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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

A short history of Rwanda (in less than 900 words)

map_AfricaA couple of months ago, I took my children to see one of the ongoing exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum called, "Maps, Borders and Mobility in Africa." Using European representations of Africa from the 14th to the 19th centuries, this exhibit explains how it became possible for European colonial powers, at the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, to carve up the continent of Africa like a large pie and help themselves to servings of its land and natural resources. As the exhibit explains, "The result [of the Conference] was the creation of borders that did not consider existing cultural, linguistic, religious, or political relationships among the peoples who had inhabited the land for millenia." As I learned in my university course in African history, one cannot understand present-day Africa without understanding the Berlin conference, which decided Africa's national borders mostly arbitrarily. Or, to say it this way, because of the historic arbitrary division of land in Berlin more than one hundred years ago, Africa continues to suffer the chronic disease of colonialism. The continent still coughs up blood.

I learned more about the specific impact of colonial domination in Rwanda by reading A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer. To understand what happened the three-month murderous rampage in April-July of 1994, which killed more than 800,000 Rwandans, one must return to Rwanda's pre-colonial history. In the 14th and 15th centuries, groups of Tutsi migrated from the north to Rwanda and through both peaceful and violent means, become the ruling class in Rwanda. The divisions between Tutsi and Hutu were not (and are not) starkly ethnic: Tutsi tended to be slightly taller than Hutu and were cattle farmers. Centuries ago, if a Hutu became an owner of cattle, he became Tutsi. If a Tutsi family turned to farming, they eventually became Hutu. Intermarriage was common between Hutu and Tutsi, and even today, there is not agreement on whether to describe Hutu/Tutsi as races, castes, ethnicities, or tribes.

In the early twentieth-century, however, Europeans were extremely preoccupied with the idea of race and imposed this obsession in Rwanda. In 1933, the Belgian colonial power in Rwanda began issuing identity cards to every Rwandan, classifying each person as either Hutu or Tutsi. (A small number of Rwandans belonged to a third group called the Twa.) The Belgians had completely misunderstood the distinctions between the two groups. They assumed that because the Tutsi were "clever" and "sophisticated," they could not have been real Africans. (There were all sorts of ethnic theories as to what Tutsi really were.) And as a measure of ease in establishing their colonial power, the Belgians favored Tutsi rule. Their ethnic and historical ignorance perpetuated the myth of Tutsi superiority (that, by nature, Tutsi were superior to Hutu) and Tutsi outsiderdom (that Tutsis weren't real Africans). One imagines how this created a climate of intense Hutu resentment, which eventually ignited.

Nevertheless, when nationalistic fervor was taking hold in Africa in the middle of the twentieth-century, Belgium realized they could exploit the democratic advantage of the majority Hutu and prepared for Rwandan independence by shifting political support away from the Tutsi. As Kinzer describes, "In an astonishingly short time, Tutsi went from being the ruling elite, blessed by colonial power, to being hunted and terrorized in the land they had dominated for centuries." Tutsi, threatened by violence, fled from Rwanda, and by the 1970s, more than six hundred thousand were living in exile. Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda, was one of those exiles denied the right of return. Their intense longing to be "home" fueled a rebel force, which showed surprising military and political strength. Though Rwandan President Habyarimana was eventually forced to agree to peace accords with the exiles, when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994 and Tutsi rebels were blamed, the country erupted. The killing began within hours.

Kinzer asks, "What drove so many Rwandans to become murderers during the terrible spring of 1994? Scholars have offered various theories. Some blame the culture of obedience to authority that has long shaped Rwanda life. Others focus on overpopulation, the decline of world coffee prices, or the country's long isolation, which made it easy for uneducated people to believe the monstrous propaganda they heard on the radio. One sees the root of the slaughter in 'a colonization process that introduced myths of a superior race.' Another finds it in 'the longstanding and deeply ingrained racism of Rwanda society,' which gave people 'the image of the Tutsi as inherently evil and exploitative.' In its essence, though, this crisis was political. The ruling elite spent three decades steadfastly refusing to confront the refugee crisis. Now the refugees were back and reaching for power. Powerful Rwandans were determined to stop them at any cost."

I've appreciated Kinzer's book and the important historical context he provides for understanding present-day Rwanda. I look forward to sharing with you pictures and reflections next week after our visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.