African Queens Series: Nyabinghi Priestesses Muhumusa and Kaigirwa


Muhumusa and Kaigirwa were feared leaders of the East African Nyabinghi priestesses group that was influential in present day Rwanda and Uganda from 1850 to 1950. In 1911 Muhumusa proclaimed “she would drive out the Europeans” and “that the bullets of the Wazungu would turn to water against her.”

Since the 1700s, there were two tribes who inhabited this geographical area: the Shambo and Bgeishekatwa. Queen Kitami, who is said to have possessed a sacred drum of phenomenal power, ruled the Bgeishekatwa tribe. When Kitami died she was given immortal status and the name Nyabinghi.

The Nyabinghi cult started soon after Nyabinghi’s death, and it provided a sanctuary for many people targeted by regimes at the time. As stated by the cult’s members, her spirit was to be maintained through manifestations exclusively within further generations of women in the nearby region. Nyabinghi priestesses, known as bagirwa (singular form: mugirwa), followed processes named okutweija and okuterekyerera in order to induct their daughters to the cult. This induction was necessary, because any non-inducted woman would have been unable to become the next personification of the Nyabinghi spirit. As a result, bagirwa introduced their daughters to the system at the earliest possible convenience, so that they would have had a large number of eligible women who would have been in the position to inherit the spirit once its former owner died. This ensured that the work of Queen Nyabinghi could be continued. In later years, the belief became less restrictive, and the first Nyabinghi priests also came into existence.

Muhumsa became the first in a line of rebel priestesses fighting colonial domination in the name of the Nyabinghi. She was the widow of Kigeri IV – Rwabugiri, the Mwami of the Kingdom of Rwanda towards the end of the 19th century. Rwaburigiri was known as one of the most powerful Abami in the history of Rwanda and the first to have come into contact with Europeans. Muhumusa was left widowed after Rwaburigiri was betrayed and subsequently assassinated by his stepmother, who was working with the Europeans, in order to install her own son in power, Musinga. The negative influence of the European colonial powers was almost instantaneous; this led to years of instability in the region, which was followed by continuing animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu people, culminating in the Rwandan Genocide almost two centuries later in 1994.

Muhumusa and her son, Ndungusi, the rightful blood heir to the throne, were forced into exile in the mountains.

Initially, due to the fact that they were former royalty, both of them were not received well by the peasants. However, the two of them quickly learned to live with the Bagirwa, and it is here where Muhumusa was exposed to the Nyabinghi teachings. From a non-adherent, she rose to be a mugirwa, and eventually gained full leadership, thanks to her powerful character, intelligence and charisma, and was revered as the next reincarnation of Nyabinghi herself. This gave her the religious and political legitimacy she required to gather a large enough following to support her desire to rid the Kingdom of its puppet ruler and to restore Ndungusi as the rightful Mwami.

She organised armed resistance against German colonialists. She was arrested and jailed in 1908 by German and collaborating Rwandan forces for her continued aggression against the colonial powers. She was released two years later, and immediately returned to overthrow the puppet government, to no avail. She changed her tactics thereafter; she returned to a region named Ndorwa and founded a new kingdom there. The support for this was huge, from both the Nyabinghi and locals. In 1911, Muhumusa launched her last attack against the opposing forces, in the form of an ambush on members of the Anglo-Belgian-Germany Boundary Commission. By this time, the British were involved in Rwanda, and they responded by killing 40 of Muhumusa’s fighters, as well as shooting her in the foot before finally capturing her. Muhumusa, with her tactical acumen and deeper understanding of the harm colonialism would have brought to the country than many of her followers, was seen as too great a threat to colonial control, and was thus deported to Menage, in Kampala, where she died in 1944/1945. She never got an opportunity to return to Kigezi.

Although she had been expelled, she had inspired a whole anti-colonial struggle in Rwanda in the name of Nyabinghi. The British were so fearful of what could come, that they wrote the Witchcraft Act of 1912, which outlawed practising “non-orthodox” beliefs such as Nyabinghi, in order to reduce the political power it provided.


In August 1917, Kaigirwa followed in Muhumusa’s footsteps, and engineered the Nyakishenyi revolt, with unanimous public support. British officials placed a high price on her head, but no one would claim it. After the British attacked the Congo camp of Kaigirwa in January 1919, killing most of the men, Kaigirwa and the main body of fighters managed to evade the army and escape.

Kaigirwa attempted another uprising, then went into the hills, where she was never captured.

Influence on Nyambinghi On Rastafarian Lifestyle

Although the Nyabinghi movement was quelled by the 1930s in East Africa, it inspired the Rastafarians in Jamaica. They adopted Nyabinghi as a spirit of liberation, and this is embodied in the Nyabinghi style of ritual drumming performed as a communal meditative practice in the Rastafarian lifestyle, particularly in Jamaica.

They incorporated what are known as Nyabinghi chants (binghi) into their celebrations. The rhythms of these chants were an influence on popular ska, rocksteady and reggae music. Three kinds of drums are used in Nyabinghi music –  bass, funde and keteh.













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