Rukari Palace Museum

Nyanza’s main tourist attraction, this ancient hilltop palace marks the site of the old Mwami’s (King’s) home.

The Rukari Palace Museum is the top touristic reason for visiting Nyanza; it ’s situated on a hilltop about 2km southwest of the centre, and signposted. The traditional ancient palace of the Mwami has been reconstructed, together with some other buildings, 3–4km away from its original site, beside the newer Western-style palace built for Mwami Rudahigwa Mutara III in 1932.

In olden times, Nyanza was the heart of Rwanda and seat of its monarchy, background to the oral tradition of battles and conquests, power struggles and royal intrigues. It is where the German colonisers came, at the end of the 19th century, to visit the Mwami – and contemporary reports tell of the great pomp and ceremony these visits occasioned, as well as the impressive size of the Mwami’s court.

Rukari Palace Museum Rwanda by Elspeth Beidas
This royal hilltop palace is home to the secrets of Nyanza’s past © Elspeth Beidas

The traditional palace has been carefully reconstructed and maintained, and contains the king’s massive bed as well as various utensils. English- and French-speaking guides are available to relate the history and traditions of the royal court – there is even significance attached to some of the poles supporting the roof; for example, the one at the entrance to the king’s bed is named ‘do not speak of what happens here’ and another conferred sanctuary on anyone touching it.

The newer palace is a typical colonial-era building with its spacious rooms and wide balcony. The Travellers’ Guide above also states: ‘In certain circumstances, and with the permission of the local authorities, he [the Mwami] may be visited at his palace which is built on modern lines, furnished in good taste and richly decorated with trophies in an oriental manner.’

In more recent times, the rundown palace served for several years as the part-time home of Rwanda’s National Ballet (the Intore dancers). Now fully restored, it reopened in May 2008 as a museum whose exhibits relate to the two rulers who lived here during the early to mid 20th century, as well as the more ancient history of the Rwanda Empire. Several original items of royal furniture decorate the interior, and the walls are adorned with monochrome photographs. Other displays depict the palace when it was in use, and chart the history of Rwanda from the 5th century onwards. They’ve also introduced several long-horned Inyambo cattle to the complex and opened the burial site of Mutara III and his wife Queen Rosalie Gicanda (signposted less than 1km away).