Studies of Rwanda often assume that before the arrival of Europeans, Rwandan state power extended uniformly to most (or all) regions of the kingdom. Such studies also tend to imply that the features of Rwandan society observable in the 1950s – monopolization of power by Tuutsi, highly unequal political and social relationships, and control over land and cattle by Tuutsi political authorities- were primordial characteristics of the Rwandan polity. In such studies, Tuutsi dominance and Hutu subordination are often presented as unchanging features of the Rwandan past. But family histories of Kinyagans from diverse social and economic backgrounds portray a very different view of precolonial social and political relationships. These data cast new light on the dynamics of central court penetration in one region; they also raise issues fundamental to understanding the growth of Tuutsi power in other areas of the country as well.

As a basis for reconstructing such processes in Kinyaga, this chapter explores the character of the early Kinyagan populations and discusses the nature of their relations to the central Rwandan state. People coming from areas that are now part of Rwanda moved into the hills and onto the peninsulas of Kinyaga from at least the eighteenth century. They lived alongside, traded with, and intermingled with local groups whose culture resembled that of peoples living to the west of Lake Kivu. Some Kinyagan families claimed ties to the Rwandan royal court and built up followings on a few hills which they thus claimed to “govern.” But there was no political authority encompassing the entire region, and the population of Kinyaga enjoyed substantial autonomy vis-à-vis the royal court of Rwanda. The power of the central state and its delegates was as yet quite limited in this frontier region.

Toward the last quarter of the nineteenth century this situation changed significantly. The next two chapters delineate some of the alterations in administrative structures (aspects of statebuilding and expansion of central power) which marked the passage of Kinyaga from a position of relative autonomy to one of intrusive central government central. It is only in the context of these broader political transformations that the growth of Tuutsi power and its impact on rural class relations, analyzed in part II, can be understood.


From about the middle of the eighteenth century, the indigenous population of Kinyaga was gradually augmented by immigrants from areas that were, or later became, part of Rwanda. They come seeking greener pastures and freedom from difficulties or domination (famine, wars of conquest, family conflicts). One element attracting these new immigrants was Kinyaga’s location far from the central Rwandan court, which permitted the region to preserve a high degree of local autonomy. Other factorsincluded the rich soil, abundant rainfall, and available land in the region. Immigrants came from areas to the north and east of central Rwanda (Ndorwa and Gisaka) and from central Rwanda itself. Kinyaga was also settled by people from the south (Burundi) and the west, from among the Shi, Fulero, and Havu peoples found in present-day Zaïre. From the intermixture of these groups emerged a heterogeneous population, a relatively open social structure, and political forms exhibitihg a high degree of diversity; these characteristics of Kinyagan society in the mid-nineteenth century were important influences in the developments to follow. As we shah see, for example, several of the key local activists during the revolution were drawn from families that had enjoyed status and autonomy in the past, but had seen this autonomy transformed into dependence by changes during the colonial period.

Little is known about the population encountered by immigrants to Kinyaga during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The commonly accepted view about the earlier inhabitants is that they were agriculturalists living in family groups.

At the beginning of the reign of Kigeri III [Ndabarasa] the kings of Ruanda held only a nominal sovereignty over Kinyaga, and the population, composed uniquely of Bahutu, depended in fact on family heads.

This period was characterized by the extension of cultivated land at the expense of the forest, which disappeared rapidly. The king Kigeri decided to havethe region occupied by Tuutsi.

Aside from such generalities, we lack reliable data about the early Kinyagan population, its nature and clan composition.

The family traditions collected for this study do not provide much help in this regard. The accounts of those who claim a Kinyagan origin for their lineage characteristically report only a very short genealogy (two or three generations) or a very long one (up to ten generations). Short genealogies indicate that little family history has been preserved, and it is difficult to determine whether the Kinyagan origin is being claimed on an empirical basis or for lack of knowledge of actual origins. Where a genealogy is long, but there is no memory of an ancestor’s has immigrated to Kinyaga, a very long residence in the region is plausible. But it is rare that such accounts provide extensive information on the distant past. Family traditions which record the immigration of an ancestor to Kinyaga are also of little help regarding the indigenous population. When asked what other people their ancestors encountered upon arrival in the region, those interviewed usually cited lineages on their hill whichpossessed significant land-holdings during the nineteenth century or (on a regional level), large lineages which enjoyed political prominence at the end of the nineteenth century or after.

It is interesting, however, that many of those who claimed a Kinyagan origin for their lineage and cited very long genealogies also claimed membership in the Abasinga clan. Most of these informants live in the mountains of northeastern Kinyaga, not far from Bunyambiriri (a region known to have been an early center of the Abasinga). In 1960 the Abasinga comprised 20.60 percent of Kinyaga’s population, making this the largest clan in the region; moreover the percentage of Kinyagans who were Abasinga was significantly higher than the percentage of Abasinga among the Rwandan population as a whole in 1960 (14.60% ). These factors suggest that the Abasinga were among the earliest and perhaps the largest group of early inhabitants in the region.

The size of a clan, however, does not in itself indicate length of residence in Kinyaga. The clan names of many authochtones could have disappeared, being assimilated into the identity group patterns that evolved later. This appears to have occurred for the Abahande, who some Kinyagans claim were among the earliest inhabitants of the region. Today where the name Abahande is found in Rwanda it is used to refer to a “lineage” of the Abanyiginya clan. In non-Rwandan areas to the west, the Abahande are known as a royal clan from which the present ruling dynasty in Buhavu is said to descend.

We know more about immigrants to Kinyaga from regions that were or later became Rwandan than those from the west or south, because the fact of moving was more likely to have been preserved in family traditions which retain a Rwandan tie. Significant immigration of people from regions that are today part of Rwanda began during the reigns of Rujugira and his son Ndabarasa in the eighteenth century, and then increased steadily during the first half of the nineteenth century. Immigrants during that period were of four major types: refugees from war or political disturbances, colonizers sent directly by the Rwandan court, refugees from famine, and immigrants seeking better land or who could not recall the reasons for their move.

i. Refugees from War or Political Disturbances

Many immigrantsfleeing war or domination came to Kinyaga from Ndorwa and Gisaka, located to the north and east of central Rwanda. These two regions, subject to invasions from Rwanda and efforts at incorporation during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were devastated by the wars. Some of the refugees seeking asylum in places distant from control of the Rwandan court eventually found their way to Kinyaga. There is a general belief among Kinyagans that “most of the population came from Ndorwa and Gisaka.” Though exaggerated, this claim does have some basis in fact. Statistics on clan distribution in Kinyaga show that the Abagesera clan, which was the former ruling clan in Gisaka, constituted 11.36 percent of the Kinyagan population in 1960, ranking third behind the Abasinga and the Abanyiginya. This figure approximates the percentage of Abagesera in the population of Rwanda as a whole (11.04%). The Abashambo figure is more revealing. In 1960, more than one of every ten Kinyagans (11.2%) claimed membership in the Abashambo clan, making the Abashambo the fourth largest clan in Kinyaga. But the percentage of Abashambo in Rwanda as a whole was much smaller (3.94%). Moreover, the percentage of Abashambo closely approximated the percentage of that clan in Kibungo Prefecture(11.41%); Kibungo includes Gisaka and part of Ndorwa, the regions front which the Abashambo are said to have come.

Examples of refugees from war in Gisaka or Ndorwa immigrating to Kinyaga are illustrated in the following summaries distilled from Kinyagan family histories:

The ancestor of the Abarari, Abahima lineage (Abashambo clan) was driven from Ndorwa by Umwami [the Ikinyarwanda term for king] Kigeri Ndabarasa. Murari came to Kinyaga bringing many cattle, his wives and children, and many relatives. His descendant, who was born before 1892, asserted that Murari was his great-grandfather. This is possible, but probably the genealogy has been telescoped.

The Abarindi lineage (Abashambo clan) at Rukunguri hill was founded by Mirindi, first member of the lineage to come to Kinyaga. Mirindi’s father, Gahuliro, left Ndorwa as a small child, at the time when the Rwandan king defeated Ndorwa. Mirindi himself immigrated to Kinyaga and settled at Gashonga hill, the major center of the lineage until this century, when members moved to Rukunguri. Mirindi was the fourth-generation ancestor of a Kinyagan who was born after the establishment of German rule in Rwanda; he was old enough to herd cattle at the time of World War I.

TABLE I: Distribution of Kinyagan population by clan, 1970

1. Abasinga20.60%14.60%

Rwambika, a member of the Abazirankende lineage (Abagesera clan) living at Ibanda hill, said that his ancestor, Kibuzi, left Gisaka during the time of Umwami Rujugira. Kibuzi left Gisaka because of “conflict with neighbors”; there was a war in Gisaka. Kibuzi, Mweko, and Kigogo came at the same time. They cleared the forest (ishyamba) first at Mubumbano; then members of the lineage later moved to Ibanda. Rwambika was a small child able to fetch water when Rwabugiri died (1895); he said that Kibuzi was his great-great-grandfather.

Rurangwa, a man at Mugera hill who is a member of the Abaganda lineage (Abagesera clan) recounted that his ancestor Bijeli left Gisaka “to escape the king there at the time, Kimenyi.” Bijeli, a hunter, came to Mugera accompanied only by his wife. Rurangwa, who was born in 1914, traces his genealogy back six generations to Bijeli.

Kagamba, ancestor of the Abagamba lineage (Abagesera-Abazigaaba clan) left Gisaka after a fight with Tuutsi who “were pasturing their cattle in his sorghum fields.” He came to Kinyaga and settled at Muganza hill, in Busoozo. According to the lineage genealogy, Kagamba was the fourth generation ancestor of a man who was a small boy able to herd goats when Rwabugiri died in 1895.”

A man at Ruganda hill (born just after the death of Rwabugiri), recounted that his fourth-generation ancestor, Mukajanga, left Gisaka because of war; there was an attack by the “Abanyoro and Abanyambo.”

ii. Colonizers Sent by the Rwandan Court

Somme immigrants to Kinyaga from Rwandan areas came to settle either as clients of the royal court or as followers of such clients. In lineage traditions about immigrants of this type, their immigration to Kinyaga is often linked to efforts by the central court to “subdue” Kinyaga, or to install Rwandan settlers in order to guard the border against “incursions” from the peoples to the west. They were frequently of Tuutsi status and usually had (or claimed) close links to the central court.

Rwanteri, son of Biragara (Abeega clan) is the most famous of the early immigrants who came as clients of the court. According to central court traditions, this warrior was sent to Kinyaga during the reign of

Sentabyo (at the end of the eighteenth century). Rwanteri was given command of a newly created army called the Impara with which he was to occupy Kinyaga. He was expel from the region a certain Bijeli, “a warrior from ljwi Island who had settled there not long before.” Another newly formed army, the Abiiru, under the command of Rukoro, son of Ngaru-yinka (Abakoobwa clan), was sent to aid Rwanteri. The two armies conquered Kinyaga, then settled there, each army giving name to the region it had conquered. Such was the origin of the provinces of Impara and Abiiru.

Kinyagan versions of Rwanteri’s arrival differ in some details from the central court account described above. For example, Nyarugabo, a man born in 1916, who is a sixth generation descendant of Rwanteri, traced its ancestor’s conquest of Kinyaga not to the time of Sentabyo, but to the reign of Sentabyo’s father, Ndabarasa. Like the central court traditions, Nyarugabo’s account also noted that Rwanteri had to face the opposition of Bijeli and his lineage, a large and powerful kin group. The Iineage traditions preserved by Bijeli’s descendants in Kinyaga make no mention of an Ijwi origin. They recount that their ancestor, a hunter of the Abagesera clan who originally lived in Gisaka, left his homeland to escape the king of Gisaka at the time. He came to Kinyaga and settled of Mugera hill on the northern slope of Nyamirundi peninsula, opposite ljwi Island. Bijeli’s descendants, called the Abaganda, distributed land on Mugera to immigrants who came alter them. Members of this family remained important in subsequent times, gaining fame during the reign of Rwabugiri (1860-1895) for their vigorous resistance to rule by Tuutsi chiefs.

Other local versions of these events link Rwanteri’s arrival in Kinyaga to the rivalry between lineages of the Abanyiginya and Abeega clans—a jockeying for power between these two powerful court factions that, as we shall see, was a prominent feature of nineteenth and twentieth century Rwandan politics.It seems that Rwanteri was a flamboyant, aggressive fellow who competed in feats of bravery with a certain Nyarwaya (of the Abanyiginya clan). Nyarwaya, feeling overshadowed by Rwanteri, plotted to have his rival killed. But the queen-mother tried to protect Rwanteri, who was her son-in-law.

Initially, efforts were made to placate Nyarwaya with other compensations. Later, it was decided that Rwanteri should be sent toKinyaga, considered a “rebellious” region. If he were not killed there, he wouId conquer the region for the court (and, in any case, he would be far removed from the power centers of the kingdom). Thus, “Rwanteri came [to Kinyaga] as an exile, for Kinyaga had become invincible.”

When it became clear that Rwanteri was succeeding in his mission, leaders at court started to have second thoughts. Should Rwanteri control all of Kinyaga, he would then be capable of asserting his independence vis-à-vis the central court. They decided that Rukoro and the Abiiru army should be sent to “help” Rwanteri, and thus to reassert royal influence by diffusing power in the region, assuring the court a role of arbiter among competing factions. After the conquest of Kinyaga, Rwanteri wished to give Rukoro a reward and dismiss him. Rukoro, however, refused, insisting that he should retain control over the region he had conquered—the hills near to and bordering the Rusizi River, in the southem part of Kinyaga. When the matter was taken to the central court for settlement, the court decided that Rukoro should retain his portion of the conquered territory, and Rwanteri could keep only his part. Rukoro, whose lineage held a position among the Abiiru ritual specialists (guardians of the Esoteric Code of the kingdom), and who was a known partisan of the royal court, was to watch over and serve as a check on Rwanteri.

Some accounts deny that Rwanteri came on a special mission, maintaining that he arrived in Kinyaga just like any other immigrant, seeking land where he could settle. These accounts may be based on the fact that Rwanteri and Rukoro did not establish political control over the whole region. They did establish the predominance of their lineages in two relatively small areas of Kinyaga (Rwanteri’s descendants, around Mubumbano, and later, Shangi; Rukoro’s descendants at Nyamagana and Mushaka). They then distributed land to followers who accompanied them to Kinyaga and others they recruited once there.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the installation of Rwanteri and Rukoro in Kinyaga was that they were the first to arrive as official envoys of the Rwandan court, and their arrival marked the beginning of a period of colonization in the region by the court. This colonization did not, however, bring close political incorporation until almost a century later. Additional evidence that the central court made a conscious effort to colonize Kinyaga, particularly during the reigns of Gahindiro and Rwogera (early and mid-nineteenth century) is found in the claims of certain Kinyagan lineages that an ancestor had direct ties to the king of Rwanda. WhiIe there is undoubtedly an element of ideology in such claims (direct clientship to the king was prestigious, infinitely preferable to being subject to a chief or other intermediary), some of the claims are substantiated with details as illustrated in the following accounts.

A man of the Abakuriyingoma lineage (Abashambo clan) recounted that his sixth-generation ancestor, Ntindo, left Bunyambiriri to come to Kinyaga with Rukoro; Ntindo settled in the Abiiru region of Kinyaga.

Rugarama, fifth-generation ancestor of a Kinyagan member of the Abakaganyi lineage (Abanyiginya clan), lived at Gaseke in Nduga; he belonged to the Abiiru social army and came to Kinyaga as a client of Rukoro.

A member of the Abakoobwa-Abanyiginya clan recounted that his fifth-generation ancestor, Ruhuugo, carne to Kinyaga from Buganza in the time of Umwami Sentabyo. He received land in Kinyaga from the king, and the lineage was given charge of the royal herd Imisugi.

Muhinda, a client of Rugondana (daughter of Umwami Cyirima Rugwe [sic] and wife of Rwanteri), lived at Mutiwingoma, Bufundu before he came to Kinyaga with Rwanteri and Rugondana. Muhinda was the third-generation ancestor of an informant who is a member of the Abaroha lineage (Abazigaaba clan).

Bahufite, a very old man (of the Abeega clan) said that his second-generation ancestor, Nyawita, was a client (umugaragu) of Rwanteri. Nyawita lived in Bwanamukari before coming to Kinyaga with Rwanteri. The informant was a grown man when Rwabugiri died in 1895; he had participated in Rwabugiri’s military expedition to Gacucu (west of Kinyaga, in present-day Zaïre).

Mwerekande, founder of the Abeerekande lineage (Abasinga clan), came to Kinyaga from Gisaka. He was sent by Umwami Gahindiro to settle in Kinyaga and help to annex the region. One of his descendants, who was born in 1921, traces four generations to his ancestor Mwerekande.

Nyantwa, the fourth-generation ancestor of a Kinyagan who identifies himself as a member of the Abasinga clan (descendants of Burora), came to Kinyaga with Mwerekende; they cleared the forest (ishyamba) at Nyarushiishi.     

Nsheenyi, founder of the Abasheenyi lineage (Abiitira clan)  , left Rwesero, Kabagari, to come to Kinyaga. A client of the king (Gahindiro), he asked permission from the court to settle in Kinyaga. Nsheenyi was the fifth-generation ancestor of Ngendahiimaana, who was a child when Rwabugiri died. This Kinyagan explained that his ancestors were Abiiru (ritual specialists) of the court whose function was to play the drums.

Mugondo, fifth-generation ancestor of a man of the Abanenge lineage (Abashambo clan) was sent to settle in Kinyaga by Umwami Gahindiro. Mugondo came from Gakoma in Buhanga (southeastern Rwanda, near Burundi).

Teganya, sixth-generation ancestor of a Kinyagan who was born around 1916, was sent by Umwami Rwogera to guard the frontier in Kinyaga. Teganya settled on a hill bordering the Rusizi River; his descendants form the Abateganya lineage (Abakoobwa clan).

Ntango, a poet of the royal court, was a client of the king. Ntango or his father, Kababa, left Gaseke (Nduga) to settle in Kinyaga, sent by Nyiramavugo, mother of Rwabugiri. Ntango was the great-grandfather of an informant belonging to the Abatango Abeenemugunga lineage (Abanyiginya-Abashambo c1an).

Ndikumwami came to clear the forest and settle in Kinyaga during the reign of Rwogera. The king had entrusted Ndikumwami with ritual items (ibishegu) to be thrown into the Rusizi River. Ndikumwami lived at Misumba, in Kabagari, before coming to Kinyaga; he was the fifth-generation ancestor of an informant of the Abanyiginya-Abashambo clan.

iii. Refugees from Famine

KINYAGA’S RICH soil and abundant rainfall attracted immigrants seeking relief from famine. Famines occurred from natural causes in precolonial Rwanda, as central court traditions attest. Famines were also caused at times by the disturbances of war; in such cases, immigrants fleeing famine could also be considered as refugees from war. The following accounts provide examples of immigrants to Kinyaga whose descendants claim they came seeking relief from famine.

Gahiri, a hunter who lived in Suti (Bunyambiriri) left his home because of famine; he came through the forest, hunting, and settled at Bitare hill in Kinyaga. Gahiri was the fourth-generation ancestor of an informant of the Abahiri lineage (Abasinga clan).

Kanyamakara, grandfather of an informant of the Abango lineage (Abashambo clan) came to Kinyaga from Nduga. Previously Kanyamakara’s ancestor had left Ndorwa because of famine.

There was a war in Ndorwa, and the Tuutsi were attacking local lineage heads; people did not cultivate their fields.

Gahanya, founder of the Abahanya lineage (Abeega clan), came from Gisaka looking for pasture land in Kinyaga. He was fleeing a famine called Rwamukanirwa. Gahanya, a client of the king, received land in Kinyaga at Shangi from Seekadegede, son of Rwanteri. Gahanya was the sixth-generation ancestor of a Kinyagan who was born just before the death of Rwabugiri (1895).

Bireke lived at Kivumu in Nduga; he left there because of famine, and went to live in Irhambi (north of Bukavu, in the present Zone of Kabare, Zaïre). Gasigwa, son of Bireke, was a fourth-generation ancestor of an informant of the Abasigwa lineage (Abanyiginya clan) who lives in Kinyaga.

Bajyujyu, founder of the Abajyujyu lineage, came to Kinyaga during the reign of Rwogera. He had left Gisaka because of a famine; there was insufficient pasture land for his cattle. Bajyujyu was the great grandfather of a Kinyagan who was born three years before the death (in 1908) of Mugenzi son of Nkombe.

iv. Immigrants Seeking Fertile Land, or No Reasons Remembered

This category overlaps to some extent those already listed—the search for land could ultimately be linked to population increase, political pressure, wartime conditions, or famine; but accounts in this category do not specify the presence of such conditions. The numbers of immigrants seeking land (both for agricultural purposes and for pasturage) and their ability to obtain it locally seems to support the contention in many of the traditions that the region had once been relatively sparsely populated. Family traditions in Kinyaga claim that on their arrival the earliest immigrants in all four of the categories cited here found abundant ishyamba (unoccupied forest or bush country) on which to settle.

v.Immigrants from Non-Rwandan Areas

In addition to the immigrants from north and east of Kinyaga, others came to Kinyaga from Havu, Shi, and Fulero regions in the west, and from Burundi in the south. These immigrants came for reasons similar to those enumerated above: family quarrels, war or political pressure, famine, search for fertile land.

Shi immigrants often settled on the hills along the Rusizi River and on a few of the southernmost peninsulas of Lake Kivu’s eastern shore. Farther inland, the small kingdom of Bukunzi in Kinyaga was a pole of attraction for immigrants from Bushi. The royal family of Bukunzi traced its origins to Rwindi (the origin claimed also by the royal families of Bushi and Buhavu) and maintained marriage ties with the ruling groups of the Shi kingdoms.

Immigrants from Havu regions (Ijwi Island in Lake Kivu and the Irhambi area on the western shore of the lake) settled on the peninsulas from the Rusizi River north as far as the Kilimbi River and beyond. This location permitted the Havu immigrants to continue their fishing and facilitated communication with relatives to the west. The proximity of some of the Kinyagan peninsulas to Ijwi Island and Irhambi is striking. The extreme northern tip of Nyamirundi is only a 5-minute canoe ride from the southem tip of Ijwi Island. From the shoreline just south of Nyamirundi (the region around Mwito hill) to the Havu-inhabited peninsula of Ishungu on the western side of the lake takes about one hour by canoe. From Nkombo Island (Rwanda) to Ibinja Island and Bujombo (formerly Havu territory in Zaïre( is less than a half hour by canoe. In the past, communication with the west was relatively easy and frequent, and it still is today.

Fulero immigrants to Kinyaga usually settled on the hills in the southern part of Kinyaga opposite the Rusizi River (facing the Fulero regions to the west). Immigrants from Burundi tended to settle in the southern part of Kinyaga, particularly in Busoozo and Bugarama, but also in Bukunzi. A small kingdom located in the mountains of south-eastern Kinyaga, Busoozo was easily accessible to immigrants from Burundi. Ancestors of Busoozo’s royal family, although tracing their origins to Gisaka, passed through Burundi before settling in Busoozo. and ColonialismStudies of Rwanda often assume that before the arrival of Europeans, Rwandan state power extended uniformly to most (or all) regions of the kingdom. Such studies also tend to imply that the features of Rwandan society observable in the 1950s - monopolization of power by Tuutsi, highly unequal political...AMATEKA