The formation of the Basingo Clan
In the Middle Ages (500 AD to 1500 AD) there was consolidation cultural agitation all over the planet – in Europe, Asia and the Americas. In this time the great lakes region saw its greatest geographical extent become a Chwezi Empire.
The Chwezi Empire’s most military belligerent ruler was Emperor Ndahura I kya-Rubumbi [known in Rwanda as Ndahiro, and in Buganda as Ndaula]. Ndahura had a royal kraal on Rweisamba Hill that overlooks the crater lake known as Lake Kikorongo, in what is now Busongora County in Kasese district, in the Republic of Uganda. In 2012 Lake Kikorongo merged with the larger Lake Matsyoro [a.k.a Lake George], but is still visible on account of its perfectly round banks despite being flooded by the larger lake.
The first Basingo
Ndahura was a warrior-king and empire-builder, and so he was constantly leading his armies into battle. One day while on an expedition, Ndahura and his guard unit had become separated from the main army and were ambushed and taken captive by a unit commanded by a renegade general. However, the general was afraid and didn’t harm the emperor. Eventually, Ndahura was released and he returned home to his palace at Rweisamba in Busongora, but declined to continue serving as emperor. He explained that since he had been humiliated by capture he was no longer qualified to serve as emperor.
Emperor Ndahura I kya Rubumbi abdicated the throne in favour of a Musongora army commander named Mulindwa who was chosen to replace him. When he died the Emperor Ndahura was buried on Irangara Island, which is located in Lake Matsyoro [Lake George] not far from his Rweisamba Palace.
The new emperor, Mulindwa, made the massive old palace-fort complex of Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi his seat of power. His reign was relatively peaceful, although plagued by conspiracies and intrigues by royal courtiers. Emperor Mulindwa was brilliant and his reign successful, but unfortunately he is remembered mostly for his troubled relations with some of the women at Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi.
The name Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi translates as “Palaces of Mugyenyi”. Lore has it that the massive palace-complex was named for a prince named Mugyenyi… however, the name “Mugyenyi” translates as “visitor”. Since nothing is known about prince Mugyenyi besides the claim that he gave his name to the palace… it may in fact be that the name “Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi means “Palaces for the Visitor”.
The courtiers who lived in the fort at Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi were called baSingo. The term “Singo” or “e ki-Singo” refers to a fortified area, or rounded defensive enclosure, and also to a circlet or a crown. The people who lived in such defensive enclosures were usually referred to as baSingo – meaning “people of the forts”, or “people of the crown”. Invariably all forts were populated by officials and courtiers and members of the most powerful families, as well as members of royal or military families.
One day Mulindwa had a misunderstanding with some women at the palace-fort of Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi, no doubt related to his many complicated love affairs. One day he was badly injured by twin sisters – two princesses named Nyanteza and Nyangoro. Apparently they laid a trap for him that resulted in his being severely injured, and despite efforts to save him he succumbed to the injuries and died. After his death the most powerful courtiers rallied to the side of the princesses and a succession crisis developed rapidly. In the ensuing confusion a civil war broke out, and the empire was nearly torn apart by the political chaos. Eventually, the general named Bala Bwigunda Wa-Imara, a military governor and a close ally of Mulindwa and Ndahura, re-established order in the empire. He led his troops to storm the palace-fortress of Bigo-bya-Mugyenyi, and defeated the “baSingo” royals.
At that time the area that is now the central African interior [eastern Congo, north Tanzania, western and eastern Uganda] was known as Imara, and General Bala was the military governor of the region of Imara. The General was therefore known as Wa-Imara [conventionally shortened to “Wamara”]. He attacked Bigo bya Mugenyi and after a series of brutal battles finally breached its defences and captured it. Wamara was declared successor to Mulindwa, and Emperor of the Busongora-Chwezi Empire.
Emperor Wamara Bwigunda wanted to avenge Mulindwa’s murder, but he was unable to have the two powerful princesses Nyanteza and Nyangoro executed, despite the fact they had committed regicide. Instead he outlawed them, and decreed that no one should give them any assistance, including water to drink or a bed to sleep in. Although the decree was aimed at only two women, in later centuries Wamara’s decree was retold in such a way as to appear that all BaSingo were cursed and no one should marry them.
Wamara ruled with the help of a parliament consisting of senior priests [baShyengya], and senior military commanders [baSiita]. The word for “soldier” during Wamara’s time was mu-Siita [Sing] or baSiita [pl]. However, in later centuries the term Siita came to refer to a clan composed of descendants of Wamara’s elite troops. The process of conversion of professional classes, political groupings, polities and craft guilds into “clans”, came about as a result of the conflation of the professional societies with community settlements and blood lineage. This conflation began with the collapse of civil order – and the attendant loss of language and culture – during the slave and colonial eras.
The term BaSiingo [sing. MuSingo] which once meant “courtier or fort-dweller” eventually came to refer to a clan of descendants of the courtiers of Bigo bya Mugyenyi and other royal forts. The other professional guilds or political classes such as the baShyengya – meaning “senators” or “priests” – came to refer to a clan of their descendants. In fact a great proportion of clans in the territory of the former Chwezi Empire originate in geographical or craft associations, and are not to be understood as blood-lines. It is this fact alone that explains why it is that members of different ethnic origins share clan membership, while in fact they are clearly lacking in substantive ancestral or biological relationships.
During Wamara’s reign he was constantly beset by war and dissent. At one point a governor named Kyana revolted and captured the royal regalia – including the royal drum, but was unable to become emperor. Kyana briefly became independent ruler of the southern part of the Chwezi Empire including what is now Karagwe in northern Tanzania.
Despite Wamara’s troubles – his reign saw a lot of social and cultural advancements. For instance, Queen Nyabugondo – one of Wamara’s three wives – is credited with having developed the Royal breed of cattle known as “Enyambo” and introduced them to Karagwe, Rwanda and Burundi. Nyabugondo’s very name also points to another interesting fact: the breed of cattle known as “Bugondo” or “Ngondo” – has a dappled pattern that is hard to raise. The Ngondo and Nyambo cattle were bred exclusively in Busongora’s lowlands and exported elsewhere… both breeds as now endangered and face extinction.
Wamara’s two other wives besides Nyabugondo were Bunono and Nyamata. One of Wamara’s sons – the general, and later Emperor Kyomya II Rurema – was eventually able to retrieve the drum captured by Kyana, and to reunite the empire during Wamara’s reign. Wamara abdicated and left the throne to his heroic son Kyomya II. During his reign Kyomya II was obligated to work with an increasingly powerful parliament, many of whose members frustrated his efforts and blamed him for the shortcomings of the imperial government. It is said that Kyomya II abdicated the throne in protest, a fate that was also suffered by his successor, the General Kagoro.
The Emperor Kagoro had served as a general to Wamara. The empire became unstable because of the strife between the two professional classes that controlled the parliament continued to increase. Kagoro resigned in disgust it is said, after several bad omens and natural disasters – probably blamed on him by radical priests, whose special knowledge of such mystical matters made it increasingly hard for soldiers to remain in charge of the empire.
Kagoro’s sucessor was a priest and prophet known as Kakara-Ka-Shagama. He was one of two famous prophets in the empire. When he ascended the throne it was at a time when the fortunes of the empire had turned dire… probably as a result of climate change, and pressure from loss of territory to the enemies of the empire. Kakara’s relationship with the parliament was not great either, and his epic cycle tells of attempts on his life by the leading citizens of the empire. He faced resistance from both the army generals in the parliament. Eventually, he sought to end the power of the parliamentary factions by turning the empire into a hereditary monarchy. He chose Princess Kamaranga – a woman said to be descended from Wamara – to replace him as monarch.
Kakara-ka-Shagama abdicated the throne after defeating the intrigues and attacks of the army [known at that time as the “Siita”] and the priests [known at that time as the “Shyengya”]. He crowned Kamaranga – who took the regnal name of Njunaki.
Empress Njunaki Kamaranga was to preside over the final disintegration of the empire. Her regnal name Njunaki, which means “What am I to save?”, was probably chosen by her because she became ruler at a time when it was certain the empire was falling apart and she had not the support required to hold it together. During her lifetime, she parcelled out the empire among her sons and loyal courtiers in the hopes that the new states would at least remain linked by blood-ties to the former rulers of the defunct empire.
Njunaki had several sons, among whom was one named Shagama, who became the king of Busongora – the core of the Chwezi Empire. Her second son, named Ruhinda founded the state of Kaarro-Karungi, centred on the county of Isingiro and Karagwe in what is now south Uganda and north Tanzania. Kaarro-Karungi later became the separate kingdoms of Nkore and Karagwe. Another son of Njunaki founded the state of Burundi.
Although Busongora’s Chwezi Empire came to an end, Busongora lived on and relatively powerful state under the early kings that followed Shagama-rwa-Njunaki.
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