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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Rwanda: How Colonists Jumbled Rwanda's Making

allAfrica.com/NYTimes -- The above is the title of our national anthem and, indeed, Rwanda is a country of great beauty - and of many contradictions.... It is often referred to as "the land of a thousand hills", a paradise on earth best known for its lush forests, incredible natural diversity and, of course, its mountain gorillas made famous by the movie "Gorillas in the Mist".

The geography of this small, beautiful country is very simple. Rwanda is located near the centre of Africa, a few degrees south of the Equator. It is separated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by Lake Kivu and the Rusizi valley to the west. To the north, it is bordered by Uganda, to the east by Tanzania, and to the south by Burundi. The capital, Kigali, is located in the centre of the country.

Rwanda's countryside is covered by grasslands and small farms extending over rolling hills (from which it derives its endearing pseudonym) with areas of rugged mountains that extend southeast from a chain of volcanoes in the northwest (the home of the world famous mountain gorilla).

The essence of composing this article is not so much as to exaggerate or to praise the natural beauty of Rwanda - because that is an undisputable fact - but instead to bring to light one of the most flagrant contradictions that characterized the history of the country ever. In 1994, Rwanda, with all her beauty described above, became best known to the outside world for something else altogether: GENOCIDE.

Imagine a situation where a set of the same people - sharing one country, one culture, one language and one heritage - would set out, one group intent on erasing the other from the face of the earth. This, unfortunately happened in "Rwanda Nziza Igihugu Cyacu" in April 1994, and in a period of only three short months. Over one million Rwandans were butchered like animals, slain by their brethren, at times by their own direct blood brothers. Incredible, isn't it? So, what could have happened?

In April of each year, Rwanda commemorates the anniversary of the Genocide, one of the most shocking chapters of modern history. Events and circumstances that led up to this horrible blot in the beautiful land, however, have been widely distorted, especially by revisionists of history.

History tells us that for over 600 years, long before the advent of the colonialist, the different groups that make up the Rwandan people shared the business of farming, essential for survival, between them. They also shared their language, their culture, and their nationality. There have been many inter-marriages.

The Tutsi have traditionally been portrayed as a separate pastoralist Hamitic people originating from East Africa (possibly the Horn region of modern Ethiopia), and the Hutu as agrarians. However, current research is inconclusive about this migration. Colonial scholars of the early twentieth century were quick to accept that notion, because it confirmed their racial theories. Today's scholarship focuses on the many cultural and genetic similarities between Hutus and Tutsis, and many scholars today believe that the differences have been greatly exaggerated, and that the differences between the two groups were occupational rather than ethnic.

The definition of "Hutu" and "Tutsi" has changed over time. Mostly it has distinguished between those in commanding and those in subordinate social positions. Traditionally, Tutsi were physically distinguished as taller than Hutu, but today, you can't tell them apart. Examples of the many contradictions and complexities of meaning I spoke of above abound. As far back as the early 1950s, some Hutus did indeed own cattle and had important social standing and people have been known to switch groups, reinforcing the idea that the Hutu and Tutsi labels are labels of class or caste rather than tribe or ethnicity as is usually portrayed by the media and militants on both sides.

Because of the nature of their historical pastoral or agricultural roles, the Tutsis tended to be landowners and the Hutus worked the land; and this division of labour perpetuated a population balance in which the Hutus naturally outnumbered Tutsis. A wedge was driven between them when the European colonists moved in. It was the practice of colonial administrators to select a group to be privileged and educated, 'intermediaries' between the governor and the governed: the infamous 'divide and rule' tactic. The Belgians chose the Tutsis: landowners, tall, and to European eyes the more aristocratic in appearance.

This thoughtless introduction of class-consciousness unsettled the stability of the Rwandan society. Some Tutsis began to behave like aristocrats, making the Hutu to feel treated like peasants. Hence an alien political divide was born.

The Belgian government continued to rely on the Tutsi power structure for administering the country. It also consistently favoured the Tutsis where education was concerned, leading to a situation where many Tutsis were literate while the majority of Hutus were not. Belgians educated the Tutsis in Catholic schools, which widened the ethnic rift between Hutu and Tutsi.

It is widely believed that the Belgians did much to create the enmity between Hutu and Tutsi through their policies of 'indirect rule'. As mentioned above, Hutus and Tutsis lived together as neighbours before the colonial period. However, Belgian rule solidified the racial divide.

Before the colonial period about 15-16% of the population was Tutsi; many of these were poor peasants, but the majority of the ruling elite were Tutsi. However, a significant minority of the political elite were Hutu. European colonists simplified this arrangement and decided that the 'Hamitic' Tutsi were racially superior and should therefore make up the entire ruling class, while the 'inferior' Bantu Hutu should become a permanent underclass.

Also, the Belgian Roman Catholic Church favoured the Tutsis, admiring Tutsi leadership qualities. The Church evangelized also, beginning with the Tutsis, leading more Tutsis to share in the benefits that came with associating with the colonizers' Roman Catholic culture. King Yuhi Musinga was exiled by the Belgians after he refused to be baptised. He was succeeded by his son Mutara Rudahigwa, who had received a seminary education. He was baptised and renamed Charles, and he sought to bring about political changes by allowing Hutus greater access to positions of authority. He chose Catholics for his appointments.

It should also be noted that from mid 18th Century, during the reign of King Yuhi until his forced exile in 1932, the military located in the border camps against external invaders were a mixture of Hutu and Tutsi drawn from across the kingdom. This intermixing helped produce a uniformity of ritual and language in the region, and united the populace behind the King.

Most evidence suggests that relations between the Hutu and Tutsi were mostly peaceful at this time. Some words and expressions suggest there may have been friction, but other than that all evidence supports peaceful interaction. So what could have happened to pit brother against brother in a senseless slaughter as happened in 1994?

To be continued

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