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A King With No Country
He ruled Rwanda for just nine months before fleeing a revolt and has spent the last half century in exile, powerless to stop the violence that ripped through his country. Now 76 and living on public assistance in Virginia, Kigeli V Ndahindurwa longs to return to the throne—but only if his people want him back. By Ariel Sabar
Illustration By Edel Rodriguez.
Comments () | Published March 27, 2013

The last king of Rwanda lives in low-income housing, at a dead end between US Route 66 and State Route 655 in Oakton. He is 76 years old now, his tottering seven-foot-two-inch frame stooped by age and the vagaries of fate.

His working-class neighbors in the complex of connected Section 8 townhouses know little about his faraway homeland. But Kigeli V Ndahindurwa has lived at the Oak Creek Apartments long enough to have won an honorific.

“They call me the King of Africa,” Kigeli told me when we first met, delight breaking across his face. “Ah, it’s good. It’s good.”

In 1996, Paul Kagame, now president of Rwanda, told Kigeli (pictured) he was welcome to come home but not as king. Kigeli said that was for the people to decide. Photograph courtesy of Alex Montague.

In English, a language that normally eludes him, His Majesty said that the children of the Oak Creek Apartments had a particular fondness for their real-life colossus of a neighbor. They turn up at his doorstep, claiming a birthday and reaching across the threshold for a treat. “I give them sweets,” Kigeli said, his long limbs shaking with laughter. “I give them chocolates.”

“ ‘No, no, it’s a liar!’ ” he went on, mimicking his exchanges with the children, some of whom seem, oddly, to have more than one birthday a year. “ ‘No, no, it’s a birthday!’ ”

The task of distinguishing the truth tellers from the cheats also confronted Kigeli during his short time on the throne. But the stakes back then—a half century ago—were considerably higher.

Back then, the fate of an entire country and the future of a centuries-old dynasty hung in the balance. Now, only the passing happiness of a few Virginia children.

I had driven through the housing complex and wanted to see the inside of Kigeli’s home, but his longtime assistant and translator, Boniface Benzinge, warned that it wasn’t suitable for official audiences. “He is living very humbly,” said Benzinge, who is 78. “It is not a king’s place.”

So we met in the lobby of the Fairfax Marriott at Fair Oaks. Kigeli deems the roadside hotel more appropriate for royalty, even if it means dipping into his paltry savings for a taxi ride. (Kings don’t drive—this one doesn’t even have a license. “He must be escorted,” Benzinge told me.) The hotel, wedged between Route 50 and the yawning parking lots of Fair Oaks Mall, is also a convenient spot for Benzinge. When he isn’t serving as the king’s chancellor, Benzinge is a part-time mattress salesman at the mall’s Sears.

We had been chatting for four hours when the subject of Kigeli’s neighbors came up. It was the most animated I’d seen him. Benzinge was translating from Kinyarwanda, the native Rwandan tongue. But on the subject of his neighbors, His Majesty needed no liege.

“The King of Africa?” Kigeli, who has a receding Afro and a long, genial face framed by narrow eyeglasses, looked as though he were considering the phrase’s ring. Then he smiled and shrugged. “Okay! The King of Africa!”

If only other people—important people, his own people—were as easily persuaded.

• • •

If Westerners know Rwanda at all, it’s as the site of a genocide the world ignored. Over 100 days in 1994, nearly a million Rwandans were murdered by other Rwandans, a massacre of the country’s Tutsi minority by its ruling Hutu majority. Bill Clinton would call his administration’s failure to intervene one of the biggest regrets of his presidency.

Kigeli V (as in the fifth) might himself have been easily forgotten, an accidental, throwaway ruler of one of the smallest and poorest countries in Africa, the last twitch of a monarchy abolished in 1961 as Rwanda moved from colonial feudalism to independence. Kigeli drifted in exile for decades, trundling from one African sanctuary to the next. A man with a kingdom had become a man with a street corner, like the one in Nairobi where curiosity seekers in the 1980s paid a few shillings to meet someone who’d once worn a crown.

But the genocide and its political aftermath opened a door, if ever so slightly, for Kigeli’s return—possibly even his restoration. Arriving penniless in the United States in the early 1990s, Kigeli robed himself in the mythology of the Rwandan monarchy: He was the eye through which God looked upon Rwanda, a father figure above clan, politics, and tribe, singularly qualified to pacify his fractious children.

“My heart, which beats with both Tutsi and Hutu blood, grieves,” Kigeli told guests at a luncheon in 1994. “Rwanda must go back to the future. Now the time has come to restore what has been good in the past.”

He told people he was ready to come home, to take the throne again. But not by force. He was a modern, democratically minded ruler. He would be content with a palace, some guards, and a ceremonial role, like the queen of England. But first the people should decide. If Rwandans voted him back as king—as he’s confident they would—he would serve. If not, he’d accept the demotion to ordinary citizen. All he wanted was a chance.

Could the last in a line of once-absolute monarchs be any more sensible? The difficulty was that, by 1994, few Rwandans really knew him. The country’s post-genocide leaders, members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, had distanced themselves from the king as they prepared to retake power, with violence if necessary, in the early 1990s.

When Kigeli visited the State Department in 1994 to “talk about his options,” political backing from the US wasn’t on the table. “We told him perhaps he could get a job as a professor, teaching African history,” a spokesperson told the Washington Post at the time.

Nor could Kigeli bankroll his own campaign. He gets by on 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.

Timothy Longman, a Rwanda scholar who directs Boston University’s African Studies Center, says that royal riches in Rwanda weren’t particularly fungible. “The monarchy amassed a lot of wealth in cattle and land, neither of which do you any good when you’re in exile,” Longman explains. “He couldn’t ship hundreds of cattle to Washington.”

Kigeli’s case for restoration was thus left almost entirely in the hands of other people, not all of whose motivations overlapped with his own.

One of the first to leap to his aid was the Monarchist League, a 70-year-old British group that campaigns for the preservation and restoration of kingdoms the world over, largely through receptions and newsletters.

Never before Kigeli V Ndahindurwa had the league encountered so available a king. “He was the only one who came across our radar who was completely bereft of outside help,” says Charles A. Coulombe, a leader of the league’s Los Angeles chapter, which took Kigeli under its wing. “There’s really not been anyone else in quite the position he’s in. The [descendants of] the shah of Iran and emperor of Ethiopia live in Virginia, and there are a lot of Ethiopians and Iranians they can turn to. But when he came here, the Rwandan king had nobody. ”

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  • tesmith47

    our country is still destabilizing and generally screwing up countries in Africa, but the average American still thinks that our country is doing good in the world because we send a little help , sometimes , during weather crisis; but all the rest of the time robbing them blind. classic hypocrisy, too bad there is no god to judge us.

  • ThatGuy

    Did any of you retards actually read his story? Or are you all too caught up on "DEPORT HIS AFRICAN ASS"? The stupidity of your xenophobia and your mindless regurgitation of these right-wing talking points (i.e. why am I, a hard-working WalMart employee, paying for this man's meager subsistence) is mind-boggling.

  • Israel Ntaganzwa

    Hi Ariel!

    Congratulations, the article came out very well and as I told you during the meeting in Virginia,Rwanda subject is very controversial, because of the well and carefully place inaccuracies in every encyclopedia and other which has made it impossible to get a clear picture of Rwanda. Please next time do not quote Jan Vansina..When he was in Rwanda,he was on Belgian colonial administration payroll, therefore, his objectivity on Rwandan issue is very limited. He was given a nickname "Gahutu" because of his small physical stature and his over exaggerated pretense of sympathizing with Bahutu. Timothy Longman is one of Vansina's old students at Madison, Wisconsin, therefore, he cannot see his old teacher's biases. As Timothy Longman pointed out in his cynical remarks, Rwandan Kings were wealthy in their land and did indeed owned thousands of cattle which was in reality the symbol of the wealth of their nation.

    How many Bahutu and how many Batutsi attended the conference? One of your colleagues called me at my residence and asked me that question. I told her that as I was in charge of the security, I checked the guests' names to match them on the list I was given, but I could not identify or determine who was a Muhutu or a Mututsi.Whoever gave you that information I have no idea how he or she made that determination.

    Feudalism? Can you really compare the pre-colonial Rwanda to France of the dark ages? Some argue that Rwanda was a monarchy which they erroneously equate to feudalism. Another argument is that Rwanda was a feudal state because many cattle barons employed large number of Rwandans who were given cattle at the end of their contract. Indeed cattle business was the largest employer in Rwanda till 1954,when this form of employment (ubuhake) was outlawed. But in reality, it was a Belgian plot to force hard working Rwandans to go to work in mines and European plantations in Uganda,Tanzania and the Congo.Between 1931 (when King Musinga was forced into exile) and 1947,over one half million Rwandans crossed the border into Uganda, where they worked in horrible conditions.Yet nobody (English or Belgians) voiced any objections to the obvious exploitation of these workers.One of the reasons why Rwandans were fleing in such large numbers was Belgian heavy taxes, forced mandatory labor and the whip.

    His Majesty King Kigeri did not flee the country because of a revolt as you were led to believe.He had a meeting with Dag Hammarskjold and Belgians were not happy about it. That is why they did not want him back in Rwanda.As you pointed out,he managed to enter the country on the eve of the elections that was to decide if Rwandans wanted a pro-Belgian republic or an independent monarchy.In his new book,Julien Nyssens,an old colonial Assistant Administrateur explains how they searched for the King all over the city of Kigali and found him at the residence of Francois Rukeba,,the head of the UNAR party (I think Jean-Marie gave you the article).Why did Belgians want the King not to be present where he was a candidate? That you can ask them and if that was really a democracy,I personally want no part of it. The article you used from NY Times was written by an English diplomat who knew very little about Rwanda.I am sure that NY Times knew and still knows much less about Rwanda. I did not know that Amsterdam was in business in 1961! : "A Mututsi King: The white man lost another one." Indeed, but they spoke too soon! Amsterdam News published a bunch of my articles during the genocide, and I am going to send them a note about the King.

    I do not know how anybody can blame Rwandans including King Kigeri himself for all the calamities that have befallen Rwanda since 1916. Belgian colonialism was guilty of the atrocities that were committed during the 45 years that they ruled our land. As you correctly pointed out,King Yuhi Musinga was forcefully removed and sent to the Congo .His son Mutara Rudahigwa never tried to hide his attitude towards Belgians and that is why they killed him. They even refused an autopsy to be performed, because it would have revealed who and what killed him. King Kigeri,though tried to work with Belgians,for them it was too late, because according to John Gunther (1955) of NY Times, paranoid Belgians were expecting a "Mau Mau" war led by Rwandan Kings! Doccuments related to Musinga,Rudahigwa and Kigeri Ndahindurwa are still classified in Belgium. Why??

    To many of us Rwandans who grew up after King Kigeri was exiled, we were told all kinds of fabricated lies about him and we all believed it.In 1990 when I was in Nairobi I had an opportunity to meet the King for the first time, and I cannot describe how ashamed I felt, after I met him and spoke to him briefly.When I got back to New York I contacted other Rwandans including the late Alexandre Kimenyi,a very dear friend and a Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Sacramento,who made me realize that all those stories I had heard were with no foundation whatsoever.

    Among those who have displayed a virulent hatred for King Kigeri Ndahindurwa is Paul Kagame.I was told that there is still a lot of bad blood between Kagame's family and the King,but I have not been able to learn much about it.All I know is that as I pointed out to you,Kagame does not want to be no.2 in Rwanda, his private real estate, as Congo was once King Leopold II's personal property.That is obviously why he got rid of Pasteur Bizimungu under whom he served as vice President. It was in his capacity as the new vice President that he went to Virginia to meet with the King to discuss his return to Rwanda. The King was stunned but not really surprised, when Kagame asked him to return to Rwanda as a private citizen, where he would be given a pension. In other words, Kagame had the audacity to ask the King of Rwanda to abdicate! To abandon his responsibilities. Belgians had tried the same thing in 1961, when Paul Henri Spaak, the Flemish Minister for Foreign affairs offered him a monthly pension of 35,000 Belgian francs or 3,500 euros! No amount of money can buy a Rwandan King. That will never happen.
    The final question today concerning King Kigeri Ndahindurwa, as far as many Rwandans are concerned, is that maybe things have changed and Rwanda does not need a monarchy system. Belgium, England, Holland and others in Europe have their Kings,so why shouldn't Rwanda have back its King? As for those like Kagame who are opposed to the King for their own benefit or because of their political ideology,the King has no problem with that, because in a true democracy that has eluded Rwanda till now, every Rwandan voice should be heard. Until the day when Rwandans will be given their right to freely make their own decision,King Kigeri Ndahindurwa remains their King.
    What bothers many Rwandans, however,is the fact that the King was removed by Belgians, the "enemy" who had colonized the nation and did a lot of damage that included the efforts to end its monarchy.The return of the King then means a revenge and the real independence to restore our culture. At this particular time when the country has been torn apart and left killers to live with their victims, the King is the only one who is trusted by both sides to step in and lay solid foundations for a true national reconciliation which remains a joke and torture for both sides under the current admnistration.

  • tesmith47

    thank you for telling the truth. about western influence in Africa, people should read the book "King Leopold's Ghost" (the Belgians were absolutely demonic!!!)to get a real idea of why there was, and still is so much turmoil in Africa.

    the problem with a lot of white Americans , that they do not know the facts, believe the dis-information AND subconsciously feel guilty, so they lash out against Blacks here and in Africa.

    Blacks here and in Africa would forgive past bad behavior IF westerners / Whites would stop their PRESENT bad behavior!!!

  • Katherine McChesney

    I'm all for shipping him home.

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Posted at 10:25 AM/ET, 03/27/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles