Chronology used to be an object of great interest among African historians because it was seen as essential to history, it provided exactitude where so much else was analytic, and it was such a difficult feature to handle in oral accounts. More recently, historical analysis has been concerned more with processes and periods than with defined events and dates. Although deemed to be useful when available, precise chronology is now seen as less essential to historical reconstruction; it is accepted that chronologies are subject to interpretation and debate, and that these debates themselves illuminate the way in which local communities reconstruct—and historians understand—history.
This paper addresses such issues of debate, contestation, and negotiation—that is, it explores the nature of intellectual hegemony—but it does so across cultural boundaries. It thus illustrates a fundamental contradiction in the manner by which historians have treated cultural units defined as distinct: while as independent polities they have been assumed to be culturally autonomous, source material from one is often drawn on to fill in the gaps of others. This procedure was especially common where there were powerful kingdoms whose political boundaries were assumed to be rigid and inviolate. The states of the western Interlacustrine area, each believed to be ruled by an established dynastic line whose origins reached far back into antiquity, provide an exemplary illustration of this process.
By the early twentieth century, at the time of European conquest, Rwanda was one of the most powerful of these states, having either conquered and absorbed, or at least dominated, many of the distinct kingdoms with which it formerly competed.