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Useful Notes / Rwanda

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"It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources...the people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs."
James Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

Rwanda is a tiny little country in East Africa, neighbored by Uganda in the North, Burundi in the South, Tanzania in the East, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the West. It is pretty much defined by violence and discrimination between its two major ethnicities, Hutus and Tutsis. Although "ethnicity" is not quite the right word; the distinction is very slippery, but the difference might be a bit closer to "Caste" or a distinction between "Common" and "Noble"—even before colonization. The two have lived in the same society and have spoken the same language since the dawn of an Imperial Tutsi Dynasty that once expanded over the region, forcing the conquered peoples into a subservient caste. The empire lasted for centuries even after Europeans came in and even left, the Tutsis were historically a dominant minority, ruling over the whole population and typically getting the best jobs (although this isn't to say that there weren't plenty of impoverished Tutsis and rich Hutus).


The original kingdom fell under colonisation of the Germans (one of the leftovers they had to accept because most of the continent was taken by the other powers when the German Empire was formed) until World War I, when Belgium invaded and took control of the zone. Both of them ruled the country by proxy, leaving in place the old Rwandan monarchy and Tutsi aristocracy. Even after the kingdom split into Rwanda and Burundi, the situation kept the same, except for the escalating violence from the Hutu. Things changed in 1959, when the Hutu revolted; in 1961, they deposed the King and installed a republic with a Hutu president. Still, the Tutsis retained many positions of power and influence until 1973, when Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, took power in a coup and they turned the tables, leading the violence and discrimination against the Tutsi.


Things got even worse when some rebel Tutsis formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), starting a civil war that fell into a stalemate, forcing the president to sign some accords. Unfortunately, worse came to worst and Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, killing both him and Burundi’s president, Cyprien Ntaryamira (also a Hutu). Soon after that (a few hours, as a matter of fact) started a murderous frenzy of Hutus, killing any Tutsis or moderate Hutus they found during a period of about 100 days while the Western powers just stood there without doing anything (the recent failure of the pacification mission in Somalia dissuaded them of going to another African country). In fact, the genocide seemed so well planned and organized because it was actually planned way before by the government and the military, and it is suspected by some that Habyarimana’s death was deliberate to give them an excuse to start it.

The genocide ended when the RPF managed to take control of the country and, while they did engaged in revenge against the Hutus, today things are more peaceful (though some accuse Paul Kagame, the incumbent president and leader of the RPF, of not relinquishing power). This peace, so to speak, was achieved mainly by exporting the problem: both Tutsis and Hutus exilled themselves in neighboring Zaire and started fighting there, a leading cause of The Congo Wars.

Between the Hutus and Tutsis there lies a third ethnic group. The Twas are a pygmy people that has been historically stomped upon by both Tutsis and Hutus; not only they fell victim of collateral damage during the genocide, but also they’ve been marginalized by the government.

Rwanda in the media:

  • Hotel Rwanda. It tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who protected as many Tutsis and moderate Hutus in his hotel as he could from the genocide.
  • Kinyarwanda (named after the native language of the country, talked by the three ethnic groups) is another film about the genocide, though this one focuses more on individual stories.
  • Sometimes in April chronicles the lives of two Hutu brothers during the genocide.
  • Shake Hands with the Devil, a book of Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire about the failure of the UN to stop the genocide.
  • Gorillas in the Mist tells the story of naturalist Dian Fossey in Rwanda while working with gorillas.
  • Top Gear briefly passed through Rwanda on their trip to find the source of the Nile River. Jeremy Clarkson also mentions the horrific genocide from decades earlier.
  • In the Parks and Recreation episode "Filibuster", Tom has to deal with his girlfriend from Doctors Without Borders going to Rwanda. He mistakenly thinks this is a "vacation" and complains that "if I know anything about Rwanda, and I don't, I bet it's full of rich guys who will buy her whatever she wants."
  • Don Rosa's Disney comic "The Crocodile Collector" has Donald Duck and his nephews finding the source of the Nile in Rwanda

The Rwandan flag

In 2001 the government replaced the red-yellow-green flag of Rwanda (itself using the Ethiopian variant of the Pan-African colors) due to its association with the genocide. This change was meant to symbolize a more optimistic direction for Rwanda; the upper half is colored blue for happiness and peace; the lower half's yellow and green stripes symbolizes economic progress and hope of prosperity, respectively; and the golden sun on the upper right quarter symbolizes enlightenment.


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