The spirituality and religion of Rwanda has undergone a variety of changes over her history. Here we will look at the trends prior to colonalisim, Christendom, and the genocide. To begin, we will discuss the indigenous beliefs.
Rwandans traditionally have always believed in one Supreme Being, called Imana. Imana controls the entire world, but He comes back to Rwanda every night to rest, as Rwanda is His home. The name Imana is thought to have magical powers, and is invoked when naming children and when offering a blessing, comfort, or promise. Some of the names given to children include :
Habimana = God is supreme
Habarurema = the Creator is supreme
Habiyakare = the One at origin is supreme
Twagirimana = only God can save us.
Imana is inherently good, needs nothing, and rarely intervenes in people's lives. He does, however determine a person's destiny at birth. If a person becomes ill, acquires great debt, or has a failed marriage, you can determine that the person was created by Ruremakwaci, the name of Imana used to describe a time when He sets someone's destiny in a negative fashion. There are numerous folk tales which describe Imana giving great gifts and then taking them away due to greediness or disloyalty.
Other names for Imana include Rugira (the Supreme); Rurema (the Creator); Iyakare (the One at origin); and Rugaba (the Generous Provider).
Imana is the creator of all people. There are several creation myths which each favor a different ethnic group. Though the stories about who was created in heaven and on earth differ, the important thing is that all believe Imana created everything.
When a woman wants to get pregnant, she would often put a few drops of water in a pitcher each night. This is so Imana, who is called the Potter, would use the water to mix it with the clay of a woman's womb to create a baby.
The idea of a soul, that part of a person which exists for eternity, has always been present. Though animals do not have souls, every person exists after death as an abazimu.
Abazimus keep the name and personality of the person who has died, and live near where they lived when they were alive. Sometimes people would erect special huts for them to live in.
Abazimus, however, are generally not wanted around. They can bring illness, poor harvests, and poverty, because they cannot enjoy the pleasures of life. They can only wield this power over family members, therefore family members worship the abazimus in order to please them.
Worship of abazimus consists of offering gifts or sacrifices. These gifts could be small, such as a few drops of milk, beer, or beans. For more important times they are more substantial, such as a goat or a bull. These larger sacrifices were accompanied with singing because abazimus can hear but not see. Sacrifices were made by the head of the family unless the spirit would not go away. In those cases a diviner was called.
A diviner, called umupfumu, was given the power to interpret the will of Imana, and therefore was called the Son of God. There are three primary ways diviners are able to determine the will of Imana.
1. Guhanura, which means to prophesy. This is a technique that uses intuition and inspiration from the spiritual world.
2. Kuraguza inzuzi, which means divination using pieces of wood. In this case the umupfuma throws small pieces of wood down on a flat surface and reads the message according to how the wood falls.
3. Kuraguza urugimbu, which means divination using fat. In this case, the messages are read from the fat and intestines of animals. The umupfuma would use chickens, though sometimes would use the leftover fat from previously slaughtered goats, sheep, or cattle. The fat was mixed with herbs and let to dry. When it was dry, the fat was placed into a pot which was leaned toward the umupfuma. Then the fat was lit like a candle. For several hours the umupfuma watches the fire and interprets the messages he sees.
Hero Spirits (Imandwa)
In addition to abazimu, there are also spirits of dead heroes called imandwa. Imwanda are very powerful and require special worship. The chief imandwa is Ryangombe. Ryangombe was attacked by an unnaturally large buffalo while hunting, and as a result died under a tree. Due to the size of the buffalo, people assumed that there was spiritual significance to the attack. As Ryangombe lay dying, he declared that all Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa, except the king, should worship him as the king of imandwa in a special ceremony called Kubandwa.
Another famous imandwa is Nyabingi. Nyabingi was an unmarried woman who was murdered and made immortal by Imana. She is a rebellious spirit worshiped primarily by Hutu in the north and northwestern areas of Rwanda and Uganda. Nyabingi is served by priests, as opposed to Imana who has not rites performed for Him, who act as intermediaries between her and her worshipers. The priest and priestesses receive sacrifices on behalf of Nyabingi.
The King (Umwami)
The king of Rwanda was called umwami. Umwami, who was Tutsi, was the incarnation of Imana, and thereby was addressed as Nyagasani, which means God or Lord. Umwami was the source of the land's prosperity and fertility. He was the true owner of all of the cows and women of the land, and the kingdom could not exist without him. He gave power, wealth, and privilege to people, but could also take it back. Umwami was considered immortal by the fact that people would always remember him for his moral and physical perfection. It was a serious religious offense to rebel against Umwami or his kingdom, and doing so would result in the wrath of Imana.
Introduction of other Religions
Both Christianity and Islam were introduced in the 19th century. And although both religions demanded total abstinence from the traditional religions, at least ¼ of the people mixed their previous religion with their new one.
Islam was introduced by Arab Muslim merchants. The largest mosque is in the Nyamirambo district of Kigali. The current estimates put adherents to Islam at around 4.5 - 10 percent, depending upon whose statistics you use.
The oldest Catholic church in Rwanda is the cathedral in Kabgayi, which is near Gitarama. It was build in 1925, after missionaries established themselves there in 1906. Kabgayi was the seat of Rwanda's first Catholic bishop. By the 1920s, more than ½ of all Rwandans were Roman Catholic.
Current Religious Demographics
56.5 % are Catholic
26% are Protestant
11.1% are Adventist
4.6% are Muslim