Members of the league bought Kigeli a tuxedo. Coulombe paid for flights, hotels, and meals for a Kigeli “peace tour” and squired His Majesty across Southern California in a Honda Accord.
Rwanda was in the news, and Los Angelenos, never late to a cause, were eager for insight into the unspeakable things they’d been hearing about half a world away. Tippi Hedren, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, invited Kigeli to see the lions and tigers at her Shambala Preserve. Hugh Hefner asked him to lunch at the Playboy Mansion, where Kigeli enlightened some Beverly Hills councilmen, a civil-rights lawyer, and a few other of Hefner’s friends. (Hefner himself didn’t attend.)
Others saw him as an oracle on all things African, such as the earnest teacher at the black-owned Marcus Garvey School, who asked Kigeli how Rwandans celebrated Kwanzaa. As Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday—not an African one—Kigeli looked flummoxed. “We call it Christmas,” he replied.
Like many others I interviewed, Coulombe says that Kigeli’s humility—and amenability—often left the greatest impression: “If he was going to be stuffed into a Honda Accord and taken to Denny’s, he was as delighted as if he was taken to the Ritz-Carlton. And I know because we did both.”
• • •
But as with all Kigeli’s moments in the limelight, this one was fleeting. The Rwandan genocide receded from the headlines, and a guilt-ridden West threw its support behind Paul Kagame, leader of the Tutsi rebel force that brought an end to the mass killings. Kagame, who had the support of Bill Clinton and the Gates Foundation, became a darling of the international-aid circuit. Before long, he had made Rwanda’s economy the envy of Africa, ushered in dramatic improvements in education and public health, and enforced a fragile peace in a country where convicted mass murderers live beside the families of their victims.
In 1996, while in Washington for meetings, Kagame summoned Kigeli 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. Kagame, who is two decades younger than Kigeli, said he’d get back to him.
What was the reply, I ask Kigeli.
“I’m still waiting,” he says.
For Kigeli, the silence has grown particularly painful as early optimism about Rwanda’s rebirth has given way to a more muddled picture. A growing number of reports have found that the fruits of the Rwandan renaissance have been confined to the small minority of Tutsi, such as Kagame, who joined the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front in the late 1980s while in exile in Uganda. Left out are the vast majority of Rwandans—Hutu and Tutsi—who were in Rwanda during the genocide. Kagame was taken to task in two New York Times op-eds last year for an autocratic regime that imprisons journalists and political rivals and has allegedly financed a rebel movement in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
When Rwandan journalists asked Kagame recently about his 1996 meeting with Kigeli, Kagame grew angry. “You are trying to make him more important than he is,” he said. “For him to wait for my answer whether he should return is none of my business. I was not among those that dethroned him and therefore have no authority and obligation to reinstate him.”
Kagame no doubt knows what several Rwanda experts told me: that the symbolism of the monarchy—with its open embrace of Hutu, Tutsi, and a third group, the Twa, as equals—could prove powerfully alluring to segments of the population left out of the Rwandan comeback. But only in the event of a restoration.
“The monarchy has come to be seen potentially as a source of moderation and ethnic reconciliation, and the regime views that very much as a threat,” Timothy Longman, who once headed a Human Rights Watch field office in Rwanda, says. “In Rwanda, you cannot openly embrace the king, you cannot call for the king’s return. You’ll be thrown in jail.”
• • •
Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, with nearly 12 million people in a landlocked area smaller than Maryland. With no oil and few valuable mineral deposits, as many as 90 percent of Rwandans till the land, mostly at the subsistence level.
The country’s Tutsi minority are generally taller and thinner than the majority Hutu. But those designations held little sway in everyday life until after World War I, when the newly arrived Belgian colonists barred Hutu from higher education and declared that only Tutsi could serve as public officials. The Belgians ordered Rwandans to carry official cards identifying themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, transforming what had been largely fluid categories into fixed castes.
Though all of Rwanda’s kings were born Tutsi, upon ascending to the throne they disowned group affiliation, changed their names, and became “raceless.”
Royal power had waxed and waned over the centuries, but the Belgians were bent on stamping it out. By the time Kigeli was born, in June 1936, his father—King Yuhi V Musinga, whom the Belgians had deposed for being too independent—was living in isolation in remote southwestern Rwanda. Four years later, the colonists exiled the entire family to a village in the Congo, where Musinga died of pneumonia in 1944.
Kigeli’s earliest memories were not of royal splendor but of exile, privation, and death. “We were very poor,” Kigeli says. “Everything was difficult.” His father had at least five wives, and Kigeli—born Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa—was among the younger of Musinga’s 15-odd children.
After Musinga’s death, his son and successor, King Mutara III Rudahigwa, convinced the Belgians to repatriate Musinga’s wives and children. The young Kigeli went to Catholic schools in Rwanda, then to a school in the Congo that trained Tutsi for jobs in the colonial government.
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.” He made a point of getting down among the people and demonstrating firsthand how to plant crops, cut forests, and erect buildings. “I was happy about it,” he says. “I was still so young.” The people were happy with him, too, he adds. “I didn’t want to stand there being a boss. I was interested in meeting people and showing them by example how to work in agriculture, build houses, improve their lives.”
I ask Kigeli about his relationship with his half-brother, Mutara, the king. “He was a big friend,” Kigeli says. They played Ping-Pong together and liked soccer, but Kigeli didn’t share his brother’s stomach for game hunting. “Sometimes I would go with him, but I was really very careful around the animals.”
On July 25, 1959, after watching the film The Lords of the Forest, a Belgian documentary about the Congo, King Mutara felt ill. A Belgian doctor gave him an injection, and moments later, Mutara, still in his forties, was dead. Rumors swirled of assassination, and the country plunged into what United Nations observers at the time called “an atmosphere of extreme tension.”