Continuing the series, Letters from the Heart of Africa
No narrative on Rwanda can really ever avoid the genocide. Its magnitude and barbarism is unfathomable. In 1994, one million people were murdered in a hundred days; neighbours and friends turned on each other; the nature of the killing was especially cruel with the majority killed by machetes and clubs with nails in them.
Nothing can be understood before it is first learned; tensions simmered long before the tragedy and that’s why we need to talk about why people kill each other.
I lived in Rwanda 14 years after the genocide yet its terrible wake, like the mists that envelope the distant purple hills around its capital Kigali, still hung in the air.
Sadness and joy, those imposters both, traipse that stunning land; they are ever-present travel companions, who can lead your heart in an instant to euphoria or melancholy. Just like the lay of its hills and valleys, Rwanda provides ups and downs:
You visit majestic smoking volcanoes and verdant forests forests of rare gorillas that knuckle-walk past you; you see mass graves and rooms full of skulls in Nyamata and Murambi; you see a pretty church in Kibuye, with a large stained glass window, surrounded on three sides by an expansive shimmering lake; but then you learn that this church was the killing site of thousands of people seeking protection from the vicious mobs; children retrieve their banana-leaf ball from thick bushes to resume their football match; they stumble across human bones; you have a beer in a sports bar with a friend a survivor; he tells you the floor before us was once three feet deep in bodies.
I know some of you , especially younger readers of the series Letters from the Heart of Africa who weren’t even born when the genocide happened, must be wondering how did it get to that tragic extreme?
The best things in life are those that bring people together, things like music, art, sports, good food; common, universal joys that know no bounds. The worst things in life do the opposite, they divide us, they create walls and fences, they emphasise differences, real or fake differences – ‘us versus them’ – which fuels the egoists’ power games, breeds intolerance and resentment. If that process isn’t controlled it can lead to a slippery slope, to hate; after hate, violence is but a whisper of a lie away. Rwanda, Cambodia, The Holocaust, Bosnia, Armenia are all extreme examples of this.
You can divide us humans in so many ways. Colour, nationality, religion, class, gender, gender preference and so forth. But how could it happen in Rwanda, this small country about the size of Wales, 8 times bigger than Rhode Island? The people came from a single race (the Banyarwanda), they spoke the same language (kinyarwanda), they had mainly the same religion, yet got divided in to two groups.
The craziest thing is this – how did they get divided in to two groups? The answer is staggering: because of the number of cows they owned.
A hundred years ago Rwanda was ruled by Belgium. According to some people’s religious beliefs, Ham, a son of Noah in the Bible, was the founding father of the African races. This was known as the ‘Hamitic myth’.
In the 1800s, European colonisers believed that the ‘Hamitic’ peoples of the Horn of Africa were superior to other Africans and were more akin to Europeans. The advocates of the Hamitic myth claimed that the minority Tutsi came from Ethiopia and were not native to Rwanda, whilst the other grouping, the majority Hutu, were. The lack of historical documentation had allowed a myth-shrouded, lazy history, to gain weight and seep in as pseudo-intellectualism – it was actually just an old fashioned brew of racism.
In fact, far from being distinct ethnic or tribal groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi were originally based on job status, rather like the caste system of India. There were seventeen clans and within each of them were the social groups of Tutsi, the cattle-owning class (from which the Royal family also hailed) and the Hutu farmers. Unlike in the Indian caste system, classes were porous and Rwandans were able to move between the groups depending on their economic status.
In the 20th century the groupings took a more rigid and racial dimension as the Belgian colonialists came up with a rule that said a Hutu was defined as someone who owned less than 10 cows. Furthermore, diabolical race theories at the time held that the Tutsis had traits of the white man and were therefore superior; to support this view they carried out research: they measured their heights; Tutsis were taller they said. They measured their noses; Tutsi have sharper, more aquiline noses they said; they felt their hair, Tutsis hair was softer they said, much like their own.
The Tutsi, the colonists concluded, were cleverer and harder working than the Hutus, they made better rulers and the Belgian administrators therefore favoured the Tutsi giving them privileged statuses in jobs and education.
The policy was deeply harmful to the very fabric of Rwandan society, for it divided communities and marginalised the majority Hutu who made up over 80% of the population. To formalise the division, the Belgian rulers introduced identity cards that clearly stated Hutu or Tutsi.
It was in the late 1950s, when winds of change were starting to sweep across Africa, that the Belgians changed allegiances and started to favour the Hutu majority, heralding the start of the massacres against the Tutsi in 1959, displacing many of them in to exile in neighbouring Uganda.
False histories are explosive and poisonous. Long years after the Belgians had packed their bags, the Hamitic myth lingered on like mental pollution.
During the genocide, the Hutu militia used physical features, when they could not find identity cards, to distinguish Hutu from Tutsi. The difference between life and death for some were the shapes of their noses, the roundness of their faces or the lengths of their legs.
Sometimes, bodies of murdered Tutsis were thrown in to the Akegera River which flows in to the Nile, in the hope that they would, implausibly, float back up to Ethiopia where they were claimed to have come from.
It is harsh to pin the wrongs purely on the Belgians; they were just creatures of their time, clinging to the back of a huge colonial bandwagon; it was a time in history when the world order was seen in terms of lighter skinned races civilising the darker skinned ones, the ‘white man’s burden’ as it was called of the British in India, the French in the Maghreb and the Belgians in Congo and Rwanda.
Victorian writers like Kipling sprinkled their works with unthinking racial superiority, and children played with silly faced golliwogs. Eugenics was considered a science. When something of high civilisation was discovered by archaeologists (such as in the Indus valley excavations or the ruins of Great Zimbabwe) they just pondered and scratched their heads. What was going on here? It was an anomaly, an inconvenience that didn’t fit in with their theory. So it was regarded at best an aberration or at worst attributed to a wandering tribe of Israel.
The terms Hutu or Tutsi are no longer written on the freshly printed plastic ID cards that the government introduced in 2008 yet they are readily mentioned whenever Rwanda is a topic of conversation outside Rwanda. In my six months there I rarely ever heard those words Hutu or Tutsi.
On my first day in Rwanda in the taxi from the airport , stuck in a traffic jam, the bumper sticker in front of us stated, “Proudly Rwandan.” For today fashioning one nation, without sub-identities and overcoming the damaging baggage of the race myth has become a national goal.
Later on in this series of posts, I’ll write about my travels in Rwanda that allude to the genocide itself – it may at times not be an easy read (I promise this series will have its lighter moments too) but it’s important to discuss the genocide; forgetting lessons is dangerous and if you look closely enough at Rwanda, she offers rich lessons in healing.
For after the darkest part of the night comes, dawn.
(Featured Image courtesy of the Kigali Genocide Memorial)