The people(s) of Rwanda

When reading about Rwanda’s history dating back to the ice age I find that this country has an incredibly rich history, and a very fascinating one. Somehow it gives a greater understanding of what happened during the colonial administration under Belgium, who started a process of social engineering. Several people that i have talked to have explained the rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi as not based upon ethnic, racial or tribal grounds. But rather it was a matter of social status. I have been confused myself about what was the cause of the massive hatred between two groups who previously lived side by side, intermarried and played with each other’s children. I feel compelled to write about the people(s) of Rwanda after having stayed here for five weeks, and talked to locals to understand their history and culture. 

The colonial administrations under Germany (1894-1919) and Belgium (1919-1962) differentiated between the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa by defining their “differences”, although they shared the same history, language and culture. The indigenous Twa has a distinct culture of folkloric and traditional dancing, but share the same language with the Hutu and Tutsi – Kinyarwanda. In plural the population are referred to as Bahutu, Batutsi and Batwa in their mother tongue. 

The first settlers in Rwanda were the Twa, the hunter-gatherers. According to international law they are defined as “indigenous peoples” as the first settlers and relying on land and natural resources for their survival. In 1973 national parks were created, which led to the Twa being expelled from their previous habitat. Without warning or compensation they were forced to settle elsewhere. Rwanda has signed the Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 1990. However, today the Twa are referred to as “historically marginalised people” and a minority, like any other minority. Due to the extensive settlements of the Hutu, who today consist of some 90% of the population, the Twa were forced to retreat into forest areas to continue their form of living. As some would argue, the debate about indigenous populations in various continents often revolves around the “s” in “peoples”. This is because “peoples” refer to a collective group of people, which implies that they have particular rights as regards to land, language and the protection of their culture. As opposed to “people”, referring to the rights of any individual to assemble, to speak one’s language, to practice their own culture and religion as human beings. The former imposes particular responsibilities on the government for the protection of collectives of people.

In addition to being ‘hunter-gatherers’ the Twa were potters. Their tradition of making pottery ware continues to this day. In many crafts shops I have seen potteries made by Twa on display, and some also sell along the road. Some communities lack land resources, as a result of the extensive settlements of farmers throughout Rwanda, as well as income generating activities. These are among the most vulnerable in Rwanda today and live in conditions of extreme poverty with poor access to health care, employment and education. In 2004 77% of the Twa were illiterate and less than 1% had completed higher education. 

Until around 700BC the Twa were joined by farmers, the Hutu. Relying on land for their livelihood they were looking to expand their settlements through Central Africa. Hence, they were bad news for the Twa. With Iron-Age technology the Hutu were able to advance the process of cultivating land for a larger output. During the aristocratic regime, under German and Belgian colonial rule, the Hutu were subjected to forced labour. Tutsi exploited their preferential situation of more power in relation to the Hutu, causing resentment among Hutu. With the latter being in majority (90%) Gregoire Kayibanda was able to secure an overwhelming victory during the first presidential elections in Rwanda in 1960. The ‘Hutu Manifesto’ was released in 1957, identifying the Tutsi as the enemy of the country. The document banned intermarriages between Hutu and Tutsi and the latter were to be strictly excluded from the military service. The Party for Hutu Emancipation won, placing the Tutsi minority in a very vulnerable position. In 1959 there were widespread massacres of Tutsi, many of whom escaped to Burundi, where there was, and is, a Tutsi majority. 

No one really seem to know exactly how old the dynasty of the mwami, the king, really are. Some sources claim the first monarch ruled around 1000 AD, others say 1400AD. They were cattle herders and were called Tutsi, meaning ‘owners of cattle’, which gave them a high social status. In contrast, the Hutu were farmers, but there was social mobility. If a Hutu acquired cattle and became wealthier, he would change his social status to Tutsi. Similarly, if a Tutsi was less fortunate and became poor, he would be considered a Hutu. Oral tradition has traditionally passed on history in Rwanda through story telling and knowledge sharing, as in most other countries in Africa. There is little or no documentation specifying the origin of the Tutsi or when they arrived in Rwanda. During colonial rule, due to their perceived higher social standing, Tutsi were given preferential treatment in secondary schools, in government and the priesthood of the Catholic Church. This was the case until the end of the 1950s when the tables turned with the victory of the Party of Hutu Emancipation. 

The dehumanisation of “the other” became increasingly violent, against the Tutsi. In 1959 the Tutsi monarchy was overthrown by Hutu leaders, aided by the Belgian authorities. During the period 1962-1994 there were several massacres of Tutsi. The killing of Tutsi became a part of daily life. Some 130.000 Tutsi fled to neighbouring Burundi and Uganda. Some Tutsi with beneficial contacts, a young woman told me, was able to change their class to Hutu in order to be less vulnerable. The Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda in 1990, led by Paul Kagame, to reclaim their lost land and country. At this point, the French government supported the Rwandan Army in its defence against the RPF. When Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines was established in 1993 it broadcasted hate propaganda against Tutsi, or “cockroaches”, as they were called. 

While I have stayed in Rwanda I have asked myself countless times what would possess people to attack, and wishing to eliminate, people they previously live side by side with. People they just a few weeks before considered their friends, and attended their weddings. And subsequently to kill in the most inhumane ways possible. I keep getting the same conclusion – that of dehumanising “the other”. The process of convincing oneself that people who are somehow “different” have less worth as a human being, and even degrading “the others” to something else – “cockroaches”, for instance. Having an idea that the world would be a much better place if “they” are no longer here, and eliminating them from the face of the earth. Stripping other people of an identity and their personality, human beings with thoughts and feelings, and ignoring their ability to think. That, to me, is the pathway towards racial hatred, discrimination and intolerance. Not to mention, also the fear factor. If you fear for your own life, you are more susceptible to commit acts that you normally would not have done.


Cultural survival, Rwanda,

Philip Briggs and Janice Booth, Rwanda, Bradt Travel Guide, 2009. 

Ryan Hurst, The Hutu Manifesto, 1957,

Author: silbra

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *