The African resistance against colonial rule in East Africa was a common theme in the 20th century leading up to independence with many African societies seeking to free themselves from its yoke. At the beginning of the 20th century, a movement ensued against colonialism in Southwestern Ugandan, northern Rwanda and northern Tanzania. Its leader, a Ugandan warrior Queen named Muhumuza who had been the wife of King Kigeli IV Rwabugiri until his demise in 1895. The movement came to be known as the Nyabingi movement or cult.
The Nyabingi cult predates Queen Muhumuza. It was one of the several prominent religions in the Kigezi district of Uganda during pre-colonial Africa. Although there are different oral traditions about the origins of this Nyabingi deity, it is widely accepted that Nyabingi was the spirit of a legendary Rwandan/Ugandan/Tanzanianian woman whose name is reported to mean “the one who possesses many things”.
She was thought to be a powerful force in everyday life and it was connected to fertility, health, production of farm yields. From her doctrine of action, militancy, and courage, Nyabingi also came to be known as Rutatiina-Mireego – one who never fears bows and arrows. The cult gained popularity because of its spiritual and temporal ideals. The Nyabingi cult had long been used as an ideology of resistance long before colonialism. Rwandan kings resented this deity because of its anti-monarchical underpinnings.
It was popular among the Kiga people who resisted King Rwabugiri IV expansionist policies. In social conflicts, the Nyabingi religion was a religion of the oppressed and provided a foundation for solidarity, courage, and action against the oppressors.
Queen Muhumuza and the Nyabingi resistance movement.
Muhumuza is now regarded as one of the most formidable warrior Queens in African History. However, before she led the Nyabingi movement, she had been one of the king’s wives at the Rwandan royal court. Following the death of King Rwabugiri in 1895, she was left widowed and a succession battle ensued after Rwabugiri’s favourite wife, Kanjora overthrew the chosen successor Rutarindwa, and enthroned her son, Musinga. Muhumuza fled north to Mpororo with her son Biregeya to escape the massacre. While in the north, she adopted the Nyabingi and became a popular umugirwa or medium of Nyabingi.
By claiming spiritual authority through Nyabingi, Muhumuza was able to rally the Abakiga people of Southern Uganda behind her to challenge Musinga’s claim to the throne. In response, Musinga asked the German colonisers to help defeat the Muhumuza Movement. However, not all Bakiga paid homage to her for example Basigi of Kagarama had no sympathy for any Rwandan aristocrats given their history that had been characterised by Rwabugiri’s raids. They enlisted the support of the British against her. As a result, Muhumuza’s Nyabingi movement grew into an anti-colonial campaign against monarchical collaborators and colonialists. The German and British forces became aware of the increasing danger of her influence within the region.
Emin Pasha described Muhumuza as ‘Queen Nyabingi’ who governed the pastoralist state of Mpororo. That she communicated with her subjects through a screen of bark cloth and such was her mystique that she had ‘never been seen by anyone, not even by her own subjects’. In Mpororo, as in ancient Kingdoms of Ankole and Karagwe, she was said to be ‘capable of bewitching people and also benefitting them.’ Kiga highlanders found her to be a compelling figure.
It is claimed that Muhumuza instructed her followers to search for a sacred drum, Karinga, a symbol of Rwandan royal power and that upon finding it, her son Biregeya would become King and all her followers would receive cows from underground. She also predicted that her followers would be invulnerable and that bullets would turn to water, a common motif of rebel propaganda. Muhumuza had six men in her retinue who carried her shoulder-high, on a palanquin whenever she wished to travel. Many believed her to be the reincarnation of Nyabingi, the legendary female spirit. Such was her influence that at the height of her powers, there were some 3,000 people living around her fortified home in Southern Kigezi. Her granaries bulged with produce, and there were great quantities of dried meat in her larders.
Muhumuza became increasingly hostile towards European colonialists who were manipulating Musinga to enforce themselves in the region. 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. Muhumuza was arrested and jailed at Bukoba in 1908 by German and collaborating Rwandan forces for her continued aggression against the colonial powers.
She escaped from Bukoba in 1911 and returned to Uganda but found the political situation had changed as European-led forces were now established. She later proclaimed herself as Queen of Ndorwa, present-day Kigezi. She spearheaded another anti-colonial uprising and declared that she would drive out German and British colonialists who had embarked on setting boundaries between British and German territories within the region.
The British and German forces set out on a joint mission to capture her. 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 and exiled to Kampala. Unlike other rebel leaders who were interned for shorter periods, the English were afraid to let her leave Kampala and return to Kigezi. Such was the reputation of her power. The Western Provincial Commissioner earlier wrote in 1920:
“it would be a grave mistake to allow her to return to Kigezi for I am confident that she would, in a very short time, be the cause of serious trouble… the cost of suppressing a native outbreak in Rukiga, which Muhumuza would be quite capable of causing about the middle of the next beer drinking season might be very considerable, not only in money but in lives”
A sympathetic account of her by Bessel, a colonial cadet officer who served in Kigezi as a civil servant, who met and interviewed her for an article on Nyabingi in 1938 stated:
“An extraordinary woman… fighting for a just cause with very little more than necessary violence, she deserved to attain her objective and certainly would have but for European intervention”
Queen Muhumuza and the Nyabingi movement had a lasting legacy within the region and beyond. Her arrest and exile to Kampala led to the enactment of the Colonial Witch Craft Ordinance of 1912 which outlawed practicing “non-orthodox” beliefs such as Nyabingi. She inspired the Nyabinghi underpinnings of Rastafarianism because of her fight against colonialism. As one of the pioneers of the African struggle against colonialism, Queen Muhumuza deserves recognition among the pantheon of great African leaders given that during her time, it was unheard of for a woman of her charismatic character to fight against colonialists. Despite her arrest, the Nyabingi movement continued until 1930 when the Great East African Revival took root within the region and established Christianity. The British colonialists had realized the futility of using purely military means against Nyabingi. Such is her lasting influence that Queen Muhumuza should continue to be remembered in the annals of African history.