Eric Mwiine Mugaju writes the first dispatch in a new series looking at African women who resisted colonial oppression.
I am embarrassed to confess that I, a Ugandan, first heard of Queen Muhumuza while at University in Europe. Worse still, the religion which brought her existence to my attention (Rastafarianism) was decried in my up-bringing as a weird lifestyle, a cult. I’m writing this in the hope that I can share the dramatic history of this extraordinary woman with a few more people- as it surely deserves to be known.
Muhumza was the leader of a powerful resistance movement against German and British colonial regimes at the start of the 20th century. The widow of a King, Kigeri IV Rwabugiri (who ruled a region in present-day Rwanda), Queen Muhumza stepped up to assume military responsibility after her husband’s death. She was unprepared to stand by and watch as colonialists took control of her homeland. Despite her willingness to lead, in the clamour for the throne after Kigeri’s death, Muhumza was sidelined as the result of a power struggle between the deceased King’s male relatives. This setback did not stop the Queen, and she carried to organise those willing to fight in a series of uprisings across the Great Lakes region.
Yet, she does not feature on school curricula in Uganda or, as far as I know, anywhere else in Africa. She was, after all, a woman in a robustly patriarchal society. As Chinua Achebe put it: Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. The anti-colonial struggle was documented by colonialists and the African men who succeeded them after independence. In this chauvinistic echo-chamber, women’s resistance and political leadership is frequently all but lost.
After her husband’s death, the Queen moved north to Kigezi, in the South Western region of modern-day Uganda, where she rallied troops and established herself as the leader of a resistance movement. Out of arm’s reach, she organised and worked among local ruling classes to organise a new rebellion.
The rebellion was only partially successful and the Queen was promptly thrown in jail. After 2 years in Bukoba prison (situated in northwest Tanzania), Muhumza was released. Despite incarceration, her determination had not been dampened- she immediately rallied support in Kigezi and Mpororo and raised a second rebellion.
Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of detail about the Queen’s achievements in writing. Even her battles are deplete in detail and shading- they are often referred to only in passing; which speaks volumes about how not only Africans, but African women especially, were viewed through the lens of literate people (mostly white men) in the region at this time.
However, where written literature falls short, there is a wealth of suggestive material in oral and spiritual literatures about the warrior Queen. She was believed to have inherited supernatural powers- she was a Mugirwa (the Runyakole-Rukiga name given to women who are privileged enough to inherit special powers). Specifically, she was thought to be connected to the regal goddess Nyabinghi.
Nyabinghi’s story is another dramatic tale, filled with lust for power, love, greed and vengence. Nyabinghi ruled Karagwe, a kingdom in what is now Tanzania. She fell in love with Ruhinda, himself a chief and ruler of Mpororo, in modern-day Southwest Uganda. The two married until, out of greed, Ruhinda murdered his wife in order to take control of Karagwe. After her death, Nyabinghi’s spirit returned to earth to terrorise Ruhinda and all Karagwe’s subsequent tyrants.
As the new liberator, Queen Muhumza was bequeathed as Mugirwa of Nyabinghi’s spirit. Spiritualism has played (and still plays) an important role in African popular resistance. From Tanzania’s bloody Maji Maji rebellion, to Uganda’s contemporary Alice Lakwena, ancestors and religion have given lifeblood to the oppressed and dispossessed in battle.
Nyabinghi’s spirit manifested itself within further generations of women in the nearby region. When Muhumuza came to prominence as both a Queen and brilliant organiser, her ascendance to Mugirwa of Nyabinghi must have only seemed natural. Her obstinance towards her oppressors embodied Nyabinghi’s spirit, and her grit was seriously something to admire: it took a musket shot to her leg to arrest the Queen for her final imprisonment in Kampala, which ultimately suppressed the movement.
Queen Muhumza’s success, and the mystical air that surrounded her, aroused the attention of the colonial authorities, who in 1912 introduced the Witchcraft Act. The Act deemed witchcraft to be a criminal offence and was a tool used to combat uprisings led by spiritually endowed leaders. From prison in Kampala, women continued to train and organise themselves, following the Queen’s example. From a young age, female fighters would train in martial and spiritual arts. When they showed enough skill and courage, they would graduate and be allowed to fight in the resistance.
It is honestly hard to understand why such a leader is absent in the history of Uganda, when she fought not only colonialism but was also an example of one of the earliest feminists to resist both colonialism and male domination. In Runyankole-Rukiga, if someone calls you a Nyabinghi, they’re calling you a rabble-rouser and telling you to tone it down. But perhaps the Rastas have it right with their Nyabinghi drum circles- in light of this extraordinary woman’s life, it could be time to start celebrate the spirit of rebellion and start thinking of the label as a compliment.