Who can imagine what it was like to live under the iron hand of a ‘primitive’ absolute monarch, before the advent of ‘White civilisation’? Remember, that was the time of no policies that we have come to adopt today, which help us to check our leaders.
King Rwabugiri is probably most talked-about among the kings who ruled Rwanda. In a region where, and during a period when, weak communities were annexed to serve as slaves, if not totally annihilated, he is said to have resisted domination and, instead, expanded Rwanda to its original size. By the pick of his reign, he had consolidated Rwanda and regained its land and people, formerly lost to neighbouring communities.
Today, Rwanda is tiny only because German colonialists, to whom it was “granted” during the Europeans’ scramble for Africa, wanted to weaken it. But before them, Rwabugiri, who had gathered such strength, could he be stopped from carrying out vengeful missions to communities that had humiliated his own?
There is an interesting anecdote that gives us a revelation into the checks to such excesses for kings, and anybody else, if any of them was seduced by such tendency.
One evening after Rwabugiri had recaptured the western territory of Bunyabungo, around today’s Bukavu town, in D.R. Congo, he was entertaining his warriors in ‘igitaramo’. ‘Igitaramo’ is Kinyarwanda for an evening of revelling and review of what has been done up to a point. During ‘igitaramo’, everybody is free to speak their mind, thus enabling a leader to assess the situation of his/her people.
That evening in Bunyabungo, Rwabugiri took a special liking to two young warriors and invited them to sit near him. He was freely chatting with them when one of them, Nzirabatinyi, interrupted him with “But, Your Highness, people say you are brutal and you enjoy killing!” The king protested and, instead, accused his elder warriors and confidants of back-biting him.
But Rwamwa, the second young man, joined in to tell the king that it was true. “For instance,” he said, “we are returning to the Royal Court, can you say that we’ll get there without you accusing somebody of being an enemy who should be put to death? I bet: if you don’t, I’ll give you two cows, which are the sole possessions that my mother and I share.”
The king got stung and swore that, if on the way he ordered anybody dead, he would give each of the young men 200 heads of cattle and their pastures. With that number of cattle, that meant the young men would become chiefs of their areas. Rwamwa agreed and the three joined the other warriors in ‘igitaramo’.
The following day, the king and his warriors set off for the Royal Court of Nyanza. From Bunyabungo, they crossed Lake Bukavu and tore into the forested hills of Kinyaga, through Nyamasheke and into Biguzi, all recently recaptured. Seeing they had the Court in their sights, the warriors all grieved for young Rwamwa: he was going to lose his poor family’s cows.
Then it started raining and they sought shelter in the shacks around. Later when it slackened, those near the doorway of their shack made to go but hesitated. At the eaves above the doorway, they noticed egg-shells bound together and hanging by a thin rope.
This meant either that the egg-shells were for frightening away kites, the large birds that ate chickens, or they were put there to give bad luck to the warriors. The king was further inside the shack, where it was cosiest, but on hearing the murmur of his men, he thrust forward to see what was stopping them from advancing. When he saw the eggshells as the men indicated, he was taken aback.
Immediately, Rwabugiri concluded that the eggshells had been put there by people who knew that he and his men would pass there. So, there was no doubt that the area was still hostile to his kingdom. In a fury, he ordered his men to search the whole area for the enemies, with orders to kill them. After combing the area, the men apprehended a number of locals. They had killed one when Rwamwa, who’d been sheltering in another shack, got the news and went to confront the king.
On seeing the young man, Rwabugiri cast his eyes down in shame. He stopped the executions and apologised profusely. After pondering his action, he promised to consult with his Court Counsellors, known as ‘Abiru’, to inform them that he was going to relinquish his throne, even if he called them lousy advisors. ‘Abiru’ were the Court Counsellors who were vested with the powers to know the appropriate action to take, in the interest of the community.
They also apologised for not having correctly advised the king but prevailed over him to retain the throne as he alone was deemed capable of defending the community at that time.
Rwabugiri doubled the number of cattle and pastures he’d pledged to the young men and named them ‘Abiru’. From then on, he made sure to consult before declaring anybody enemy. There were many ways
Checks and balances to beat Western ‘civilisation’, in a country deemed primitive.