

The Nyabingi cult took root particularly in Ndorwa, Mpororo kingdom, where most of the inhabitants were the subject Bahutu. Here the area was not very favorable for cattle and as such there were very few Batusi in Ndorwa. Mwami’s authority here was almost nonexistent. The area was an outlaw territory of political dissidents and runaways fleeing the Mwami’s authority.

This was the cultural and political environment in which Muhumuza, wife of Mwami Lwabugiri and mother to the heir apparent, found herself as an exile from civil wars in her native Rwanda. Mwami Lwabu-giri had died in 1894 and left the throne to Muhumuza’s son Bulegeya, at the time only an infant. Bulegeya’s claim to the throne was challenged by the Bega clan, who also had a contender from their clan. Muhumuza and her son were forced to flee to Mpororo with the remnants of the royal guard.

She established herself on Mount Lutobo, northeast of Ndorwa in Mpororo kingdom. But Muhumuza, an obvious MuTutsi woman, former wife of Mwami Lwabugiri and also mother of the heir to the throne in Rwanda, was not readily accepted by the people of Ndorwa. Her flight from Rwanda did not lessen her desire to see her son become the next Mwami at some future date. She wanted to remain in contact with sympathizers back home. She realized that she needed political power, or some other type of awe-inspiring authority. She could only achieve all this by associating herself with the cult of Nyabingi. She first became a Mugirwa (Nyabingi priestess), and through her intelligence, force of character, and resolve, she gradually achieved leadership among Bagirwa, before claiming herself the reincarnation of Nyabingi. She thus claimed both religious and political legitimacy, and drew thousands of dedicated followers.

In 1903 Muhumuza intercepted a group of White Fathers missionaries near Lutobo on their way to found the Rivaza Mission in southern Ndorwa. She became increasingly anti-European and particularly hostile to the Germans, who were propping up Masinga on the Rwandan throne, creating the basis of their administration there. In 1908 Muhumuza was arrested by the Germans near Kaamwezi and jailed for two years in Bukoba. Upon her release from prison, she attempted to capture Rwanda for her son but was repulsed by the Germans and their Rwandan collaborators. She returned to Ndorwa, where she attempted to carve out a kingdom by declaring herself the queen of Ndorwa, and both as queen and the reincarnation of Nyabingi, she raised a large following of Bakiga and Banyarwanda, declaring herself the liberator of Ndorwa.

In 1911 Muhumuza and her forces attacked members of the Anglo-Belgian-German Boundary Commission constructing boundary pillars from Kamwezi to Mount Muhavura, through Ndorwa. A reprisal attack by British forces on Ihanga Hill was an ambush in which about forty of Muhumuza’s men were killed and Muhumuza herself was shot in the foot and captured. As a military and political threat to British administration, Muhumuza was deported to Mengo where she died in 1944, without ever returning to Kigezi.

Her followers, the Bagirwa, continued the anticolonial struggle. Nyabingi priests and priestesses continued harassing the agents of British administration until 1928. In 1915 a Nyabingi priest, Ndochibiri, attacked a strongly guarded Anglo-Belgian post at Chahaji in Bufumbira with a two thousand-strong force; the battle lasted five hours. Between April and May 1917, Ndochibiri and his followers organized another secret rebellion against the British and Belgian agents and their works. This was supposed to be the final rebellion to oust Europeans from the entire district of Kigezi and Kabale. However, Ndochibiri and his followers were ambushed near Kabale, and the entire party was wiped out. Ndochibiri’s head was cut off and sent to England; it is supposedly still held in the British Museum. His two-fingered hand was also cut off and for a time displayed in Kabale to prove that he had indeed been killed.

These military measures seem to have broken up the central organization of the Nyabingi cult. Although various Bagirwa claimed to be reincarnations of Nyabingi, they were not strong enough to cause concern for the authorities until 1928, when a rebellion led by a man called Ndungutsi attacked Kabale station and the Kabale mission. They later attacked and killed a Muluka chief and two Batongole chiefs before they were overtaken by government forces. Ndungutsi and about twenty of his followers were arrested and sent to jail. That was the last organized uprising under the aegis of the Nyabingi cult in southwest Uganda.

D. Kiyaga-Mulindwa

See also: Religion, Colonial Africa: Religious Responses to Colonial Rule.

Further Reading

Bamuhigire, O. “The Woman who Fought Colonialism.” The New Vision. December 28, 1999.

Murindwa, R. Nyabingi Movement: Peoples’Colonial Struggles in Kigezi 1910-1930. Kampala: Centre for Basic Research. Phillips, Captain J. E. T. “Nyabingi an Anti-European Secret Society in Africa, in British Ruanda, Ndorwa and the Congo (Kivu).” Congo. Revue Generale de Colonie Belge.