Over the next three decades, Kigeli lived in the countries bordering his homeland, staying in one until political gales blew him to another. Ugandan strongman Idi Amin had given him a house in Uganda in 1973, but with Amin’s overthrow six years later, Kigeli decamped for Kenya.
Kigeli poured his energies into arranging medical, legal, and financial aid for Rwandan orphans and refugees. This social service was his greatest legacy, he says: “Helping my people.” Yet the art of politics escaped him. In his years in exile, historians told me, Kigeli was woefully incapable of bringing together—let alone rallying—refugee leaders.
“He was really pushed to the sidelines by the more militant personalities at the time,” says René Lemarchand, an emeritus political scientist at the University of Florida and author of a landmark history of the Hutu revolution. “You had a whole bunch of more radical, young Tutsi who were in charge. Kigeli—he was essentially just a symbol.”
• • •
Kigeli’s ticket to the United States landed in the form of a twangy blond Oklahoman in cowboy boots, walrus mustache, and ten-gallon hat.
William A. “Bill” Fisher had worked as a lumberjack, a saloon bouncer, and a band manager before reinventing himself as an international wheeler-dealer with a taste for the odd job. It was 1986, Fisher says, and a deal he’d put together to supply Uganda Airlines with a used 747 had just gone south, after a Ugandan official demanded a bribe.
Fisher remained hopeful that his Africa trip might yield other business. A former major in Idi Amin’s security force asked Fisher if he wanted to speak with an exiled Rwandan king living in Kenya. Fisher met Kigeli and Benzinge at a downtown Nairobi hotel, and the trio immediately hit it off, despite a gaping cultural divide. “It was a little odd at first for this Oklahoma cowboy to hear everyone call my buddy Your Excellency,” Fisher says in an accent that wouldn’t be out of place on Hee Haw.
When Fisher returned to Nairobi the next year, Kigeli invited him to his house, which Fisher describes as comfortable but not opulent. Fisher watched Kigeli greet an unending procession of supplicants. Some were businessmen, others refugees. To show respect, many backed out, rather than turning around, as they left. Fisher says that Kigeli and Benzinge often dug into their own pockets to help their down-and-out countrymen. “That was one of the things I liked about him,” Fisher says. “He wasn’t stuck up, he wasn’t egotistical—he was more like a father figure.”
None of the business ties Kigeli tried to make for Fisher led to any deals, but the two kept in touch.
• • •
In 1990, under Western pressure, Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu who had ruled with an iron first for nearly two decades, agreed to share power with other parties. Seeing its chance, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the militant group of Tutsi exiles in Uganda, invaded, igniting long-dormant tensions between Hutu and Tutsi.
Kigeli refused to endorse the RPF’s violent tactics, but a Rwandan journalist who interviewed him in Kenya was arrested upon his return to Rwanda on charges of harming state security. Kenya’s then-president, Daniel Arap Moi, had close ties to Habyarimana, and Kigeli and Benzinge began to fear for their security.
The United States wouldn’t just be safer, they thought; its freedoms of speech would allow them to broadcast Rwanda’s plight to the world. They picked up the phone and called the one American they knew: Bill Fisher. Fisher, whose family had been prominent in Oklahoma political circles, asked then-US senator Don Nickles for help in expediting visas. To avoid drawing attention to their departure, Kigeli and Benzinge left relatives and most of their belongings behind, including the tasseled headdress that had been Kigeli’s crown.
“One suitcase each,” Benzinge says.
“No gold, no diamond,” Kigeli adds ruefully.
In June 1992, they landed in Oklahoma City. Fisher took them to the Cowboy Hall of Fame and his Baptist church, where Kigeli told parishioners about “what the gospel had done in his life.”
After a week in the heartland, the king and his retainer came to Washington. With the help of Catholic Charities, they applied to the State Department and obtained political asylum.
Though Kigeli is a devout Catholic who worships in traditional Latin at St. Athanasius on Leesburg Pike in Vienna, his quest for charity was nondenominational. At one of their first stops, a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Takoma Park, worshipers helped Kigeli and Benzinge fill out applications for food stamps and social services and found them a nearby apartment. Each time housing or benefits ran out, the pair threw themselves on the mercy of another sympathetic pastor.
Benzinge, a divorcé with five children and a wife he’d left behind in Kenya, eventually got paying jobs as a salesman at Sears and as an occasional Kinyarwandan interpreter for the courts. In 2009, he got his own house in Manassas. (Before that, he had lived with Kigeli, whom he has served, unpaid—translating, photocopying, ironing—since 1973.)
When I stopped by Benzinge’s townhouse in a quiet subdivision, I asked why his boss had never sought work in the United States. “Who would employ him?” he said. “What could they hire him for?”
I asked Benzinge about his many personal sacrifices for the king. He invoked love of country—Benzinge wanted peace and an end to lingering colonial-era “injustice” and had come to see Kigeli as Rwanda’s best shot at salvation.
Charles Coulombe, of the Monarchist League, who has known the pair for many years, says of Benzinge, “He gave up a lot. But he has a very fatalistic idea about it: Do your duty and let the rest sort itself out.”
• • •
When the king isn’t watching pro wrestling on TV or napping or taking one of his evening constitutionals, he’s often on the phone, gathering what he says is street-level intelligence from Rwandans around the world.
His sources had warned him of the coming 1994 bloodshed, and on March 21 of that year, Kigeli sent a memo to the United Nations predicting “terrible chaos.” A little more than two weeks later, a ground-to-air rocket struck a plane carrying Habyarimana and Burundi’s president near the Rwandan capital, killing both men and eight other passengers. The attack, still unsolved, set off the paroxysms of genocidal violence that left nearly a million Rwandans dead.
From his apartment, Kigeli watched TV reports and fielded calls from the Rwandan diaspora. His country was drowning in blood while the world’s greatest powers did nothing. Though most of his relatives were in exile, he mourned for strangers as if they were his family. He often felt helpless. “I had an explicable sadness,” he says. “The only thing I could do was pray for these people.”
After the genocide, on his “peace tour” with the Monarchist League, Kigeli told reporters of his lifelong hope of returning to Rwanda.
But the words rarely translated into deeds, according to many former associates. For reasons they could never quite grasp, Kigeli failed to take basic steps—learning English, courting allies in US and international circles—that might have buoyed his chances.
Gary Potter, a Washington writer and activist who was then president of Catholics for Christian Political Action, served pro bono as Kigeli’s unofficial press aide from 1995 to 1997. “I used to be very active on the Hill—I had contacts at the time in Congress,” Potter says. “If he had wanted it, I might have gone to a member of Congress and asked to arrange a luncheon with other members of Congress.” But Kigeli never asked—for anything.