I never expected to discover a cultural site linked to the Rwandan monarchy in Musanze. Before I set foot on the rock-strewn trails of Buhanga Eco Park, I used to associate Musanze area with the great apes, volcanic mountains and Irish potatoes, from which French fries are made. Nothing more.
I didn’t know much about the history of the Kingdom of Rwanda before the reign of King Yuhi V Musinga. Musinga’s story has deep roots in Nyanza. His successor, King Mutara III Rudahigwa cemented Nyanza’s position as the seat of the highly centralized kingdom.
I didn’t bother to read any reviews prior to visiting Buhanga. For some reasons, I thought nature walk was its only drawcard. Turns out, walking in the midst of nature is only a prerequisite for an unforgettable pilgrimage-like experience.
According to my guide, the site was home to King Gihanga, believed to be the founder of the kingdom of Rwanda. Many historians claim the first king ruled during the 11th Century but there are conflicting reports on the era of his reign. One thing is clear though. Those who ruled after him were enthroned in his royal court, including the ones whose residences were in Nyanza.
Over time, Gihanga’s palace collapsed but the coronation locale is preserved. Today, it is a tourist attraction hidden in an isolated forest patch. The small forest is annexed to the Volcanoes National Park.
In pre-colonial Rwanda, coronation of a new king used to be a pre-eminent ceremony organized in accordance with the royal protocol.
The royal carriage would be wheeled into the dark cave inside the forest. Then the heir to the throne would take a bath in that cave. The cave in question is a confined dugout. It ensures privacy, hence ideal for bathing.
The water used was fetched from a neighboring spring. This water was considered sacred. Many members of the surrounding communities still seek divine intervention from the mysterious spring to date.
In preparation for the coronation bath, the king’s aides known as Abiru would mix water with herbs collected from the ditch a few yards away. After bathing, the heir apparent would be wiped and smeared with regal oil before being carried to the conference podium.
While on the podium, he would receive the instruments of power and officially take over as the new Umwami. Every coronation ceremony was presided over by the advisory council, clan heads, elders and royal sorcerers.
Bathing took place in the dark cave using water fetched from the spring. The said water was cleansed with herbs picked from the ditch. Finally, the newly-crowned king was hailed on the podium. The cave, the spring, the ditch and the podium are profound sections of historical significance in Buhanga forest.
There are many species of trees in the forest bearing Latin and Greek names I can barely pronounce. However, some specific trees have Rwandan names. These include Igihondohondo, Umusando and Ibiganiro. Some of them are 300 years old.
One particular tree stands out from the crowd. It is popularly known as three-in-one. Three species of trees are intertwined to form one symbolic tree also known as Inyabutatu ya Banyarwanda. It reflects the unity of the three Rwandan ethnic groups.
A few trees in this forest have been featured prominently in Rwandan folklore. Their legends are widespread. Next time you go to the village, spare some time to share banana wine with elders and listen to their stories. Stories that have been transmitted from generation to generation. Don’t break the chain.
I once read a story titled Umuvumu and Thirty Men. Umuvumu is another tree flourishing in Buhanga Eco Park. It’s one of those giants that have stood the test of time.
Visiting historical sites enables me to convert imagination into tangible things. Things I can touch and feel. It was fulfilling to finally see, touch and confirm the existence of Umuvumu. Nevertheless, I still argued that Umuvumu and Thirty Men is a fictitious tale. My hosts in Nkotsi Sector where Buhanga forest is located strongly disagreed with me.
As the story goes, thirty men cut it down in 1977 and divided its trunk and branches into small pieces. Before the pieces were shared by the culprits who intended to use them as firewood, something miraculous happened. The pieces reintegrated and the original tree was reassembled. Umuvumu came back to life. At the end of this story, the thirty men dropped dead.
Just when I thought I had seen it all, I found Umuvumu, a tree planted in my imagination many years ago.