What Should I Know About Rwanda?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
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  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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Rwanda is a small country in central Africa. It covers 10,100 square miles (26,800 sq. km), making it just smaller than the state of Maryland. The country is bordered by Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda. The country is the most densely populated in all of Africa, with a population of 9 million.

Rwanda was first settled some 35,000 years ago by an ethnic group known as the Twa, who were eventually replaced by the forbearers of the contemporary Hutu ethnic group. It is a matter of some debate whether the other major ethnic group in Rwanda, the Tutsi, were introduced through a third major migration, or whether they are in fact an offshoot of the Hutu group.

Eventually the disparate people living in the area that is now Rwanda were all conquered by a powerful clan. The subsequent kingdom was mostly uneventful until the end of the sixteenth century, when it expanded outwards substantially. This expansion continued through the eighteen century, through both military and cultural means. During the kingdom period, the Tutsi cultural group rose to power, with a Tutsi king and mostly Tutsi high-level functionaries.


When Europe divided Africa among the various colonial powers, Rwanda wound up under Germany’s control. The Germans would play a pivotal role in further dividing the Tutsi and Hutu races of Rwanda. Physiologically the Tutsi exhibited traits the Germans felt marked them as "superior," particularly their "white seeming" narrow noses and tall features. They also showed more interest in converting to Catholicism. This led the Germans to place them in positions of power, both over the nation and over their Hutu brethren — even though the latter comprised over 80% of the population.

Following World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda from Germany. For the most part Belgium continued to promote the Tutsi group along the same lines the Germans had before, giving them increased power and access to education. Belgium was also much harsher in many ways than Germany had been, forcing the colony to be profitable — and using rather abusive tactics to achieve this, enforced primarily by the Tutsi over the Hutu workers.

The ethnic divide between Tutsi and Hutu was encouraged and exacerbated by the colonial powers. Belgium issued racial identification cards, continued to promote Tutsi as inherently superior, and fabricated an entire history to justify their belief in the racial superiority of one group over the other. This divide continued to grow, and at the same time the Hutu began to develop a cohesive sense of being a collective group, and a resistance to the ingrained Tutsi dominance.

Following the assassination of a populist president in 1959, and ensuing rumors of the murder of a Hutu politician, this ethnic frustration finally boiled over. The majority Hutu went on a rampage against the Tutsi, killing thousands, while thousands more fled across the borders. In 1960 the Belgian government allowed democratic elections, in which the Hutu were widely elected; unsurprising, as they made up a definitive majority of the country’s population. Over the next few years the Tutsi made attacks on Rwanda from the countries they had fled to, leading to substantial Hutu backlash against the Tutsi’s remaining in the country, killing more than 10,000 people after the country finally achieved independence in 1962.

In 1990, in response to the problem of more than 500,000 Tutsi living in virtual exile around the world, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda, where they had trained and gathered strength. After a brief period of relative calm, the situation exploded following the assassination of the Hutu president of Rwanda and the Hutu president of Burundi. This triggered a genocide in Rwanda which ultimately killed more than 800,000 Tutsi in the three months it took place before the country was seized by the Tutsi RPF.

Since the Tutsi took power the country has had a façade of democracy, although it remains an essentially one-party system, despite a brief period of having a Hutu president, who was seen by most as a puppet of the military leader, and now president, Paul Kagame.

Although Rwanda is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and is inexorably tied to images of gorillas and lush forest, it is not recommended for travel to any but the most seasoned adventurers. The country remains tense, with violence spilling over from neighboring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo regularly. Those who do wish to travel should avoid land routes to or from any of the neighboring countries at all cost.


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