Visiting the palace of the mwami

The traditional palace. "I want to be queen..." Not.
The traditional palace. “I want to be queen…” Not.

Before leaving Rwanda I visited the palace of the mwami in Nyanza. I travelled by bus for about an hour and a half to reach the town that was the seated the monarchy led by Tutsi. Rwanda has been led by three dynasties, over a period from c. 1350 – 1961. The hierarchy underneath the mwami was tight-knight and complex from the centre of the monarch to the base level. The immediate structure were the neighbourhood, the hill, the district and the province. This structure is echoed in today’s administration of cells, sectors, districts and provinces. When the population is going to be informed about a particular matter this will often happen in each individual cell.

The structure of administration also gave way to ubuhake in which peasants (mainly Hutu) were allowed to reside on and farm the land of members of the monarchy (Tutsi). In return the peasants received help and protection from their masters. Underneath the mwami chiefs were in charge of various responsibilities. The ‘land chiefs’ were responsible for the allocation of land, agriculture and the taxation of land. The ‘cattle chiefs’ were in charge of stock raising and associated taxes, and the ‘army chiefs’ of the military services. Some Hutu might take charge at the neighbourhood level, but at higher levels of power mainly Tutsi were in control.

The beautiful land of a thousand hills...
The beautiful land of a thousand hills…

As oral tradition is the most common form of passing on history, little is documented and known about how relations within the population actually functioned in daily life. Or what that meant in terms of security for food, livelihood or of person. This structure is what the Europeans found when they started to arrive in Rwanda in the mid-1890s. Due to its many hills the challenge of hiking and climbing in Rwanda is quite substantial. And thanks to the hills the population was spared from the subjugation of slavery. Foreigners who would have been interested probably gave up due to the strenuous hiking and inevitably exhausting fighting that would have required.

Throughout history Rwanda has been rule by many interesting characters. Oral tradition tells about Ndahiro II Cyaamatare who catastrophically lost the royal drum. Mibambwe II sympathised with the poor and organised a system of milk distribution for the less privileged and ordered his chiefs to provide jugs of milk three times of day. Yuhi III was a creative personality and composed poetry. Unfortunately, he later developed mental illness.

Rukali Palace Museum.
Rukali Palace Museum.

When visiting the Rukali Palace Museum I was given a tour of the modern palace. It is a colonial-style building of one floor with spacious rooms and a wide balcony. And beautifully situated on a hilltop overlooking parts of the valley. The guide showed me around in rooms where the mwami would host visitors from near and far, including the Belgian king and colonial administrative staff. The palace even contains a wine cellar.

On the king and queen's bed. Or at least, a replica of it.
On the king and queen’s bed. Or at least, a replica of it. Just in case, the mwami kept his spear and shield by the entrance to the bed.

Afterwards I was also shown the traditional palace, which I found more interesting. A replica of the traditional ancient palace is reconstructed on the same site, which is about 4km from its original location. It is built from bamboo and straw with lots of space inside. The mwami lived here with his queen. He had only one wife. Their children lived in another hut nearby. The king and queen would enter the hut through the same entrance, but would use separate doorways to pass to the bedroom. I assume that the queen would sometimes act obstinate if she didn’t get her way, as I might. Asking if the king would get upset if the queen used his entrance, my guide answered that yes, he would get upset. I guess that would be really pushing it… They also had their own seats at the entrance threshold. One painted in red for the queen, and another in white for the king. The paint was made by using cow dung and cow’s blood.

The milkmaid and cattle. Haha...
The milkmaid and cattle. Haha… 🙂

The king had servants to do different chores. One of them was the milkmaid, who was a virgin. It was very important that she was a virgin, as it was believed that if she were not, it would poison the milk to be drunk by the king. If the milkmaid wanted to marry, she would have to quit her job as milkmaid. It was a high status position among the servants. She served milk in small to medium sized bottles made from wood. There was also a young man who produced beer for the mwami. It was made from banana, sorghum and honey in a total of five various mixtures. The beer producer kept busy producing beer for the mwami, and used calabashes in different sizes. As he was busy tasting beer, it was decided that there should not be any threshold outside his hut as a safety measure to prevent him from stumbling. I thought that was a sensible decision. And rather considerate, too.

Important equipment for the servant producing beer.
Important equipment for the servant producing beer.

Outside the palace there would have been an area where the king’s cows were kept. At present there is a paddock where about fifteen cows graze. They have the longest horns that I have ever seen on a live animal. A moose might have been the exception, but I have never seen a live moose. My guide told me that during traditional dancing people will extend their arms in different movements. It is a symbol of the cow horns. So I was mistaken about the traditional dance – the movements of the arms is not only to express joy, but a symbol of the horns of cows. Rwandans still do express a lot of joy when dancing.

To finish off my tour I walked to the Rwesero Palace Art Museum. It was built to be the new palace for the mwami Mutara Rudahigwa, but two months before he planned to move in he died. Political instability between Hutu and Tutsi increased. Hutu extremists were targeting Tutsi in their own ’emancipation’. As a result the late king’s heir and brother, Kigeli V, fled to Tanganyika.

The Rwesero Palace Art Museum.
The Rwesero Palace Art Museum.

Today the modern palace is an art museum with Rwandan art on display, both traditional sculptured and modern art. As well as a few pieces made by foreign artists. Such as one piece made by a Serbian woman depicting the challenges and development that Rwanda has been through. I talked to Fiona, a young woman who works at the museum. I asked her if Rwandans come to visit the museum. She said that people do come, but mainly to see the palace where the mwami planned to live. But when they do come they show interest in the art and want to learn about the pieces on display.

In my opinion, if you want to learn about a country’s culture it is a good idea to learn about the arts – their music and dance, literature, performing arts, and fine arts as paintings and sculptures. Because they portray a subjective way of viewing the society and the world that we live in. The artist is telling you a story. And you will learn about their stories. Reading about the Genocide to understand Rwanda will only give you a small piece of their history. Because Rwanda is so much more than that. I didn’t know before I came here, but that’s just it. If you don’t go, you won’t know.

Philip Briggs and Janice Booth, Rwanda.

Author: silbra

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