History of Rwanda

The first white man set foot in Rwanda only in the mid-1880smore than 400 years after Europeans landed on some parts of coastal Africa and well after the Atlantic slave trade had been brought to a merciful close.

This discovery was unfortunate for Rwandans, as the uninvited guest, a German, happened upon this mountain kingdom at a time when "race science" was all the rage in Europe.

As explorers, priests and Margaret Mead's ancestors trickled in over the next decade, they began to write extensively about their discovery of a superior race in the heart of Africa, whose supposedly "Semitic" physical features bore the closest resemblance to whites -- "golden-haired beauties in Ruanda-Urundi." One psuedo-scientist of the era speculated that these might even be citizens of the fabled lost continent of Atlantis.

The subject of this excitement were the Tutsi of Rwanda, a minority of the local population who largely exercised feudal authority and also were more prosperous, as herdsmen with a fungible asset, than the mainly pastoralist Hutu majority.

The Tutsi, tall and thin and not at all dissimilar from many other ethnic groups throughout central, east and West Africa, had wandered south into these mountains some 1,000 years ago and found the Hutu. The Hutu were a Bantu tribe, not at all dissimilar from any number of groups found throughout the continent. They had broader noses and thicker lips, and in the eyes of the visiting Europeans, were thus an inferior race. A much tinier aboriginal group, known as the Twa, completed the picture.

What the visitors failed to notice was that these were in fact not distinctive ethnic groups by any conventional definition. They spoke exactly the same language, observed the same rituals and followed the same system of social organization. They also observed a highly fluid system of social mobility, so that a Tutsi who fell on hard times could become Hutu, and vice versa. There were Tutsi chiefs and Hutu potentates. They also intermarried extensively, so that over time it became increasingly difficult to tell for sure who was what.

In 1885 at the Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa among European powers, Germany was allotted Rwanda. But the territory became a Belgian protectorate following the World War I. And that was when things really got messy.

The Belgians used the ruling elite to continue to run the country, but then instituted a system of identity cards that specified each person's ethnicity. The result was that this froze in place every Rwandan's identity, and social mobility was effectively halted.

The Hutu labored under the yoke of the feudalist Tutsi until after the World War II, when the independence movement in Africa influenced the Tutsi elite also to begin demanding the end of Belgian colonialism. The miffed Belgians shifted their allegiance to the Hutu, and in a bloody "Hutu Power" revolution in 1959 the Hutu began a decades-long purge of the Tutsi from all facets of Rwandan life.

Various pogroms forced hundreds of thousands of Tutsi into neighboring countries, especially Uganda and Burundi. In 1990, the children of those refugees formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front and invaded from Uganda, demanding power sharing and the return of the refugees.

The rebels' rapid advance steadily increased pressure on the Hutu government. Every Tutsi was seen as a collaborator, and the march toward a "final solution" to clear Rwanda of all Tutsi began in earnest.

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