Although, the civilisation of Rwanda dates back to 2020 BC, the earliest date for the start of centralisation under one monarch is between the 10th and 11th century. Rwanda was a landlocked kingdom situated in east-central Africa, on the south of the equator, with Nyanza as its capital. The development of the society may be described in terms of growing inequality and migrations of people with different cultures and occupations into the area of Rwanda. Archaeological evidence implies iron and ceramic technology was developed in Rwanda before the time period claimed by oral tradition, that is before the arrival of the first monarch of the kingdom of Rwanda.
Oral history suggests that the monarchy in Rwanda began under a king, named Ghihanga (meaning “Founder” or “Creator”). This version of history relates that Ghihanga introduced cattle, metalworking, hunting, woodworking and pottery(i). He was credited with exceptional talents in religion, leadership and technology.(ii) Each successor of his lineage expanded the territory under rule until all polities with their own systems (not conquered by Ghihanga such as the clans of the Singa, Gesera, Zigaba and Rubanda) submitted to the kingdom of Rwanda. The lineage of Ghihanga continued for 800 years until the colonisation of Rwanda by Germany in the 19th century.
The kingdom retained autonomous status till the middle of the 20th century when its monarchy was eliminated. The kingdom was abolished, and Rwanda became a republic and received its independence in 1962.
Rwanda had Karagwe, Nkore, Kiziba, Kiamtwara, Buganda and Bunyoro to the North, Burundi to the South, the Unyamwezi to the East and the kingdoms of Mongo, Kuba and Luba to the West.
At present, Rwanda is a republic covering an area of 10,169 square miles. Uganda bounds it in the north, Tanzania in the east, Burundi in the south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo along with Lake Kivu in the west. Rwanda is different from most of the countries present in sub-Saharan Africa in the way that its present-day overall borders were not affected by the passage of time. Instead, they reflect the fully established state that existed till the end of the monarchy.
Van Grunderbeek (1992:56-7) discovered evidence of iron-working sites in Rwanda and Burundi regions and dated these sites to between 2020 and 990BC. Woodhouse (1998) preferred a later date of 800 BC. This evidence means that it is no longer tenable to believe Bantu migrants brought iron technology to the Batwa from West Africa.
500 BC – 800 AD
Iron gained widespread use among farmers as axes, and hoes for clearing fields. Iron tools were produced within families. Further iron-smelting dating to 270-660 AD was found in the hills of Gahondo by Van Grunderbeek (1992:56-8), as well as on the hills of Kabuye (Van Grunderbeek et al 1983; Van Noten 1983).
Inhabitants of Rwanda may have traded with the East African coast as evidence was found dating to 417-554AD of beads and cowrie shells at a burial site. The burial site also provided evidence of iron use as Urewe vessels, and bodily adornments of bracelets, necklaces and decorative discs for neck cords were discovered (Giblin 2008; 2010).
Iron products changed over time due to use, socio-political factors and demand.
Urewe ceramics were also produced for use in food preparation, cooking and storage. Stewart (1993:23) found that early Rwandan potteries had a fine and artistically complex decoration. As the quantity of production of pottery increased, artistic detail reduced.
Ceramics were also used for bricks in iron-smelting. Evidence was found of furnace construction knowledge, ore preparation, smelting itself and ceramic fabrication.
Academics believe the inhabitants came from many directions. The Batwa is a category name for inhabitants that had occupations as hunters, potters and basket makers. They provided animal skins, meat, baskets etc. The Batwa are believed to have arrived first. The Bantu-speaking agriculturalists are believed to have arrived next, or developed next, and came from both the west and south of Rwanda. They contributed knowledge of producing millet, sorghum, honey, cattle, iron goods and salt.
The Bantu and Batwa mixed and developed pre-Nyiginya states and societies. The initial settlers organised themselves into extended families, with a council of elders to settle common problems. With grow in population and an influx of migrants, these states organised into base units of clans. Clans had nothing to do with a common ancestor but were named after the most dominant family in each clan. Larger clans had a king or chief (Mwami) who acted as a political and ritual leader. They were held responsible for rain-making, the wellbeing of livestock and harvests.
Polities included the Bagahe in Ndorwa and the Basigi in Busigi. The Bazigaba in Rwanda, Ankole and Kizegi had their own Mubari state, king (Kabeija) and royal drum (Sera). The Baishekatwa inhabited parts of Rwanda, Ankole, Toro and Ankole. Some clans were specialists in cattle raising such as the Bariisa clan.
1000- 1500 AD
The civilisation of Rwanda gradually centralised under a monarchy between the 10th and 15th century, under a Mwami (King). Since there are no written histories available about the era when the kingdom was established, little is known of the origin of the founder of monarchy, i.e. Ghihanga. The oral tradition relates that his father Kazi taught him metalworking, his mother descended from an ancestor named Kabeja and his paternal great great ancestor, named Kigwa, descended from Heaven giving him royal pregorative. He ruled from a palace in the sacred forest of Buhanga. The name of the kingdom and its successor state, the Republic of Rwanda, comes from the name of his son Kanyarwanda Gahima (iii).
Demand for iron products increased during the Kingdom period, classified as the Late Iron Age by archaeologists, for use as agricultural tools, weapons and royal regalia. The importance of iron in the society may have influenced its adoption by Royalty as its symbol of vitality to its subjects, and the oral tradition of the royal lineage as inventors of iron technology. The Ghihinga lineage may have made crucial improvements to iron working, earning their association with iron.
Inhabitants from the Kingdom of Bunyoro sometimes launched raids into the Kingdom of Rwanda (Christopher Ehret, 2002)
Earliest radiocarbon dates for iron (furnaces, slag and artefacts)
Modified from Woodhouse 1998:168-9
|Date BC||Standard error ±||Calibrated Range (1 Sigma)||Site||Country|
|1665||205||2300 – 1700||Muganza||Rwanda|
|1230||155||1680 – 1260||Rwiyanje||Burundi|
|1210||135||1620 – 1260||Mubuga||Burundi|
|905||285||1450 – 750||Rwiyanje||Burundi|
|865||165||1220 – 820||Kabacusi||Rwanda|
The defeat of the kingdom of Rwanda by Germany corresponded to European military technology outpacing Africa: by developing better fighting experience during the many wars between 1000 AD and 1800 AD, more deadly weapons such as the Maxim machine gun, better military strategies and medical treatments for Malaria.
Kings of Rwanda
Oral sources relate that, after Gihanga-the first king, there were numerous other Bami (Singular: Mwami), but the period of expansion of kingdom was fully initiated by Mwami Ruganzu I Bwimba who, as per oral historians, started his rule in the start of the 14th century. From the time of establishment of kingdom till the date when it was abolished, 28 Mwami ruled the area. The list includes:
- Gihanga (1081 – 1114)
- Kanyarwanda I Gahima I (1114 – 1147)
- Yuhi I Musindi (1147 – 1180)
- Ndahiro I Ruyange (1180 – 1213)
- Ndahiro Ndoba (1213 – 1246)
- Ndahiro Samembe (1246 – 1279)
- Nsoro I Samukondo (1279 – 1312)
- Ruganzu I Bwimba (1312 – 1345)
- Cyilima Rugwe (1345 – 1378)
- Kigeli I Mukobanya (1378 – 1418)
- Mibambwe I Sekarongoro I Mutabazi (1418 – 1444)
- Yuhi wa II Gahima II (1444 – 1477)
- Ndahiro wa II Cyamatare (1477 – 1510)
- Ruganzu wa II Ndoli (1510 – 1543)
- Mutara I Nsoro II Semugeshi (1543 – 1576)
- Kigeli II Nyamuheshera (1576 – 1609)
- Mibamwe II Sekarongoro II Gisanura (1609 – 1642)
- Yuhi III Mazimpaka (1642 – 1675)
- Cyilima II Rujugira (1675 – 1708)
- Kigeli wa III Ndabarasa (1708 – 1741)
- Mibambwe III Mutabazi II Sentabyo (1741 – 1746)
- Yuhi IV Gahindiro (1746 – 1802)
- Mutara II Rwogera (1802 – 1853)
- Kigeli IV Gahindiro Rwabugiri (1853 – 1895)
- Mibambwe IV Rutarindwa (1895-1896)
- Yuhi wa V Musinga (1896 – 1931)
- Mutara III Rudahigwa (1931 – 1959)
- Kigeli V Ndahindurwa (1959 – 1962)
The history of Rwanda from the 15th century to the 19th century is full of expansion and conflicts. During this time, there were recurrent conflicts between Rwanda and neighbouring states: Buganda to the North and Burundi to the South; creating a historical long-lasting hatred between Rwanda and Burundi.
From 1890, Germans colonized the area and started to claim Rwanda as a part of German East Africa. After World War I, Rwanda along with its adjacent country, Burundi was allocated to Belgium as part of Ruanda-Urundi. The Belgians ruled the area through the traditional kings, thus maintaining kingship, but they encouraged a class-struggle by the lower classes. In 1959, war broke out between the working class and the elite. The Mwami of empire-Kigeri V was forced to abdicate. His reign was overthrown, and in January 1961, the kingdom was abolished. Rwanda became a republic and an independent country on July 1, 1962.
Beliefs in the Royal Court
The monarch held a sacred position within the kingdom. Showing respect to the founder of the royal lineage was considered important to having a good reign, a prosperous society, sufficient rain, bountiful harvests and success in armed conflicts. Features of sacred tradition in the Royal Court included the following:
Fire – To honour the founder of the kingdom, Ruganzu wa II Ndoli introduced a fire which all future kings had to keep burning in the Royal Court in an area described as “the place where the cattle are milked”. This fire was extinguished by the Belgians in 1932.
Tributes – Kings had to ensure tribute was sent to the site of Ghihanga’s tomb, at Muganza in Rukoma.
Cattle – The Royal Court kept a herd of cattle believed to be descended from Ghihanga’s own historic herd of cattle.
The Heka family – A lineage from the Zigaba clan were responsible for providing ritualists to service the Royal family.
The Kalinga Drum – is a sacred dynastic drum reserved for the Mwami. In other African kingdoms this is called a Ngoma drum. The Tega of the Singa clan through lineage from an ancestor named Nyabutege held (iv) prestige for introducing this ritual.
The Spiritual leader – The concept of the sacred king is also found in other African kingdoms, including Egypt (the Pharoahs) and West Africa (the Sarkis).
In the ancient kingdom, the Mwami of the region was considered as a spiritual leader having divine origin and was said to be “Eye through which God looks upon Rwanda.” According to the myth of divine origin, there were three children; Kigwa, his brother Mututsi, and their sister Nyampundu, who were born in the heavens but, fell to the earth by accident and brought fire, iron, the furnace, and cattle along with them. Kigwa married his sister and founded the leading clan of the “Abanyiginya.” The line of ancestry is drawn through a series of ancestors, who are called ibimanuka, meaning “those fallen from the heavens,” to the founder of the Rwanda kingdom called Gihanga, whose name means “founder.”
Christianity is a dominant religion over the whole region of Rwanda. More than two-fifths of the kingdom’s population is Roman Catholic, approximately one-third of them is Protestant, and more than one-tenth is Adventist. Muslims, nonreligious people, and members of controversial spiritual groups collectively formulate less than one-tenth of the entire population.
Rwandans believe in self-help and co-operation. This belief is called “umuganda”. It involves asking family, friends and neighbours for help to achieve any goals.
The kingdom of Rwanda, at the time of its formation, was headed by a Mwami, with a hierarchy of gentry and nobles. In some areas, there were independent principalities, and in other regions, Royal court and vassal-state families lived in co-dependent collaboration under the nominal control of the king.
The central government was operated by the Abiru through a secret organization known as “Ubwiru.” The Abiru were procedural supporters who used to live in the king’s stronghold. They used to describe and forecast the future. For example, the Abiru alone could secretly decide the next Mwami and define his task during his supremacy. The political, social and economic activities in the kingdom were collectively controlled by the ruler through three different chiefs; the cattle chiefs, the military chiefs, and the land chiefs. The chiefs of the military and cattle derived authority from lineage, while the land chiefs were predominately farmers.
The structure of the monarchical system was modified toward the start of the 19th century, by Mwami Yuhi IV Gahindiro. In that structure, the Mwami used to rule over a pyramid of chiefs and sub. Under the Mwami, there were the members of the Council of Chiefs who were advisers for significant matters as well as chiefs of the main districts of the kingdom. In each of the districts, there were further two administrative chiefs, a cattle chief and a land chief, who used to serve as tribute collector of livestock or agricultural production, respectively.
Arts and Crafts
Most of Rwanda’s ancient cultural heritage was displayed through folk dances, dynastic poems, and their praise songs. These were developed to boost the legitimacy of the monarch. Dance and music were an essential part of Rwandan festivals, ceremonies, and social gatherings. The most renowned traditional dance is Intore. Traditionally, music was transmitted generation after generation orally, with styles varying between different social groups. Local dances, including the hoe dance of the north, were given pride of place in the country’s traditional culture. Drums were of great importance; the royal drummers used to enjoy high status within the court of the Mwami. Traditional crafts of kingdom include basketry, ceramics, and ironworks and provide an element of continuity with the magnificent past.
Kinyarwanda is the ancient language of Rwanda, followed by Swahili as the indigenous second language. Kinyarwanda is a Bantu language and is virtually spoken by all Rwandans. It is closely related to Rundi language, which is spoken in the neighboring country of Burundi. Swahili is widely spoken language in the towns and is still the important means of communication with neighbouring countries.
Due to the colonial period English and French are now also spoken. The use of German is now a distant memory as the generation previously ruled by Germany have entered rest. English and French have traditionally been spoken by only a small portion of the population.
Drums were used for long distance communications. Benefits included scouts using drums to send messages in advance of foreigners arriving in crucial towns and cities, as messages were relayed from settlement to settlement. Complex messages could therefore be transmitted hundreds of kilometres within hours, for any particular purpose.
The major source of income for the locals was agriculture and livestock, with most of the inhabitants involved in agriculture.
The staple food was mostly sorghum, dry beans, bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, and cassava. With almost no resources other than the land, no entree to the marine, and extremely dense population, there are very limited economic activities available for such country. Coffee has been the most significant export from the beginning, along with other agricultural products such as pyrethrum and tea.
These were exchanged for salt, meat and iron products with Bunyoro-Kitara, Buganda, Karagwe, Kiziba, Kiamtwara and Nkore to the North.
The kingdom was also a middleman for products going from South to North, going East from Central Africa to the Swahili states and the Indian Ocean, and going West in the opposite direction.
The polity of Rwanda fits the model of a kingdom and the observations of various others that use the term “kingdom” for certain African polities. Starting with Kongo by Pigafetta (1598), de Piña (1950) and de Rome (1648, 1964), and Guinea by de Marees (1602, 1987). Ihle (1929) and Cuvelier(1946, 1962), Cuvelier and Jadin (1954), Bal (1963) Randles (1968) and Thornton (1983) used “Kingdom” for Kongo. Le Herissé (1911) used “kingdom” for Dahomey, Vansina used “kingdom” for each polity when writing on Rwanda, Kasanje, southern savanna, Tio and finally the Nyiginya (1962, 1963, 1965, 1973, 2001), Haberlandt (1965) for Ethiopia, Steinhart (1967) for the Interlacustrine area, Smith for the Yoruba (1969), Kent (1970) for ‘early kingdoms’ of Madagascar, and Kiwanuka (1971) in writing on Buganda.
Sometimes, there is a debate about whether these societies were chiefdoms, kingdoms, or whether empire could be used. Rwanda prior to becoming a republic could be described as a kingdom.
After the kingdom was abolished and the state was declared a republic, the monarchical system was eradicated, and till date, the presidential system is present in the country.
(i) Herbert (1993) p. 170
(ii) Adekunle, p. 50
(iii) Vansina, p. 10
(iv) Vansina, pp. 56-57
(v) General History of Africa Vol. 4 p. 207
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Jan Vansina, “Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom” November 4, 2004, ISBN: 0299201244.
Adekunle, Julius (2007). Culture and Customs of Rwanda. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313331770.
Herbert, Eugenia (1993). Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253208330.
Vansina, Jan (2005). Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 9780299201234.