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Buhanga, Rwanda’s sacred forest

By Our Writer

Situated in Nyakinama village, eight kilometres west of Musanze town in the Northern Province, Buhanga is a scared forest that is of immense cultural and historical importance to Rwanda.

“Buhanga means creation, and this forest derives its name from the fact that the creation of Rwanda began from here. In fact, the first king of Rwanda was known as Gihanga (Kinyarwanda for creator) because he founded the kingdom of Rwanda from this place,” our guide said of the forest that is little known to most foreign visitors and even Rwandans alike.

According to popular belief, all Rwandan kings but Kigeli Ndahindurwa, who was deposed in 1959 following the uprising that ended the rule of the enduring Nyiginya Dynasty, performed rituals in this magnificent forest that is dominated by ficus and drago trees, which connive to create canopies under which visitors walk.

And walking through this forest is not treacherous at all as the journey is made easy by walkways that were meticulously constructed in 2000 using lava stones. The forest is suitable for a day trip, during which an informative guide will take you through some of the most interesting rituals and traditions of Rwandan kings as you savour an introspective walk in nature.

One of the most interesting features of this forest is a cave from where coronation ceremonies for all Rwandan kings were held.

“Even though all the kings lived several kilometres away from this place (in Nyanza, southern Rwanda), they were required to come to this place for their coronation ceremonies,” our guide offered.

As you walk deeper into the forest, you find another cave that is said to be where the kings were required to take ritual baths before they could be declared Umwami (king).

After the mandatory ritual bath, the king would then be thoroughly smeared with regal oil before being carried to the conference podium up on a lava rock from where he would be given the instruments of power in a ceremony that was presided over by the kingdom’s advisory council, clan leaders, elders and royal sorcerers. It was also widely believed that the king would not only receive blessings from this rock, but also protection from the kingdom’s gods.

All these rituals, according to traditional Rwandan beliefs, ensured that Rwanda was immune from attacks from other kingdoms and also made invasions of other territories by the Rwandan kingdom a success.

Another important feature in the forest is a natural water spring called Gihanga, which was named after the first king of Rwanda. Surrounded by various  tree species, it is said that the water from this spring is the one that was used for the king’s ritual bath.

A story is told that one day, a local chief ordered his men to drain this spring. The chief’s men obliged and did as they were told but before sunset the spring was overflowing again. Then, the following day, several big snakes filled the chief’s home, camped there for seven days and only left after he died together with his entire family.

According to locals, this spring was so strange that it almost dried up during the rainy season but overflowed during the dry season.

Buhanga forest also boasts a good number of tree species with traditional Kinyarwanda names such as Igihondohondo, Umusando and Ibigabiro – many of them over 300 years old, according to our guide.

Among them is Inyabutatu ya Banyarwanda (the Unity Tree), a tree that distinctly stands out from the crowd. To the naked eye, Inyabutatu ya Banyarwanda looks as if there are three trees that are intertwined to form a single tree. According to traditional belief, Inyabutatu ya Banyarwanda represented the three Rwandan ethnic groups – Twa, Tutsi and Hutu – who lived in unity and harmony under one king.

The trees aside, Buhanga is also home to a couple of animal and over 150 bird species, according to data from the Rwanda Development Board.

All said and done, a visit to Buhanga forest, which was officially launched as a tourist destination in 2009, is fun…and fulfilling.

Entrance to this site is $40 for foreigners and it’s open from 8am to 6pm, every single day of the week.

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