Deep in Bweramana sector, Ruhango district in Southern Province is Nkubi, a yet-to-be-gazetted cultural site that is much revered by the locals.
Ruhango is one of the eight districts that make up Southern Province, with a population of slightly over 300,000 people.
I recently visited Bweramana sector, at the invitation of one of the locals and a native of the area, a young man called Vedaste Habimana.
When we met in Kigali prior to the trip, Habimana had told me why he needed to travel down to his village in Ruhango with a journalist: There is a stretch of land in this village that he and the locals thought held so much cultural significance not only for the sector and district, but the country at large.
It is a piece of ground whose use dates back to the reign of King Ruganzu II Ndoli, arguably the most renowned among the country’s former monarchs.
Locals also use the site for prayer and worship. / Moses Opobo
We arrived at the spot shortly after 11:00 am, amidst the scorching mid-morning sun: a rocky waterway with giant rock outcrops, surrounded by fairly thick vegetation.
There is a cacophony of sounds emanating from the site, from the sound of water splashing on rocks on its way downstream to children swimming and playing among the rocks, and birds chirping in the tree canopies. As we move deeper into the site, the lilting sounds of praise and worship can be heard from within the walls of the rocks.
We are soon joined by a handful of locals, ranging from small children to village elders, one of who is said to be 116 years old!
The locals hail from outlying villages, and all seem to be bound together by one thing – their reverence for Nkubi Site, as this place is known to them.
Overlooking this deep gorge is an adjacent hill said to have been used as an occasional base by King Ruganzu II Ndoli.
Due to limited time, I politely declined the offer to scale the steep hill and thereby missed out on enjoying panoramic views of outlying villages. So tall is this hill, I was told one could see as far as Kigali, a distance of nearly 40 km away!
Today, the most visible marks of human activity on the site are bible verses scribbled on some of the rocks.
A devotee looks at Bible verses inscribed on one of the rocks at Nkubi site. / Moses Opobo
Even during our tour, which fell on a Saturday, the biggest number of people on site was bible-wielding religious devotees immersed in worship led by lay preachers from among their own.
As we proceeded with the tour, we came across more believers perched in the various caves and nooks beneath the rocks, either perusing their Kinyarwanda Bible or lost in a moment of religious bliss.
Others simply come with written prayer requests which they leave under the rocks.
Talking to locals during the tour, the general sentiment shared among them is that Nkubi site has been ‘neglected’.
In 2016, Habimana took the initiative to try and establish if this historical place was anywhere in the records of government or the relevant bodies as a tourist attraction or place of cultural significance.
His first stop was the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, where he also alerted the officials about the current threats of environmental degradation that the site faces as a result of unregulated sand and stone mining.
“The officials from the National Museums of Rwanda confirmed that indeed the site is not gazetted. They traveled with me to the place, assessed the site and gathered information from locals, and promised to fast-track the process of developing it into a national cultural heritage site,” Habimana revealed.
Vedaste Habimana has invested a lot of time in highlighting the plight of Nkubi site. / Moses Opobo
According to Ambassador Robert Masozera, the Director-General of the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, there are over 500 yet-to-be-developed historical and cultural heritage sites in what has come to be known as the Southern Cultural Heritage Corridor. The term refers to historical and cultural trails in the Southern Province that played a key historical role in pre-colonial Rwanda.
Maurice Mugabowagahunde, a researcher in history at the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda headed the small team that went on a site inspection mission of Nkubi at the invitation of Habimana in 2016.
Mugabowagahunde confirmed that Nkubi site was indeed a historical site, one among over 500 such sites spread all over the Cultural Heritage Corridor.
He, however, refuted local legend which claims that King Ruganzu II Ndoli used to frequent the site to meet his subjects and for other social gatherings.
According to Mugabowagahunde, the king only went to the site once, on a hunting expedition.
“The king was there only once, but there are more than 100 places that he visited once. But this is not to mean that we are ignoring it.”
Currently, the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda is in the process of documenting all these undeveloped historical sites into a five-phase booklet, the first phase of which is already being printed in South Africa.
Nkubi site has become a life-long mission for Habimana. / Moses Opobo
Mugabowagahunde further explained that currently, the district of Ruhango has prioritized five historical sites for development. These are; Butansinda site, near Kigoma town, Urutare rwa Kamageri, the ancient royal palace of king Mibambwe Gisanura (known for his generosity), Umwari wa Musaro (a giant rock outcrop with the features of a teenage girl), and Urutare rwa Ruganzu (Ruganzu’s Rock).
For Vedaste Habimana who hosted me at the site, Nkubi has become a life-long mission. As a child growing up in Bweramana sector, he viewed the site as a “special place in our village”.
He is currently studying Tourism at the University of Tourism and Business (UTB), and the inspiration for this choice of career is obvious.
When he joined university, he decided to start doing some publicity and creating awareness about the site. He has taken at least two area mayors on an inspection of the site, has written letters to the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture (RALC), and the Rwanda National Police, among others.
Although he is sure that Nkubi site will one day be developed, first, he wants to see the relevant authorities prevail on unregulated sand and stone mining activities on the site.