1. A Brief History of Rwanda and ‘Pre-Independence’ Africa;
In order to understand contemporary Rwanda—and the underlying values of
cooperation, tolerance and justice—and in order to analyze the new Rwandan
Constitution and its implications in society and civic engagement, we must take a large
step back. We need to place Rwanda in a historical and geopolitical context. In this
journey, we will walk through Rwanda in the context of Africa; we will examine the root
causes of conflict and the genocide in Rwanda; we will examine the Rwandan, regional,
and global consequences of the Rwandan genocide; we will explore contemporary
Rwanda in light of their new constitution, civic engagement and the different paths
reconciliation has taken in Rwanda; and we will attempt to make the links between
reconciliation in Rwanda and possible links to Palestine and civic engagement by the
young people of Palestine. At the end of each section there will be questions that you
may choose to discuss with friends, peers, colleagues or your journals.
What I present to you is information that will help you analyze the overlaps between the
Palestinian story and the Rwandan story. For example, where we talk about religion in
Palestine, we may be talking about ethnicity in Rwanda. So whereas, we may speak of
Muslim and non-Muslim in Palestine, we may be talking about Hutu and Tutsi in
Rwanda. The following study will allow you to draw your own conclusions about what led
to the war and genocide in Rwanda and how the country views citizenship and civic
engagement, rights and the Constitution and how this informs the renewal of Rwandan
society while meeting the challenges of tolerance, cooperation and justice through
Many studies will conclude that the African continent is the mother of civilization. The
first people’s, cities and societies grew out of Africa. Studies usually conclude that the
Nile-River Basin and Valley in present day Egypt and Sudan are the beginning of what
we know as humanity today.i This is the assumption that I make.
Africa, today, is made up of 53 countries and numerous territories on its mainland and
outlying islands (according to the World Bank). But it was not always this way. The term
‘Africa’ is a relatively new one, eventually brought on by colonizers and missionaries—
but more on that later. Borders, as outlined on a map, did not always exist within Africa.
The kind of borders that Africa has are natural. The land of Africa is diverse and dynamic
(PICTURE OF AFRICA):
1) In the north is the Saharan Desert, stretching from the West to the East, in line
with the Arabian Peninsula. This area is dry and mostly desolate, with little arid land.
Often we talk about Sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa—the Maghreb. Northern
Africa is that part of Africa whose cultures, languages, and societies are often linked as
more Arabic or Mediterranean than African.
2) At the equator, Africa is predominately a rainforest—lush and green, humid
and wet—mostly in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda is part of this
particular area. It lies just south of the equator, high up in thousands of green hills and
volcanoes. This is important to remember later when we talk about the causes and
consequences of the Rwandan genocide.
3) The Sahel is the land where the tropical, equatorial climates meet the edges of
the Sahara; you find this topography mostly in West Africa.
4) South of the equator and the vast rainforest areas, the land of Africa again
becomes very diverse with a range of deserts, mountain ranges, inland deltas, small and
large bodies of water and rivers.
5) Africa, today, is often categorized by regions: Northern Africa (the Maghreb),
the Horn of Africa, East Africa, The Great Lakes Region (Rwanda included), West Africa,
and the Southern African Development Community.
When understanding the land of Africa, it is important to recognize the vast wealth of
natural resources and minerals that are present. These resources are the theme that ties
together what we will discover later about missionary, colonial, and imperial work in
Africa, along with the eventual conflict in relatively resource poor areas, like Rwanda.
Ethnicity, language and Migration
In pre-missionary Africa, people moved as groups or tribes. Like with other continents,
there was a mix of nomadic or herding groups that hunted and gathered and were
always on the move depending on the weather and the need; stationary groups that built
their communities around farms and agriculture; mercantile groups that took advantage
of the vast waterways to trade amongst the different groups; and more. In this way
distinct languages were developed as well as localized dialects that mixed languages
and forms of communication.
Africa, before missionaries, had thousands of different languages and dialects—it still
has many of these, but many are disappearing. The large numbers of ethnic groupings
and languages is important to remember with the context of contemporary Rwanda.
Rwanda, today, has only one distinct language: Kinyarwandan, and only three distinct
ethnic groups: BaTwa, BaTutsi and BaHutu, whom all share the same language. This is
unique to Rwanda—within Africa.
Africa was mostly made up of migratory populations. As groups moved, some individuals
or community subsets gradually ‘stayed’ and started less mobile groups. It is in these
areas that great cultures became established. These cultures were dynamic and
innovative: in Timbuktu (Tomboctou), on the edge of the Sahara in present-day Mali and
on the Niger River, one of the world’s first great universities was built–this is often
overlooked historically, by those who choose to focus on the Greek lyceums or the
Roman Empire. In present-day southern Zimbabwe, the Shona built infrastructures of
roads, castles and other structures to rival that of the Mayans and the Greeks. And, of
course, in present-day Egypt the pyramids were built with amazing foresight. These are
only a few of thousands of examples of pre-missionary Africa achievements.
(PICTURES?—Timbuktu or Djenne Mosque, Pyramids, Great Zimbabwe?)
It is often believed the Portuguese were the first European power to push religion on
Africa when they arrived in the Congolese rainforest. Unlike travelers and merchants
who had come before from Asia and Europe, it was the proselytizing groups that stayed
in Africa. In many ways, Christians and Muslims converged on the continent of Africa, as
before the Christians came, Muslims had already had a great influence in Africa—with
culture, language, trade and agricultural innovations. While Muslims did attempt to
convert people’s in various regions, it was not like the mass attempts of European
Before Christians from Europe and Muslims from the Arabic world, many African groups
had group-specific spiritual beliefs. These were not related to the Ibrahamic religions of
the world (Islam, Christianity, Judaism), and were built around ideas of community, crops
and animals, land and, sometimes, weather patterns. Ethnic groups were, and are,
deeply spiritual and had social mores much in the way of scripted religions, but they
were not recorded (codified?) as such.
European Christians decided to ‘civilize’ the ‘uncivilized’ masses of the world and set out
on grand expeditions to ‘discover’ new territories and spread the word of their God—
while occupying new lands. Africa was a huge target for Europeans, given its relative
proximity and accessible waterways to Europe. After the Portuguese came the Dutch,
British, French, Germans, Italians, Spanish and Belgians—to differing degrees of
success. As imperial battles were being fought in Europe, many of these countries
‘controlled’ lands throughout the world.
As the Christian missionaries spread out in Africa, many began to realize the amount of
minerals, materials, agri-products and resources that were available. As word was sent
back to European capitals about the wealth of resources, more Europeans invested in
parts of Africa, scrambling to send officials to Africa and strategize how to co-opt land
that was not theirs. The advantage of guns and steel produced in Europe (with minerals
already extracted from Africa and Latin America) helped European nations conquer vast
tracts of African land with little human power. Massive amounts of people in different
regions of Africa were brought under the control of European governments and traders.
With the paths paved by missionaries—already attempting to ‘educate’ and spread the
Christian principles—Africa was a source of prosper relatively quickly for European
Europeans, much like their Arabic counter-parts, took full advantage of the lands and the
people of Africa. European contact meant disease and conflict-creation from the very
beginning. It also meant the creation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST), moving
and killing millions of humans from the African continent. The TAST was a network of 4
continents, yet few of the people actually made it to Europe—most were sent to North &
South America and the Carribbean to serve as slave labor in those regions. The
European ‘explorers’ had already damaged these regions and wiped out people’s
indigenous to these lands with disease, warfare and manipulation. Labor being short,
and land being everywhere, Europeans took from Africa. (photo of slave trade castle
on West Africa)
European missionary settlers, Arabic merchants and African leaders were just as likely
to enslave Africans on the continent of Africa as well. There was land to exploit, so there
was a need for human labor on Africa too.
Exploration & ‘official’ Colonization
By the 19th century European powers still felt there was more to exploit in Africa that had
yet to be uncovered. While their brethren from the Arabic world had done a better job at
assimilating and integrating with African people’s, languages, and cultures on the Horn
and East Africa, Europeans had no intention of doing this. So they put a lot of money
into ‘exploration’ and ‘settlement’ completely disregarding the people’s, culture’s and
languages that already existed. Again, Europeans had not come to assimilate.
In the capitols of Europe, there was the desire to ‘more officially’ control parts of Africa
(and Asia). The powerful wanted to feel like they would not be challenged by other
European entities for land and resources in Africa. The king of Belgium, Leopold,
decided to hold a conference in Berlin that would, literally, slice up Africa with borders
and boundaries within which the European colonial powers could do as they please.
Leopold, king of a relatively small, non-descript European nation, had managed to come
into control of most of the central region of Africa, now known as the Democratic
Republic of the Congo. This area had been little ‘explored’ and he figured he could
manipulate other European colonizers that he should have it—and he did.
The conference was known as the ‘Berlin Conference’ and this is where Africa was
divided up in 1884 and 1885. Borders were drawn where none had existed before.
European bureaucracies put man-power into Africa—setting up governing and military
bodies in lands largely unknown to the average European. Direct and in-direct rule were
set up by the European powers. For a country like France, they were direct rulers over
‘their’ land in Africa (eg present-day Algeria) because they put French military and
bureaucrats on the ground to govern and control. Whereas a smaller country like
England used indirect rule by sending a few bureaucrats and empowering a few local
elites of the African land to help handle official and military duties. This is important to
remember in the case of Rwanda. They were mostly ruled indirectly. More on this later.
From Colonialism to Independence
European powers seemed to lack humanity when it came to interaction with their fellow
Europeans as well. As the Industrial Revolution of Europe and North America excelled at
the end of the 19th Century, there was a greater need to extract resources from Africa.
By this point the TAST had officially ended. The colonizing bodies of the new African
territories—having already disregarded old African empires like the Asante and the Zulu
—continued their policies of human and resource exploitation. But now Europe was on
the brink of self-destruction and governing far off lands was becoming more difficult.
European powers were so weakened by the First World War that countries turned over
their African properties to the victors of the First World War. For example, Germany lost
all of its ‘property,’ including Rwanda (and Burundi) which was then ‘administered’ by
Belgium. Following World War II, Europe was once again ravaged by their own savagery
and the continued control of colonies was becoming unviable. There were no longer the
European manpower and money to control land in far away places. All but a few of the
European colonies around the world started to gain control of their own bureaucracies,
systems and infrastructure’s. With the institutionalization of the United Nations, there
was a renewed ‘hope’ in the ability of nations to work together to promote rights and
dignity. Ironically, no previously colonized African nation was yet independent at the
writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But by the late 1950’s
African nations started becoming independent—based on the boundaries drawn up by
Europeans at the Berlin Conference. Most countries or territories of Africa are now
independent. But due to many factors, not least of which is the arbitrariness of borders
that split ethnic and language groups where there had never been borders and the
impact of a new kind of imperial colonization, there are still plenty of issues that face this
resource rich continent.
• Rwanda (picture of Rwanda)
Rwanda within an African context
Present-day Rwanda lies on thousands of hills in the heart of Central Africa. It is part of
the Great Lakes Region and its land mass is not much larger than the Palestinian
Territories combined. Even after the genocide that killed almost a million people,
Rwanda is still the most densely populated country in Africa.
Due to its location in the mountains, in the rainforest, on the equator and no where near
an ocean (plus other factors), Rwanda has a unique history within the context of the
African continent. The ethnic groups that came into the region were mostly nomadic
cattle-herders. There was little agricultural technology to cultivate large amounts of
mountainous land. Everyone in the region spoke the same language, what is now known
as Kinyarwandan (a close relative of kiSwahili, itself related to Arabic). This will be
important to remember: a unifying, single language amongst all the people of Rwanda.
But there were basically three different classifications of people that came to call the
Rwandan hills home: BaTwa were those who were artisans and crafts makers and made
up about 1% of the population; BaHutu were the cattle-herders, later to be classified as
those who owned less than ten cows and made up about 85% of the people; and the
BaTutsi who owned more than ten cows and thus were considered better-off and about
15% of the population. These became the ethnic groupings in Rwanda and its sister
country to the south, Burundi—random creations of ethnicity.
Early on, many Hutu’s saw the Tutsi’s as outsiders. Hutu’s and Tutsi’s created negative
stereotypes of one another based on their privilege, but it would later be the colonizing
powers that divided the ethnic groups by looks as well. Until the Berlin Conference,
Ruanda-Urundi (the name of the two countries as one entity) was a kingdom and
governed as such by mostly Tutsi kings. At the Berlin Conference, it was Germany that
staked claim to this relatively small, remote patch of land in the hills. The Germans had
full privilege to plunder and pillage Ruanda-Urundi at their will and they did, mostly
through indirect rule. When Germany suffered defeat in World War One, Ruanda-Urundi
came under the ‘administration’ of the Belgians. They already controlled the massive
amount of land west of Ruanda-Urundi all the way to the Atlantic, so another small piece
of land was not considered a big deal.
Between the Germans and the Belgians, the ethnic groupings—based on economic
class in Ruanda-Urundi—were kept and perpetuated by the colonizers. In the 1930’s the
Belgian rulers, who had already switched the governing language from German to
French, decided to also use identification cards to ensure the separation of the
ethnicities. They made up physical descriptions to go along with the economic
descriptions to divide Rwandan ethnic groups even further. The physical descriptions
were arbitrary but became a part of the Rwandan conscience. Naturally, the Belgian
administrators needed local support in their work, so they had to favor one ethnic group
over the others, and thus used Tutsi’s –those physically described as lighter-skinned and
taller (thus more ‘European’ in look)—as the local administrators. This was meant to
divide and conquer within Ruanda-Urundi, as the Hutu’s were angered that Tutsi
children were allowed to go to Catholic mission schools and their men were employed
and trained by the Belgians, while the Hutu’s were left behind.
The Belgians pushed Catholicism as the religion of the people. They purposely did not
allow large numbers of children to be educated and they did not build roads in this
mountain country (like they had in other of their territories). Ruanda-Urundi was a
footnote in the history of Belgium, but it was a large enough footnote that even after
World War II, as the Belgians realized they were about to lose control of Ruanda-Urundi,
they fomented further conflict by suddenly switching ethnic allegiance. Whereas for
decades they used and trained Tutsi’s, in the mid 1950’s as Rwandan independence
became a likely possibility, Belgium suddenly stopped supporting Tutsi’s and began
supporting Hutu’s—thus, beginning decades of fighting between Hutu’s and Tutsi’s. The
thinking was that if there were enough confusion and not enough infrastructure at the
time of independence than the governing Hutu’s would come asking the Belgians for
help in governing the newly independent Rwandan country, as opposed to the Tutsi’s
who would have been better prepared to govern. The Belgians even created a Hutu
political group, PARMETHU, founded on sectarian ethnic ideology and violence.
Ruanda-Urundi achieved independence in 1962 and split into two mirror nations:
Rwanda and Burundi—both Hutu majority. Violence began immediately in both
countries. The Tutsi king went into exile and along with him an exodus of those
ethnically classified as Tutsi’s for fear of retribution. The Rwanda Diaspora went all over
the world, but mostly into the neighboring countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Congo
(DRC). Remember, there was not much livable land in Rwanda to begin with and so it
did not bother the governing Hutu’s that so many people fled to other countries, it meant
more resources for those that remained.
Unlike other African nations, with their arbitrary borders and exploitive colonial affects,
Rwanda at independence had only three ethnic groups and one language. Compare that
to Nigeria which has hundreds of both or South Africa that has 11 national languages
and ethnicities. One unifying language made Rwanda the only African country at
independence able to govern in a non-colonial language. This may have a lot to do with
the ignorance of non-Rwanda’s of what was going on within Rwanda leading up to the
• Are land and resources related to ethnic identity in Rwanda? Why or why
• How did the lack of natural resources and land contribute to the formation
of ethnic identity in Rwanda?
• Are ethnic identities given or are they created by the people who embody
them? What was it like in Rwanda? Why? What about in Palestine?
• Why is it important to understand Rwandan issues within the context of
Africa? Think about Palestine within the Middle East (Near East/Arabic