The recent passing of Mwami Kigeli V Ndahindurwa has hit me pretty hard. Which is surprising given how little I actually knew about him. What I did know about Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa, the man, was gleamed from an article published in 2013 titled ‘A King with no Country’ in the Washingtonian magazine. In the article written by Ariel Sabar, I was saddened to discover that the scion of a centuries old ruling dynasty was living in the United States and surviving on food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of federal assistance.
After examining my own feelings about his death, I came to the realization that I was not mourning the man, but rather what he represented to me.
I might be mistaken in this, but I believe that there were four historic pillars that Rwanda once stood on; the kingship, the cow, religious rites and beliefs and, lastly, the Kinyarwanda language; everything else emanated from these four pillars.
With the overthrow of Mwani Yuhi V Musinga and the enthronement and baptism of his son Mwami Mutara III Rudahigwa, the war for the soul of the Rwandan people was won by the Catholic Church.
Our own religious beliefs and rites were discarded as relics of an ‘uncivilized’ time and we joined the global mass that worshipped at the Judeo-Christian altar. Mind you, this isn’t an attack on Christianity. I have no issue with those who believe in the son of Joseph and Mary. What I mean is that the vast majority of Rwandans became part of a global belief system and ditched their own; thereby losing a bit of themselves in order to be a part of something even ‘greater’.
The next pillar to fall was the kingship. With the Kigeli’s deportation by the Belgian authorities to Tanganyika in 1961, the Nyiginya dynasty, which had made Rwanda a cultural, political and military power in the Interlacustrine Region, was rendered irrelevant as a real political force. With his death, the door has been closed on the ancient Kingdom of Rwanda and all that it stood for.
So, the only things that remain from our ancient Rwandan past is our cattle culture and the Kinyarwanda language (and to be truthful, in my case, those pillars never existed).
I can only speak for myself when I say that the sort of Kinyarwanda I use is often a mix of English, Swahili, French and Kinyarwanda. I am pretty sure that if I could travel back in time and speak to my great grandparents, I would wager that they would have been barely able to communicate with me.
And when it comes to the fourth pillar of the old Rwanda, namely cattle, I, like the vast majority of younger Rwandans, see them less as symbols of wealth and beauty and more as simply livestock that provides beef and milk. Today, not only do we see the intrinsic value of cattle differently, even the types of cattle we do have has changed. Whereas before we had many names for cattle based on the color of their hides and shape of their horns, today, with all the cross-breeding with European varieties, I envision a day when ‘traditional’ cows will only be seen in museums and zoos.
So, when I say that I am mourning the late king, I am actually mourning the demise of the great Rwanda of yore. The Rwanda of the Kalinga Drum, the Nyabingi cult and the Abakono, Abega and Abasinga clans. I am mourning the Rwanda of my forefathers.
I guess the question we need to ask ourselves today is, with the demise of the old pillars, what are we replacing them with?
I can see the green shoots of a new cultural norm that is based on ‘Agaciro’. But as it stands today, ‘agaciro’ means everything and nothing at the same time depending on the person using the word. The same goes with ‘Umuco’ (culture). So, the question that I ask those a lot more knowledgably than I is this; How do we remain authentically Rwandan? And what does being an ‘authentic Rwandan’ even mean? When we talk of culture, whose culture do we mean? And who gets to define that culture is?