Residing in Oak Creek apartments, Oakton, a census-designated place in the US, Umwami Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, the ‘King of Rwanda’, would pass for an ordinary former Rwandan refugee, now living on handouts.
The ‘royal’ has his life moving by food stamps, a Section 8 housing subsidy, Medicaid, and private donations of cash and clothing, as well as the occasional sale of Rwandan knighthoods to jet-set strangers in search of novelty status symbols.
Born Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa in June 1936 in Kamembe, Rwanda, Kigeli became the ruling King of Rwanda in 1959 at the age of 23 after the sudden death of his brother King Mutara III Rudahigwa.
Childless in the name of observing a royal custom forbidding marriage in exile, the seven-foot-two-inch man sits in his humble apartment alone, and when he is not watching wrestling on TV or napping or taking one of his evening constitutionals, Kigeli is often on the phone, gathering what he says is street-level intelligence from Rwandans around the world.
After more than two decades in the US and a couple of others in both Uganda and Kenya many would expect him to be a fluent English speaker. However, Kigeli moves with an escort, a Kinyarwanda translator, and can neither drive nor be employed!
Boniface Benzinge, a man who has voluntarily and without any pay served Umwami Kigeli as the king’s chancellor since 1973, continues to stand by his side. He is one of the few who believe in the able leadership of the king even though he currently has no kingdom or even country.
And like the king, Benzinge continues to hope that one day, president Paul Kagame of Rwanda will give them an answer on whether they should return home to their throne.
In 1996, while in Washington for meetings, Kigeli always said Kagame summoned him to a private reception room at the Willard InterContinental hotel and told him he was welcome back to Rwanda as a private citizen but not as king. Kigeli said that was for the people of Rwanda to decide and Kagame, who is two decades younger than Kigeli, said he would get back to him.
Since then, the king waits for the people’s decision, whether he will get it or not he does not seem to push hard for it as well.
“I am a modern, democratically minded ruler. I would be contented with a palace, some guards, and a ceremonial role, like the queen of England. But first the people should decide. If Rwandans voted me back as king—as am confident they will—I will serve. All I want is a chance,” he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post.
Ascending to the throne
Kigeli’s tale is a sad one, that of a king born in poverty, deprivation, death and exile who sat on his throne for six months before he was again sent into exile.
It is a tale of a 77-year-old king who misery and fate have become engrossed in.
His father - King Yuhi V Musinga - had been deposed by the Belgians and was living in an isolated remote southwestern Rwanda for four years before the entire family was exiled to Congo by the colonialists.
King Musinga died of pneumonia in 1944 and was succeeded by Kigeli’s elder brother King Mutara III Rudahigwa. King Mutara later led the whole family back to Rwanda from where Kigeli went to school.
After Kigeli finished school in 1956, the Belgians made him a subchief, and soon a chief, in southern Rwanda. Kigeli delighted in the work, which he equated to being “mayor.”
According to Kigeli, his brother Mutara started feeling unwell shortly after they had watched a Belgian documentary on July 25, 1959. A doctor was called in and after injecting the then king, he died. After the death, words of an assassination went around and the country went into intense tension.
Kigeli’s father had at least five wives, and Kigeli was among the younger of the 15 children and the most unlikely to take over the throne after his brother despite that Mutara was married but with no child.
On July 28, at Mutara’s burial, the Abiru - traditional guardians of ritual - stunned onlookers by declaring Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa—thereafter Kigeli V—the next king.
Kigeli was as shocked as the Belgian governor who had not been consulted or even informed of this decision; but that was the Rwandan tradition; no one was to know about the successor until after burial of the king.
The Belgians were to later on refer to the ceremony as the mwima coup d’état, the coup of the king,
The lost and forgotten kingdom
Very few of the Rwandans both in Rwanda and the diaspora know a thing or two about the Rwanda Kingdom. The current leadership of the country has done little to keep the memory vivid and so have the individuals (still alive) who lived during the time of kingship.
If the children of the soil and the international world at large know Rwanda at all, it’s as the site of a genocide the world ignored in 1994 killing 800,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus.
Kigeli himself has been easily forgotten and only remembered in relation to a monarchy abolished in 1961 through a majority people’s vote.
A man thrown away from his kingdom reached a point where curiosity seekers in Nairobi in the 1980s paid a few shillings to meet him: someone who had once worn a crown.
Kigeli went to the US in the early 1990s with little but one of his suit case and his chancellor Benzinge after he refused to endorse the RPF’s violent tactics, but a Rwandan journalist who interviewed him in Kenya was arrested upon his return to Rwanda on charges of harming state security.
Kigeli and Benzinge began to fear for their security that they would be arrested since the then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi had close ties to Juvenal Habyarimana (the then president of Rwanda).
All Rwanda kings have been from the Tutsi group (described by their tall and thin structures) but once one descended to the thrown they disowned group affiliations, changed their names and became the father of all Rwandan people.
A month after Kigeli assumed the throne in November 1959, the Hutus, who had reportedly become slaves in Rwanda, revolted and killed hundreds of Tutsis and a large group went into exile.
In July 1960, Kigeli fled to the Congo, which days earlier had declared its independence from Belgium.
In 1960, the United Nation began hearings on the upheaval in November 1960 but summons to have Kigeli answer questions fell on a deaf ear as he remained in his Manhattan hotel room as was reported by the New York Times at the time.
A dozen witnesses from the then Ruanda- Urundi territory (now Rwanda Burundi) were present all pining Umwami Kigeli. Kigeli is said to have read an eight page statement to the UN sitting a week later.
Kigeli then according to the New York Times, expressed support for democracy and his own circumscribed powers and accused the Belgians of egging on the Hutu rebellion as a pretext to purge political enemies. “I am not clinging to power,” he wrote. “I accept and I will always accept the people’s verdict; what I cannot accept is that the Belgian Administration should influence or distort this verdict.”