Re: Honorific Distinctions of Royal Rwanda

On Aug 5, 10:52 am, chevalier63 <hdhi...@xxxxxxxxx> wrote:
In the course of my research on the history of the Rwandan monarchy, I
recently encountered the text excerpted below.

It was written in 1952 by the Abbe Alexis Kagame, and outlines some of
the traditional awards made by the Mwami of Rwanda (at that time H.M.
Mutara III Rudahigwa) to those who rose to the defense of the

This text may be of interest to those who seek the historical and
inspirational roots of the current group of honorific distinctions
bestowed by H.M. Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, present Mwami of Rwanda.

Stewart Addington Saint-David

Honorific Distinctions in the Rwandan Tradition:

from the book Le code des institutions politiques du Rwanda (pages
by Alexis Kagame (1952)

It is to the King that belongs the right to bestow honorific
distinctions. Each warrior having killed his seventh enemy will
receive the distinction called the Umudende (Necklace of the Seventh).
However, the acquisition of this distinction depends on the following
conditions: the seven kills must be foreigners; adversaries killed
during punitive expeditions or occasional combats will not be counted;
they must have given up the ghost on a field of battle, not elsewhere,
following wounds received. If the enemy expires having received
several wounds, his death is attributed to him who first wounded him,
even if his blow was a light one.

The distinction of the Umudende is a necklace of iron, from which
hang small bells in even numbers: 2, 4 or 6, at chest height. By a
decision of Kigeli IV Rwabugili were abolished obligations attached to
this distinction which were considered too onerous, and which rendered
it inaccessible to heroes of modest fortune. 1

The warrior having killed his 14th enemy by the conditions of
these rules will receive the distinction called the Impotore (Torse).
The Torse consists of a bracelet formed from a leaf of iron and a leaf
of brass rolled one on the other to create regular torse form. The
Torse imposes no obligation on whomsoever receives it.

The honorific distinctions in question are mutually exclusive:
the warrior decorated with the Torse can no longer wear the Necklace
of the Seventh.

The two objects must be conserved with great respect in a
separate hut at some distance and cannot be placed on the ground.

The warrior having killed his 21st enemy under the same
conditions will be the object of a grand ceremony called the Cremation
of the Javelin and will thus become a national hero. The Cremation of
the Javelin (Gucana uruti) is decreed by the King, and its ceremony
takes place on the highest mountain of the region where the hero
lives. The poets, bards, warrior chanters, in a word all those who
perform the solemnities of the Court participate, by order of the

The King cannot be decorated with anything other than the
Necklace of the Seventh. He receives it for seven kings or sub-kings,
enthroned under the sign of the drum, and bearing in their countries
the title of King, and killed during his reign... Said princes cannot
be killed but by an official expedition... after consultation of
divine oracles undertaken specifically for this purpose, for royal
blood cannot be spilled without a favorable and conclusive oracle.>From whence it appears that armed incursions cannot threaten the life

of a foreign prince having borne the title of King. A non-kingly
native prince, called Umuhinza (president of cultures) has nothing of
the sacred character, and thus the esoteric code is not disturbed by

When an expedition has been directed against a foreign country,
with a view toward its annexation, it is absolutely necessary that it
be preceded by an offensive liberator. One calls offensive liberator
(Umucengeli) the hero designated by special consultation of the divine
oracle to replace the King, and to go spill his blood on the field of
battle, in order to give to Rwanda the right to annex a territory
bought with the price of royal blood.

One calls defensive liberator (Umutabazi) the hero designated in
the same fashion to spill his blood in the place of the King, in order
to save the independence of Rwanda when threatened by a foreign
country. The offensive liberator is not required but for the
annexation of a territory ruled by a monarch reigning under the
conditions cited above, to wit: kings or sub-kings, enthroned under
the sign of the drum and bearing in their countries the title of

[Translator's Note: Alexis Kagame, born in Kiyanza, Rwanda in 1912,
was a Rwandan poet, historian and Roman Catholic priest who introduced
the written art, both in his own language, Kinyarwanda, and in French,
to his country.

Kagame, the son of a deputy chief of the Tutsi people, was
baptized in 1928 and ordained a priest in 1941. His considerable
activity before and after taking his doctorate at the Pontifical
Gregorian University in Rome, as well as his deep study of Rwandan
literature made him one of the chief experts on the traditional
organization and practices of Rwandan society, as well as on its
ancient monarchy.

He died in 1981, after having created an extensive body of work
in his various fields of expertise. He is primarily remembered as the
foremost Rwandan historian of the last century.

Throughout the copious notes for this chapter, Kagame makes
frequent mention of the various abami (kings) decorated with the
Necklace of the Seventh, including Ruganzu II Ndoli (1510-1543),
Mutara I Semugeshi (1543-1576), Kigeli II Nyamuheshera (1576-1609),
Kigeli III Ndabrasa (1708-1741), Kigeli IV Rwabugili (1853-1895) and
Yuhi V Musinga (1896-1931). Thus, this decoration dates from the late
15th century at the very least, and in all probability from a much
earlier period.]

1 The recipient was obligated, for instance, to sacrifice a young bull
at each new moon, a ceremony which was accompanied by a mock marriage.
Thus no one, in a society of cattle owners, can expose himself to the
obligation to kill a cow at each new moon, without knowing at which
point he will be liberated of this obligation... [Author' Note].

The issue is not whether the Rwanadan Mwami was a fount of Rwandan
honours. He was.
The history of Rwandan honorific awards has little to do with the
current orders, just as the Rwandan nobiliary titles have little to do
with the traditional Hutu or Tutsi titles of land and cattle chiefs.
If anything this article highlights the extent to which the current
practices are at odds with genuine traditions.
I agree with other authors that the mimicing of European and
specifically Belgian practices is unfortunate and ill-advised. The
current orders of King Kigeli should be simply seen for what they are
- gifts to supporters in a form used by a number of non-reigning
monarchs. King Kigeli asserts that the Order of the LIon existed prior
to his overthrow and my understanding is that the others are of newer
vintage. The value of the awards is only within the circle of
supporters of the Rwandan king, although the same can be said of some
of the non-historic awards of other non-reigning monarchs.
The award of completely ahistoric noble titles is on the other hand
something that is poorly thought out and completely ill-advised. It
does not do credit to this once-reigning king nor to those who sport
these titles.
George Lucki


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