Origins of clans in Ankole

Bacwezi dynasty was the second dynasty of the Great Lakes Region at the end of the Pioneers of dynasties the Batembuzi. [The word “chwezi” is a Runyakitara word meaning “lawgiver” and is used to refer exclusively the monarchs, governors, military commanders and legislators in ancient times.  The conversion of Batembuzi into the Chwezi Empire corresponds to the High Middle Ages that saw similar consolidation and cultural ferment and growth all over the planet – in Europe, Asia and the Americas. 

The Chwezi Empire’s most military belligerent ruler was Ndahura KaRubumbi (known in Rwanda as Ndahiro, and in Buganda as Ndaula). Ndahura’s final settlement was at a royal kraal on Rweisamba Hill that overlooks the crater lake known as Lake Kikorongo which was his last lake to dig after several others in Tooro.

Ndahura was a warrior-king and empire-builder, and so he was constantly leading his armies into battle. One day while on an expedition, Ndahura and his guard unit had become separated from the main army and were ambushed and taken captive by a unit commanded by a renegade general from Karagwe Northern part of Tanzania. However, the general was afraid and didn’t harm the emperor. Eventually, Ndahura was released and he returned home to his palace at Rweisamba in Busongora, but declined to continue serving as emperor. He explained that since he had been humiliated by capture he was no longer qualified to serve as emperor.

When Ndahura was in captivity a commander named Mulindwa  was chosen to to take care of the kingdom who later handed over the Kingdom to the Last ruler of the Bacwezi dynasty Wamala son of Ndahura. When he died the Emperor Ndahura was buried on Irangara Island, which is located in Lake Matsyoro [Lake George] not far from his Rweisamba Palace.

The new emperor, Mulindwa in company of his brother from another mother Mugenyi, made the massive old palace-fort complex of Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi their seat of power. Mulindwa as a caretaker had relatively peaceful time, although plagued by conspiracies and intrigues by royal courtiers. Mulindwa was brilliant and his reign successful, but unfortunately he is remembered mostly for his troubled relations with some of the women at Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi led by Mugenyi’s mother before Mulindwa handed over power to Wamala.

The name Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi translates as “Palaces of Mugyenyi”. Lore has it that the massive palace-complex was named for a prince named Mugyenyi… however, the name “Mugyenyi” translates as “visitor”. Since nothing is known about prince Mugyenyi besides the claim that he gave his name to the palace… it may in fact be that the name “Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi means “Palaces for the Visitor”.

The courtiers who lived in the fort at Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi were called baSingo. The term “Singo” or “e ki-Singo” refers to a fortified area, or rounded defensive enclosure, and also to a circlet or a crown. The people who lived in such defensive enclosures were usually referred to as baSingo – meaning “people of the forts”, or “people of the crown”. Invariably all forts were populated by officials and courtiers and members of the most powerful families, as well as members of royal or military families.

One day Mulindwa had a misunderstanding with some women at the palace-fort of Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi, no doubt related to his many complicated love affairs. One day he was badly injured by twin sisters – two princesses named Nyanteza and Nyangoro. Apparently they laid a trap for him that resulted in his being severely injured, and he was saved by another half brother named Kagoro. In this ensuing confusion a civil war broke out, and the empire was nearly torn apart by the political chaos. Eventually, the general named Bala Bwigunda Wa-Imara, a military governor and a close ally of Mulindwa and Ndahura, re-established order in the empire. He led his troops to storm the palace-fortress of Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi, and defeated the “baSingo” royals.

At that time the area that is now the central African interior [eastern Congo, north Tanzania, western and eastern Uganda] was known as Imara, and General Bala son of Ndahura was the military governor of the region of Imara. The General was therefore known as Wa-Imara [conventionally shortened to “Wamara”]. He attacked Bigo bya Mugenyi to solve the conflict between Mulindwa and Mugyenyi and after a series of brutal battles finally Wamara was declared successor to Mulindwa, and Emperor of the Chwezi Empire.

Emperor Wamara Bwigunda wanted to avenge Mulindwa’s mistreatment, but he was unable to have the two powerful princesses Nyanteza and Nyangoro executed. Instead he outlawed them, and decreed that no one should give them any assistance, including water to drink or a bed to sleep in. Although the decree was aimed at only two women, in later centuries Wamara’s decree was retold in such a way as to appear that all BaSingo women were cursed and no one should marry them.

Wamara ruled with the help of a parliament consisting of senior priests [baShyengya], and senior military commanders [baSiita]. The word for “soldier” during Wamara’s time was mu-Siita [Singular] or baSiita [plural]. However, in later centuries the term Siita came to refer to a clan composed of descendants of Wamara’s elite troops. The process of conversion of professional classes, political groupings, polities and craft guilds into “clans”, came about as a result of the conflation of the professional societies with community settlements and blood lineage. This conflation began with the collapse of civil order – and the attendant loss of language and culture – during the slave and colonial eras.

The term BaSiingo [singular- MuSingo] which once meant “courtier or fort-dweller” eventually came to refer to a clan of descendants of the courtiers of Bigo bya Mugyenyi and other royal forts. The other professional guilds or political classes such as the baShyengya – meaning “senators” or “priests” – came to refer to a clan of their descendants. In fact a great proportion of clans in the territory of the former Chwezi Empire originate in geographical or craft associations, and are not to be understood as blood-lines. It is this fact alone that explains why it is that members of different ethnic origins share clan membership, while in fact they are clearly lacking in substantive ancestral or biological relationships.

During Wamara’s reign he was constantly beset by war and dissent. At one point a governor named Kyana revolted and captured the royal regalia – including the royal drum, but was unable to become emperor. Kyana briefly became independent ruler of the southern part of the Chwezi Empire including what is now Karagwe in northern Tanzania.

Despite Wamara’s troubles – his reign saw a lot of social and cultural advancements. For instance, Queen Nyabugondo – one of Wamara’s three wives – is credited with having developed the Royal breed of cattle known as “Enyambo” and introduced them to Karagwe, Rwanda and Burundi. Nyabugondo’s very name also points to another interesting fact: the breed of cattle known as “Bugondo” or “Ngondo” – has a dappled pattern that is hard to raise. The Ngondo and Nyambo cattle were bred exclusively in the lowlands of the kingdom and exported elsewhere… both breeds as now endangered and face extinction.

Wamara’s two other wives besides Nyabugondo were Bunono and Nyamata. One of Wamara’s Military comanders- General and later Emperor Kyomya II Rurema – was eventually able to retrieve the drum captured by Kyana, and to reunite the empire during Wamara’s reign. Wamara abdicated and left the throne to his heroic commander Kyomya II. During his reign Kyomya II was obligated to work with an increasingly powerful parliament, many of whose members frustrated his efforts and blamed him for the shortcomings of the imperial government. It is said that Kyomya II abdicated the throne in protest, a fate that was also suffered by his successor, the General Kagoro.

The Emperor Kagoro had served as a general to Wamara. The empire became unstable because of the strife between the two professional classes that controlled the parliament continued to increase. Kagoro resigned in disgust it is said, after several bad omens and natural disasters – probably blamed on him by radical priests, whose special knowledge of such mystical matters made it increasingly hard for soldiers to remain in charge of the empire.

Kagoro’s sucessor was a priest and prophet known as Kakara-Ka-Shagama. He was one of two famous prophets in the empire. When he ascended the throne it was at a time when the fortunes of the empire had turned dire… probably as a result of climate change, and pressure from loss of territory to the enemies of the empire. Kakara’s relationship with the parliament was not great either, and his epic cycle tells of attempts on his life by the leading citizens of the empire. He faced resistance from both the army generals in the parliament. Eventually, he sought to end the power of the parliamentary factions by turning the empire into a hereditary monarchy. He chose Princess Kamaranga – a woman said to be descended from Wamara – to replace him as monarch.

Kakara-ka-Shagama abdicated the throne after defeating the intrigues and attacks of the army [known at that time as the “Siita”] and the priests [known at that time as the “Shyengya”]. He crowned Kamaranga – who took the regal name of Njunaki.

Empress Njunaki Kamaranga was to preside over the final disintegration of the empire. Her regal name Njunaki, which means “What am I to save?”, was probably chosen by her because she became ruler at a time when it was certain the empire was falling apart and she had not the support required to hold it together. During her lifetime, she parceled out the empire among her sons and loyal courtiers in the hopes that the new states would at least remain linked by blood-ties to the former rulers of the defunct empire. Njunaki had several sons, among whom was one named Shagama, who became the king the core of the Chwezi Empire. Her second son, named Ruhinda founded the state of Kaarro-Karungi, centred on the county of Isingiro and Karagwe in what is now south Uganda and north Tanzania. Kaarro-Karungi later became the separate kingdoms of Nkore and Karagwe. Another son of Njunaki founded the state of Burundi.