Know Your History: Rukara, an icon of resistance to colonialists

Although King Mutara III Rudahigwa is famous for having resisted colonial rule at the end of the 18th century, many Rwandans believe Rukara Rwa Bishingwe was even more firm in his resistance to the whiteman's leadership in Rwanda.

Although King Mutara III Rudahigwa is famous for having resisted colonial rule at the end of the 18th century, many Rwandans believe Rukara Rwa Bishingwe was even more firm in his resistance to the whiteman’s leadership in Rwanda. 

Rukara was born in Burera district, Northern Province at Gahunga k’Abarashi, an area that was occupied by the Barashi (gunners) family. According to Juvénal Ndagijimana, 50, a grandson of Rukara, his grandfather was the chief of Gahunga village in the late 1800s. He says Rukara succeeded his father Bishingwe under the reign of King Kigeli IV Rwabugili.

But drama started when the queen, Kanjogera, clashed with Rukara after he questioned her unjust ways. And for this, he was sent to jail. However, when the Roman Catholic missionaries wanted to establish their mission in Rwaza, Nyabihu district, the King realised how much he needed Rukara’s help. The plan was to ‘recruit’ followers in the neighbouring Gahunga and the best person to coordinate this was the imprisoned Rukara. As a result, the king had no choice but to release Rukara around 1910.

The king gave Rukara very clear instructions. He told Rukara to accompany Fr. Lupias to Gahunga but keep a low profile. Lupias was instead the one supposed to act the chief Rukara’s village. But Rukara exploded when Lupias, while demarcating land for his home, mistakenly ‘grabbed’ his clansmen’s land. He vehemently protested and was in trouble once again.

Lupias later summoned Rukara to his place to explain his attitude but he refused. On second thought, Rukara decided to go with his army - Urukandagira, Abakemba, Uruyenzi – to meet Lupias.

As soon as the white priest saw Rukara, he started hurling insults at him and even slapped him hard in the face and a scuffle ensued. Lupias had probably forgotten that he had not carried his gun and was not as safe on his own. With the support of his soldiers, Lupias was weakened and Rukara killed him using a spear.

Rukara and his army then fled to Rutchuru in the Democratic Republic of Congo but later relocated to Mbarara in Uganda. While there, he learnt that his friend, Ndungutse, had been appointed to govern one of the villages near his home and decided to return to Rwanda. But it was not long before the colonialists captured him and tried him in the current Rubavu district. Rukara lost the case and the judge ordered that he be hanged or shot dead.

But that was not enough to break Rukara’s spirit and commitment to justice. As a soldier was trying to hang him, Rukara grabbed a sword from him and stabbed him to death. This earned him a bullet from a white woman who was watching from a distance killing him instantly. This was in 1912.

According to Ndagijimana, the Barashi clan had to pay a heavy price for Rukara’s ‘sins’. “No Murashi would go to school under colonial rule but we are happy that is no more today. We have children at university today,” he said.

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