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 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. ”