The Rwandan Myth

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda is normally seen as the result of ethnic tensions between the Tutsis and the Hutus. However, what many may not realise is that these ‘ethnicities’ were essentially a myth created by the Belgian colonial administration.

In her article, Contested Identities, Villia Jefremovas traces the construction of these ethnicities from the beginnings of the nation in the 14th-15th centuries up to the time that the Belgians arrived in 1912. She writes, “Different interpretations of ethnicity and statehood have been used to create and justify policies of exclusion, inclusion and claims to legitimacy” and that the debate over these “can be seen as a series of fictions: fictions of ethnicity, ethnography and history.” (p. 91)

She points out that the state of Rwanda came together in the 14th and 15th centuries as a result of the unification of separate states through the movement of what we would now recognise as Tutsi settlers. Local cattle-holders were incorporated as ‘Tutsi’ and farmers as ‘Hutu’. At this point, the two terms did not describe an ethnic division, but rather one based on the roles they played in society as outlined: the term ‘Tutsi’ means ‘cattle-rich’. It was also not the case that the Tutsis were a rich elite and that the Hutus were necessarily poor peasants – each group had their own powerful and rich elites.

Images from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Copyright BBC.
Images from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Copyright BBC.

It is in the 50 year period before the arrival of the Europeans – first the Germans, and then, more critically, the Belgians – that the transformation of these categories began to take place as the king, or ‘mwami’ of the era, Rwaburigi, destroyed the old power structures of the ‘lineage based elites’ and replaced them with a kind of feudal system (p. 95). While the majority of the ‘lords’ of this new feudal system were Tutsi, the class division remained complex and permeable: the rich Tutsis saw themselves as not only superior to the Hutus, but also to the Tutsi peasantry. Jefremovas writes, “some rich Hutus… married Tutsi women and their children become Tutsi. Still the vast number of Tutsi were commoners who had more in common with the Hutu peasants than with the Tutsi lords, while the Hutu lords, who formed a minority in the elite, had little in common with the Hutu peasants they exploited.” (p. 96)

From the beginning of their colonisation of the country, the Belgians identified the Tutsi as the ‘natural rulers’ of the country. The BBC documentary series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, points out that it was with the help of people like Armand Denis, a filmmaker that primarily made documentaries about Africa, that the Belgians began to espouse the myth of the Tutsis as ‘Hamitic Invaders’.

In the 1931 documentary, The Congo I Knew, Denis states that the Tutsis had ‘descended from Egypt’ and used their superior intelligence to subdue the local ‘Bantu’ populations in Rwanda. The height and slightly fairer skin of ‘the Tutsis’ was seen as evidence as to their superiority. In order to prove their theories, the Belgians brought in scientists to measure the skulls of Tutsis and Hutus and concluded, on the basis of these measurements, that the Tutsis had larger brains. Interestingly, the differences in height are now considered the result of dietary factors: the Tutsis were cattle-herders and had a more protein-rich diet than the Hutu farmers.

Phrenology in Rwanda. Image from the BBC documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
Phrenology in Rwanda. Image from the BBC documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

The Belgians, based on this fiction, proceeded to implement what Jefremovas calls “a frankly racist set of policies” (p. 96) Among these were, (1) the issuing of identity cards that displayed one’s status as either ‘Tutsi’, ‘Hutu’ or ‘Twa’ (the minority ‘Bantu’ group), (2) only those labeled as Tutsi were allowed to attend schools designed to train new administrators, and (3) changes were made to legislation that allowed the violent subjugation of the Hutu and Twa groups.

She points out that the new ‘Tutsi’ elite also played their part in expanding the mythology of their own superiority: “The King, Rudahigwa, crystallised the ‘Tutsi ideology’ through research and publications on his dynastic history” (p. 97) It is at this point that we can say that the myth has firmly taken root in reality. The groups Tutsi and Hutu no longer denote a difference in roles and perhaps in class, but racial groups – the superior Tutsi ‘descended from Egypt’ and the inferior Hutu peasant over whom they ruled.

In the late 40’s and early 50’s, the Belgians found themselves under increasing pressure from the United Nations to implement administrative and social reforms. While they responded to these demands (at least in part) by allowing Hutus more access to education, they were still not allowed to enter positions of power. Some of these educated Hutus would later form the extremist Parmehutu Party and began to rewrite history anew, claiming that they were the original inhabitants of the region and alone had a claim to power within the country.

Tutsi tribesmen. More images from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

In the lead up to Rwandan independence in 1959, the Belgians began to champion the Hutus as the new ‘natural rulers’ of the country (p. 97) and when they finally withdrew in 1959, the country spiraled into chaos, with Hutus killing members of the Tutsi elite. While the exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that over 10,000 were killed. In 1962, the Parmehutu Party was elected and, “the reconstruction of the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ intensified. The first and only elected Rwandan government drew its strength from a pro-Hutu, racist ideology.” (p. 97) The original Belgian (and then Tutsi) myth finds its counter-point in the pro-Hutu myth. However different their fictions of history, the two are of the same DNA: they are cast in the same terms of racial superiority. It is not so much the pro-Hutu or pro-Tutsi ‘histories’ that proved dangerous, but the very imposition of the division.

The 1994 genocide was trigged by the assassination of the Hutu President Habyarimana. Since 1990, his government had been waging war with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a pro-Tutsi militia. The assassination followed the declaration of a tense cease-fire in 1993 and was met with immediate and widespread violence in which Hutus killed Tutsis en masse with whatever weapons they could find. The exact number of people killed is remains unknown. Estimates at time suggested it was between 500,000 and 1,000,000, with a more recent report finding that it could be closer to 2,000,000. Somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped and 67% of these were also infected with HIV as a result.

While blaming the mythology of the Belgians for the genocide would be an irresponsible simplification of a complex set of circumstances, it remains a significant factor. Jefremovas concludes, “Ethnicity was not invented by the Belgians, but a racial ideology was imposed on these categories” (p. 103) Although the Tutsi and Hutu groups existed prior to their arrival, the Belgians created a division between them that was not there before. This division was used to control and subdue the indigenous inhabitants of the country, which had previously been living in relative peace together. There may have been class tensions in pre-colonial Rwanda, but it was nothing like the gulf that would follow.


Villia Jefremovas, Contested Identities, Anthropologica, Vol. 39, No. 1/2, 1997

Adam Curtis, British Broadcasting Corporation, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, 2011

Recent Articles