Hector Vila: The Genocide against the Tutsi, a brief history

Fifth in a series

I took a walk away from Kagugu, best known for its large, gated houses, a pleasant area in the quiet of early morning, and headed towards the other extreme — mud houses, dank alleys, women along the red dirt street selling small green peppers strewn on blankets in the dust.

I ventured away from the main road in between tight homes straddling crevices scarred by rain and into fields where kids played barefoot with toys made of sticks and rubbish, and men cut away the dry earth into blocks later to be the foundation of a house or an outbuilding. I took a wide turn towards a distant cattle farm because I wanted to see how it compared to Vermont’s farms. I’ve raised cows and wanted to see how it’s done in Rwanda.


I was greeted with waves and smiles by the men and women moving slender cattle and cleaning a paddock. As I made my way back to the busier side of this neighborhood, I found myself before the farm’s large iron gate. It was the way to the main road, and it was locked.

A slight man suddenly appeared. He had dark slacks and a short white sleeve shirt. One arm was cut off at the shoulder, the other was cut off mid-forearm. With this arm he dexterously unlocked the door and pulled it open. He smiled as I approached.

“Murakoze,” I said. Thank you.

We stared at each other as I passed. His eyes were blood red and deep yellow, distant and sorrowful. I wanted to ask — I still want to know — but my anthropologist friends would have warned me not to go about it in a way that comes across as me getting something from him, instead of the inverse. I let it go, smiled, and moved on. But his image remains a fixture in my mind.

The Genocide against the Tutsi (we never say the Genocide in Rwanda; it is insulting, and not accurate, actually), is palpable throughout the country — burial sites scar the countryside. The Kigali Genocide Memorial contains the story. When I visited the Memorial’s burial grounds behind the museum, I passed a woman in tears praying. She was for me the density of this history.

Even in the Rwandan General Studies Curriculum for all grade levels there is a mandate for “peace and justice education, which was absent in the pre-Genocide Rwandan curricula, and which could be said to have enabled to a certain extent the Genocide against the Tutsi.” The study of the Genocide alongside other atrocities such as the Holocaust is vital to Rwandan education. In other words, this will not happen again.

My thoughts drift to the U.S. and Florida’s whitewashing of slavery, and how much healthier and approachable — and unifying — Rwanda’s path is.

The seeds for the Genocide were sewn even before colonization, which accelerated this brutal tragedy. During the 1890s a period of centralization took hold, which had four general characteristics: central political control became more homogeneous, which gave way to an almost modern state, whereby local situations, even disputes vanished; the central court of the King tightened political authority; the double process of local and central strengthening of authority enabled the court to eliminate the last remaining Hutu principalities; and, the relations of personal dependence became increasingly feudalized.

The King granted land for grazing, which was also done through Tutsi lineage. The land could also be held as clanic undivided property, introducing ubuletwa, forced labor, as an extension of land contracts.

This is important in pre-colonialized Rwanda because what is in place is “a centre versus periphery affair and not a Tutsi versus Hutu” situation, Gérard Prunier tells us in “The Rwandan Crisis: History of Genocide.” Even though most of the King’s agents were Tutsi, their “victims,” the newly “controlled,” were both Tutsi and Hutu. The Tutsi and Hutu identities were not hard, unchanging categories, but the newly integrated elites, when co-opted by the monarchy, turned these identities into faithful servants of a new order. This is important to keep in mind as Rwanda experienced a great transformation from 1860-1931, giving birth to its modern society.

The German presence (1884-1919) capitalized on this existing structure and inaugurated a policy of indirect rule, “which left considerable leeway to the Rwandese monarchy,” says Prunier, which means that the pre-colonization structures and methods continued unabated. The Germans, however, could not really modify Rwandese society in depth and to their liking. It was over by 1916, and Germany maintained only a slight presence.

The Belgians stepped in with a strong colonial policy that was implemented between 1926 and 1931 in a series of measures that came known as “les rérformes Voisin” after the governor, Charles Voisin. One of the strongest measures was to consolidate chiefly functions into a single hand. “Thus, the Hutu peasants, who before had cleverly manipulated one level of chiefly authority against the other, now found themselves tightly controlled by one chief only, whose backing by the white administration was much more efficient than the loose support the traditional chiefs used to receive from the royal court,” Prunier explains.

Sensing global support of the Belgian administration, the Tutsi felt they could slowly modify traditional land and contractual rights in their favor. Belgian legislation helped. The state could control all Hutu holdings. This was not forgotten and during the 1959 revolution, Tutsi houses were burnt to the ground. But western capitalism had already taken hold creating an atmosphere of individualization and privatization, putting folds onto an anxious society. Tutsi, closer to the levers of power, were the beneficiaries. The seeds of violence were sewn.

In 1931, Mutara III Rudahigwa replaced his father, King Yuhi V Musinga, who was hated by the Belgians because he fought with the Germans against them. The Catholic Church also hated King Musinga because they believed he reeked of paganism. Musinga was exiled to Kamembe. This is important because young Mutara III Rudahigwa converted to Catholicism, dressed in western clothes, drove his own car, and was monogamous. Loved by the Church, he could be exploited by the Belgians and Catholics.

Massive conversions to Catholicism began in 1927. Rwandans understood that the Belgian administration was converting the country according to the white man’s terms. The Tutsi realized that these developments wouldn’t necessarily be bad for them.

“Rwandese society under the influence of the church,” writes Prunier, “became, if not truly virtuous, then at least conventionally hypocritical.” Christianity was trans-ethnic, although definitely Tutsi-dominated during the colonial years. The Catholic Church wet the seeds of discontent, preferring the European-like features and intelligence of the tall, slender Tutsi. The Church divided the society.

Thus, says Prunier, “through the actions, both intellectual and material, of the white foreigners, myths had been synthesized into a new reality.” The minority Tutsi was preferred to the majority Hutu. Although Rwanda was certainly not a place of bucolic harmony and peace, there was no history of systematic violence between Hutu and Tutsi. Colonialism and the Church exploited the Tutsi and the Hutu, and lit the fuse.

The relentless, brutal killing of the Genocide, between April 7 and July 15, 1994, during the Rwandan Civil War (sometimes conflated wrongly with the Genocide, adding to the complexity and confusion that still to this day remains), was more to “upbraid a certain vision [Hutu and Tutsi] have of themselves, of the others and of their place in the world than because of material interests,” which can always be negotiated. This is what made the killing relentless — ideas cannot be negotiated and tend to be pursued to their logical conclusions, however horrible and brutal.

This is by no means the complete history of the complexities that became the Genocide. It is, nevertheless, a primer hopefully demonstrating, once again, how colonialism used a modernizing society and imposed German, Belgian and Catholic primacy onto an evolving, anxious society and set it on fire. Rwanda’s history is consistent with the histories of colonialism.

As a side note, in the Genocide Museum, I spent quite some time examining the language of politicians and their manipulations of the press, critical in animating unfounded hatred — mythic narratives that led to violence. I replaced Rwanda for the U.S., and changed Rwandan names in the press with U.S. names, and suddenly before my eyes there was the ultra-right media in the U.S., though the mainstream — MSNBC/CNN/NYT/WP, et al. — are not blameless here. The language of the Genocide is interchangeable with our current U.S. political-media language, our perverse environment. It’s uncanny and frightening because we don’t have machetes, we have the AR-15s.

In a Washington Post story (Aug. 12), for instance, “Michigan state Rep. Matt Maddock (R) warned supporters at a recent fundraiser at his home that a ‘civil war’ would break out or that people would get shot if the government continued to target conservatives, according to audio of the event obtained by the Messenger, which first reported the remarks.” This is a statement that could be found numerous times in the archives of the Genocide against the Tutsi.

And what do we make of the Trump mantra, “If you go after me, I’m coming after you,” another gross and perverse statement easily found in the Genocide’s media blitz?

Can we learn something from Rwanda? I hope we can, but I’m not holding my breath. Can we learn something that will prevent us from creating yet another museum devoted to death and destruction? Or are we beyond learning at this stage? I fear the answer.

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