Encounters with conflict and peace

What's this Hutu Tutsi thing?

The genocide was the result of high-risk politics in Rwanda, rather than some revival of “ancient tribal hatreds”. But the roots of those politics reach back into the country’s history.

Tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups had been made worse by Rwanda's colonial rulers – Germany from the 1890s, then Belgium from the First World War. They both reinforced the Tutsi’s position of power within Rwandan society, making the Hutus even more resentful.

Dependence, customs and exploitation

Ryszard Kapuscinski
"As a rule, the populations of African states are multitribal. (Congo is inhabited by 300 tribes, Nigeria by 250), whereas only one group inhabits Rwanda, the Banyarwanda, a single nation divided into three castes: the Tutsi cattle owners (14 percent of the population), the Hutu farmers (85 percent), and the Twa labourers and servants (1 percent).

Their greatest, and really sole wealth, was cattle: the zebu cows, a breed characterised by long, beautiful, swordlike horns. The cow was the measure of everything: wealth, prestige, power. The more cattle one had, the richer one was; the richer one was, the more power one had. The king owned the most cattle, and his herds were under special protection.

“The Tutsi?” I often heard in Rwanda. “The Tutsi sits on the threshold of his house and watches the herds grazing on the mountainside. The sight fills him with pride and happiness.” The Hutus, on the other hand, constitute the much more numerous and subordinate caste of farmers. The relations between the Tutsis and the Hutus were authentically feudal - the Tutsi was the lord, the Hutu his vassal.

The Hutus lived by cultivating land. They gave a portion of their harvest to their master in exchange for protection and the use of a cow (the Tutsi had a monopoly on cattle; the Hutus could only lease them). Everything according to the feudal order - the dependence, the customs, the exploitation.

from The Shadow of the Sun - my African Life

Beliefs are more powerful than 'facts'

There is no agreed-on history of early Rwanda. This is partly due to the difficulties of re-creating the history of an oral society and partly because of the distorted and sometimes racist eye-witness accounts by early colonisers. But the main difficulty is the fact that the
arguments over history have become important politically.

Peter Uvin says that, in trying to understand or explain the Rwandan genocide, it really isn’t important to know exactly what the history was between Hutu and Tutsi.
The things that actually affect societies are the perceptions which people share. If people have a shared belief that one group is different - not like them - then that group WILL be set apart, regardless of “the facts.”

This is important when we start looking for solutions to conflicts. Arguing over “the facts” is usually another way of looking for someone to blame - “he started it!” But working with peoples’ perceptions gives them the chance to see things from someone else’s point of view.

roots of genocide
Related pages
history of conflict

Real differences
"You will never see the source of a genocide. It is buried too deep in grudges, under an accumulation of misunderstandings that we were the last to inherit...
ID cards

Early colonists - the Germans and the Belgians - brought a strange collection of pseudo-scientific race theories. They also found the Tutsi easier to deal with, so decided that the Tutsi were probably...
Rwanda timeline

Shaping Rwanda
The division between Hutu and Tutsi was sometimes blurred. Some Hutu bought cattle and some Tutsis became poor peasants, but there evolved over time a dangerous sense...
Laura: I came to Rwanda
Laura loves Rwanda - the landscape and the culture - but clearly remembers a darker time when she returned to Rwanda with her family, as a seven year old... ...
Building peace
Laura: "The most dangerous ideas are the ones that tell people they are different..."
A good man
Olivier talks about how his grandfather was killed during the genocide.
"We know you're a good person but we have orders to kill you, so this is what we're going to do...

< previous page    |    next page >