Rwanda, a land-locked country in Eastern Africa, has a rich and complex history stretching centuries. From the dominance of the Tutsi over the Hutu to the tragic events of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s past is marked by both triumphs and tragedies.
Early Settlements in Rwanda
Rwanda’s history stretches back to at least 10,000 BCE when the first inhabitants settled in the area during the Neolithic period. These early settlers, known as the Twa people, were hunter-gatherers who lived in the forests and engaged in hunting, gathering, and pottery crafting. As time went on, the people in the region developed more advanced agricultural knowledge, and migrants from central Africa brought with them extensive farming practices.
By 600 CE, the people in Rwanda had mastered ironworking, cultivated crops such as sorghum and finger millet, and had small herds of livestock. These agricultural practices led to the identification of a new ethnic group, the Hutu people. Additionally, a wave of cattle-herding pastoralists believed to have originated from the upper reaches of the Nile settled in Rwanda between the 1400s and 1500s, eventually becoming known as the Tutsi people.
It is important to note that these migrations occurred gradually, with no evidence of large-scale invasions or conquests. Instead, cohabitation and intermarriage between the various groups led to a high degree of integration, acceptance, and interaction.
The Tutsi gradually established dominance over the Hutu, creating a feudal society with the Tutsi as the aristocracy and the Hutu as their vassals. While initially seen as a racial distinction, the Tutsi-Hutu divide was better understood as a class and occupation divide, with the Tutsi being the upper class and mostly herders and the Hutu being the lower class and predominantly farmers.
The role of clans in Rwandan society
Throughout Rwanda’s history, clans, known as ubwoko, played a significant role in social organisation. In the early period, clans were the primary means of social identity, with each clan having a patriarchal figure known as the “father of the clans.” These clans were formed through a mythology of shared patrilineal descent, tracing origins through male family lines.
The clans were not limited to a single ethnic group but often included members from the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa communities. They served as important signifiers of belonging and coordinated various clan-based activities. Over time, some clans evolved into hereditary kingships, consolidating power and wealth among a select few.
The Emergence of the Kingdom of Rwanda
In the 1400s, a shortage of land and increased conflict over cattle to be used as lobola (a form of dowry) led to the emergence of a class of warriors among the Tutsi people. This class of warriors played a significant role in forming the Kingdom of Rwanda. Through conquests of smaller chiefdoms, a state was established with the Mwami (or king) of Rwanda at its head.
The Mwami established a hierarchical system called ubuhake, in which Hutu farmers provided services and crops to Tutsi pastoralists in exchange for land and cattle. This system allowed for social mobility, as Hutu farmers could acquire cattle and become Tutsi pastoralists. The ubuhake system was primarily based on clan affiliation rather than strict ethnic divisions, further blurring the lines between the Hutu and Tutsi people.
The Nyiginya dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Rwanda. While some uncertainty surrounds the exact list of kings and the periods they ruled, the kingdom’s existence as a unified state is well-documented. The kingdom saw the consolidation of power and wealth among a powerful aristocracy of cattle herders, with the Mwami serving as a symbol of sovereignty.
Colonial rule: German and Belgian influence
The late 19th century saw the arrival of European powers in Africa, and Rwanda was no exception. The Germans claimed the region in 1897, along with Burundi, and established Ruanda-Urundi as a colony. However, German rule was indirect, relying on local rulers to maintain control. The outbreak of World War I led to the transfer of Ruanda-Urundi to Belgian control. Under Belgian rule, the existing Tutsi-Hutu divide was reinforced, with the Belgians favouring the Tutsi aristocracy and subjecting the Hutu to forced labour.
Impact of colonialism and racialisation
The colonial authorities had a lasting impact on Rwanda, particularly in their racialisation of the differences between the Hutu, Twa, and Tutsi people. These distinctions were less evident in pre-colonial Rwanda, where the three groups shared a language, cultural practices, and religious beliefs.
The racialisation by the colonial authorities led to the classification of individuals based on physical features and economic activities. The Tutsi were labelled as the privileged ruling class, while the Hutu were seen as the agricultural majority. The Twa, being forest dwellers, faced marginalisation due to their distinct way of life.
This racialisation had profound consequences for Rwanda’s post-colonial history. It contributed to the tensions and conflicts that ultimately culminated in the devastating 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which over 800,000 Tutsi people were killed, along with thousands of Hutu people who opposed the violence or refused to participate in it.
Independence and the rise of Hutu power
On 1 July 1962, Rwanda and Burundi gained independence from Belgium. Rwanda became a republic, while Burundi retained its monarchy. The Hutu, who constituted the majority of the population, seized political power. Gregoire Kayibanda, leader of the Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation du Peuple Hutu (Party for Hutu Emancipation), became the first president of Rwanda. Unfortunately, this period also witnessed the rise of ethnic tensions and the emergence of Hutu Power, which fueled violence against the Tutsi minority.
In 1994, Rwanda experienced one of the darkest periods in its history – the genocide. The assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, served as a catalyst for an orchestrated campaign of violence against the Tutsi population. The extremist Hutu government, backed by the Interahamwe militia, broadcasted hate-filled messages through the media, urging people to eliminate Tutsis. Over the course of a few months, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, were brutally killed.
Learn about the Rwanda genocide.