The Nyabingi Priestesses

Muhumusa and Kaigirwa were revered Nyabingi priestesses with both spiritual and political influence in the region that is present day Rwanda and Uganda border (1850 to 1950). Nyabingi 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 Niyabinghi. The Bgeishekatwa were eventually defeated by the Shambo who then adopted the Bgeishekatwa’s rituals for Nyabinghi . A century later the Shambo were defeated by the cultivating Kiga clan. The Kiga’s century-rule is characterized as the reign of the Nyabinghi priestesses.

Kiga women who received Nyabinghi’s blessings and were said to be possessed by Nyabinghi came to be called Bagirwa. Eventually the revered Bagirwa gained political dominion and became governors of the Kiga people living a dual life of political and spiritual leadership. The Bagirwa, including Muhumusa, remained governors of the Kiga people until 1930 after losing their land to British, German, and Belgian imperialists, which they fought for a period of twenty years. The singular form of the word “Bagirwa” is “Mugirwa”. At some point, men became Nyabinghi priests as well.

The Nyabingi Muhumusa became the first in a line of rebel priestesses fighting colonial domination in the name of the Nyabingi. The British passed a 1912 Witchcraft Act in direct response to the political effectiveness of this spiritually-based resistance movement. Nyabinga Kaigirwa inherited the resistance that was instigated by Muhumusa and engineered the Nyakishenyi revolt with her community’s support. (August, 1917) British officials placed a high price on her head, but no one would claim it.

The British later attacked Kaigirwa’s Congo camp in January 1919, killing most of the men. Kaigirwa and her main body of fighters, however, managed to evade the army and escaped.

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

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