Banyarwanda (singular Munyarwanda) is a word originating in the Bantu family of languages meaning “the people of Rwanda” and consisting of three caste groups: the Batutsi, cattle herders; the Bahutu, agricultural cultivators; and the Batwa, hunters and pottery-makers. From the 15th century until its colonization by Germany in the final years of the 20th century, Rwanda was a kingdom located in East Africa, to the south of Uganda, and bordered by Lake Tanganyika, Lake Victoria, and Lake Kivu.
The Banyarwanda perceive Imana as the Supreme God that created the universe and everything within it. Imana is essentially good and the life-giving force that sustains all existence. The material world that humans experience is one of three planes of reality. Another world called ijuru exists above the sky, while a third reality exists beneath the ground. Both of these two anterior realms are similar in appearance to the material realities of human existence and are not conceptually comparable to notions of heaven and hell. Banyarwanda believe that, after traversing the sky in the daytime, the sun is cut into pieces by a man who throws its bone back across the heavens where it is reborn the next day.
Because Imana does not intercede into the daily affairs of mankind, for many Banyarwanda, the most direct means of connecting with the spiritual realm is through invoking the sacred power of lesser gods, ancestors, diviners, or sorcerers. One such lesser god is Ryangombe, the personal servant and expression of Imana. Banyarwanda believe that Ryangombe has the power to influence human affairs and that human will enters the world through him. Ryangombe works through the power of his spoken word and often acts on behalf of the weak and vulnerable of society, sometimes as a challenge to established authority. Banyarwanda appeal to Ryangombe for good fortune. Nyabingi, meaning abundant, rich, or one that provides, is a female demigod with sacred power that equals Ryangombe's in strength.
Knowledge of the meaning and uses of sacred power in society is imperative to understanding Banyarwandan cosmology. Authority was dependent on one's command of sacred power in Banyarwandan society—a king could not rule without it. In part, a king's ability to maintain powerful practitioners of sacred power at his court or in his service was an indirect reflection on his own sacred power.
Human beings, both living and dead, have significant powers within this sacred order. For example, although Imana determines the nature of one's life, ancestors influence its purpose. To forget one's ancestry is to forget one's purpose and can cause great harm. So, although a Munyarwanda will make an offering to an ancestor with the foreknowledge that the physical acceptance of the offering is impossible, it is the fact of remembrance and the act of giving that aide in the remittance of trouble. Diviners—those Banyarwandans who can commune with the spiritual realm—are sought out to examine the source of a personal problem. Conversely, sorcerers are thought to be criminals who practice a learned form of sacred power that can harm others. Being suspected or accused of sorcery is a serious matter, while being convicted of sorcery is punishable by death.
- Lane E. Kigeri II Meets That Peculiar Lady, Niyrabiyoro: A Study in Prophecies History of Religions 13 (2) (1973). 129–148.
- Maquet, J. (1954). The Kingdom of Ruanda. In Daryll Forde (Ed.), African Worlds (pp. 164–188). London: Oxford University Press.