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Mugandamuli, a Muslim ‘hood culturally at odds with the larger Nyanza

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By Gilbert Mwijuke

Mugandamuli is a curious destination. You see, there are certain names with colourful, seductive connections – Nyamirambo, Kirenge, Rukali… Likewise Mugandamuli.

Located about five kilometres out of Nyanza town, this hill derives its name from one of its most famous residents to date, a Ugandan businessman known as Muganda Amuli who resided here during pre-colonial times. During those days, almost everyone who used to visit this place would say “I am going to Mugandamuli’s place,” and this is how it came to be known by its current name.

A popular milk spot for people travelling from or through Nyanza, Mugandamuli is a modest hill that is home to a whopping 320,390 people – about 80 per cent of them Muslims and culturally at odds with the larger Nyanza district in which they reside.

How Muslims ended up here
In 1938 when the Belgian White Fathers built Christ the King Church in Kumatongo, they realised that it was a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, something that didn’t augur good news for their Catholic missionary aspirations. So, they decided that Muslims should be recolated to another place faraway from the new church – and their new converts.

And even though the Muslim community had resided here for ages, they knew quite well that protesting against this move was out of the question, seeing that even King Musinga’s protestations against missionary activities in Rwanda just a few years earlier had resulted in his expulsion from his own country.

In addition, the mere fact that the church itself was built exactly where King Musinga’s sprawlling palace once stood meant that the Belgians where now in total control of the country and could act as the wished. If they could tell the king to get lost (the mighty king!) and he obliges, then they were no joke!

So, when King Mutara (who was by then in sync with the Belgians) bought them land on Mugandamuli Hill and told them to pack their belongings and relocate there, Nyanza’s Muslim community treated the move as a phenomenon belonging to the realm of nature and obligingly moved without breathing a word.

However, as was always the case in most parts of Africa where so much was makeshift, light and impermanent, the transition to normal was relatively easy for the new residents of this gentle hill. Once in Mugandamuli, the Muslim community soon established themselves as the undisputed master traders in the area, selling every commodity there was to sell – but especially milk.

To this day, milk is a highly coveted comodity here because, as one of the residents of Mugandamuli put it, “it’s one way of preserving the culture of Nyanza.” For the uninitiated, Nyanza is traditionally the home of majority of Rwanda’s cattle because the king and his chiefs – who were back then the “first citizens” of Nyanza and the country at learge – owned hordes of them.

Today, even though milk is sold in many parts of Nyanza, majority of the dealers are sons and daughters of Mugandamuli such as Kayitesi, the woman behind the Zirakama Meza chain of milk shops that straddle Nyanza town and its suburbs. Apart from milk and a few retail shops, there are no bars in Mugandamuli, no nightclubs, no churches, no recreation centres – it’s a typical Muslim hood. In fact, you can call it “Mecca in Nyanza” if you want!

One of the residents here told me that when a “Mugandamulian” wants to have some fun, the nearest option is the King’s Palace Museum in Rukali, a few kilometres away.

One primary school
Another odd thing here is the lack of formal schools. Like most Muslim communities in sub-Saharan Africa, formal education doesn’t seem to concern these people that much, seeing that there is only one primary school in an area that is occupied by more than 300,000 people. There is no secondary school or vocational training centre in the area that comprises seven midugudus!

To put it in context, Mugandamuli Hill has only one primary school for a population that is bigger than that of two African countries combined: Seychelles (97,000) and Sao Tome & Principe (194,000). As a result of this, most of the children in Mugandamuli opt for Islamic studies, which are offered at the premises of the two mosques in the area. In fact, Islam seems to be so important in Mugandamuli that by the time I visited the place a few weeks ago, a third, vast mosque was under construction and could be complete as you this this.

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