The 'myth' of King Ruganzu

Today, in every part of Rwanda, you will find marks on rocks and places waterfalls, hills and caves named after an ancient King called Ruganzu.
Ruganzu Ndoli.
Ruganzu Ndoli.

Today, in every part of Rwanda, you will find marks on rocks and places waterfalls, hills and caves named after an ancient King called Ruganzu.

The story says that in 1510, a year after the coronation of King Henry VIII in England and at the prime time of the surging of the Ottoman Empire over the Middle East and North Africa, a king ascended the throne in Rwanda and ruled in the land of his fathers until he was arrowed in the eye and died in 1543.


While still a teenager living with his aunt Nyabunyana on the other side of Akagera River in Karagwe k’Abahinda in the present day Kagera District in Tanzania’s Kagera Region, Prince Ndoli, son of King Ndahiro II Cyamatare, crossed River Akagera into Rwanda where he was being awaited by both friends and foes of his deceased father alike.


He escaped the first attempt to kill him by herdsmen who lay in wait for him at the banks of River Akagera. He was crowned at Gatsibo in the East and assumed the named Ruganzu II Ndoli.


He did away with chiefdoms and kinglets both strong and weak, including the men who had killed his father.

He re-united the kingdom under one kingship and his expansionist policy expanded the Kingdom beyond the current borders.

Although he is one of the most famous ancient Kings of Rwanda, he is also called “Ruganzu the Fool” because he is believed to have done great things but never revealed the secret of his power to anyone to pass it to the following generations.

But the mere mentioning of Ruganzu, leads to the mentioning of his “miracles” and the mentioning of miracles, raises doubts of his deeds and unfortunately to some people, his existence.

Did Ruganzu really exist or he is just a legend?

There is sufficient evidence of the existence of King Ruganzu II Ndoli.

There are people living today who list their grandfathers as handed down from generation to another, mentioning Ruganzu Ndoli as one of their ancestors. They are called “Abaganzu”.

He is also known in the history of the neighboring kingdoms in Uganda’s Ankole and Bunyoro and also in Tanzania’s Karagwe.

But again, why would anyone praise a man that never existed in the first place?

But if he existed, did he do what he is said to have done? And if he didn’t what tool could he have used to retell his stories the way they are in today’s generation?

Stunts or ‘miracles’

Right after his coronation, Ruganzu Ndoli stepped on the gigantic 3 hectares rock of Ngarama in Gatsibo District as a vantage point in search of water for his thirsty soldiers called “Ibisumizi” and an escape route from the advancing enemies.

The footprints and the paw prints of his dogs were permanently marked on the rock up to this day, although, they might not be as clear as they were 500 years ago.

Geologists like Jean Claude Ngaruye from the Ministry of Natural Resources say the marks on Ngarama rock and the similar shape of a foot that was in Rulindo are just results of denudation processes not foot prints.

“The marks are not surely footprints and paw prints but are shapes that resulted from the breakdown of rock particles just like other shapes you can recognize on the rock” he says.

However, 71-year old historian and literally personage, Gaston Nsanzabaganwa of Rwanda Academy of Languages and Culture (RALC), says Ruganzu Ndoli could have had powers to leave footprints on a rock.

“When we talk of ancient times, we should acknowledge that the skills of long ago are in magic not like the skills of today that are practical. Ruganzu like the Bible’s Miraculous Moses or Greeks Achilles could smash a rock with his foot” said Nsanzabaganwa.

But Nsanzabaganwa mentions something else interesting: “Ruganzu could have learned artistic skills while in Karagwe which were new skills to Rwandans of his age”.

This argument remains in doubt because neither in Karagwe, nor other places in the region do we find footprints on rocks.

There is no way Ruganzu could have learned making engravings on rocks in Karagwe where there are no engravings at all.

An earthquake?

Before Ruganzu, a story is told of the stone found at Bagege in Gakenke District that could tremulously move in night darkness and quake down trees, houses and mountains.

Ruganzu with a king’s majesty and might in a kingly hammer “punished the stone and commanded it never to do the same”; never ever to move again.

But although there are no records of earthquakes in 1500s in Rwanda, Ngaruye suggests it could have been an earthquake that the story of a big stone shaking the ground.

“Our records begin with the coming of Europeans in Rwanda but depending on the nature of the story, the people could have heard the sound of an earthquake and ascertained it was the stone moving,” said Ngaruye.

Nazar Higiro, 96, lives at Bihinga in Kabarore Sector in Gatsibo District.

He is from the lineage of “Abiru” the custodians of the secrets of the kingdom and himself having worked at the palace of King Mutara III Rudahigwa in late 1930s and 40s.

He discounts the suggestion that the story of the moving stone of Gakenke could have been an earthquake and says that Rwandans knew earthquakes before Ruganzu Ndoli.

“There are very many poems, more ancient than the stories of Ruganzu themselves, in which there are heroes who talk of themselves as earthquakes’” said Higiro.

The story of the moving stone therefore could be true or false but not an earthquake.

Every spear, a split in the earth

A story is again told of the cause of the series of underground tunnels in the volcanic mountains of the north that are a great tourist attraction today.

Ruganzu, before he had defeated all the kinglets and Uganda’s Banyoro invaders, was attacked in the north and had no way of escape.

The story says that these underground tunnels are escape routes he created by his mighty spear he shot at mountain per mountain and escaped under the mountains.

Today’s geography says Rwanda’s northern part was a path for River Nile that was originating from the Western Rift Valley but 2 billion years of eruptions transformed its head waters into lakes like Ruhondo, Burera and others.

It is from this argument that geologists like Ngaruye put it that the caves in Birunga Mountains are a result of the river and volcanic eruption.

He says: “When lava flowed violently to cover the river, the river water boiled beneath the lava and the gases from the water stayed and created a gap under the lava that now we see as the caves on almost the same line in different mountains”.

One of Rwanda’s great poets of today, Justin Nzabahimana born from the land of poets’ grandfathers in Huye at Kiruri backs Ngaruye’s explanation.

“Ruganzu could definitely not create a way under a mountain with his spear as poems say”, he said. 

“He was a powerful hunter of his time and had spent long time in the mountains. He probably knew escape routes like those caves” he argued.

He added that the skill of hunting in ancient Rwanda was far wider than what we consider as hunting today.

“In ancient Rwanda, hunting means great skill in exploration and discovery not only hunting games for food just”, he said.

Ruganzu Ndoli, a creation of time

Mzee Nsanzabaganwa finally says that people are created by time.

“When time requires a certain form of man, only that man emerges and does what that time demands,” he explained.

Nsanzabaganwa says Ruganzu was a man put in place by the demands of time. He reshaped everything including putting in place Rwanda’s first organized media house by collecting all poems and poets into one umbrella under his guidance because he was the greatest poet of all.

He instituted a new technique of poetry, where the poet mentions much but brings Ruganzu Ndoli at the climax.

It may sound as if it is a weak act especially to our generation of social media and all unstoppable flows of information, but in a generation where poems from the throne were the only way of sharing, it is possible that the stories about Ruganzu could have been twisted to praise this extraordinary king and so handed down from generation to generation as exaggerated truth.

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