Rwanda: a tiny country on the border of central and eastern Africa, today a bucolic setting with a strengthening economy, active involvement in the African Union, and the world’s highest percentage of women in parliament — with a colonial past, and a recent history of mass trauma.
The area of Rwanda was settled as early as 10,000 years ago, and by larger civilisations from approximately 3,000 BCE, ancestors of today’s Twa peoples. Both Tutsi and Hutu peoples migrated into the area at some later, undetermined time, and indeed, the existence of any distinction between them — a major source of discrimination that ultimately led to the 1994 massacre — is strongly debated. The clan group, an early form of civilisation which crossed ethnic lines and was a precursor to the formation of kingdoms, remains in the cultural psyche of the Rwandan people today. Foreign colonisation represents two other cultural influences, as well as the psychological impact of colonisation itself: first German (1884-1916), followed by Belgian (1916-1962) — both of whom maintained a Tutsi monarchy.
Rwanda’s recent history is filled with violence. The Social Revolution (1959-1961) was of Hutu against an entrenched and harsh Tutsi monarchy, and saw Hutu purges of Tutsi and the escape of more than 300,000 Tutsi refugees to neighboring countries, followed by dictatorial leaders and military coups. The civil war (1990-1994) with massacres of Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutu, ultimately led to the 1994 genocide of 500,000-1 million — in just 100 days, the brutality of which has no parallel.
How does a highly traumatised culture heal, and what might be the lingering effects? Paul Kagame, vice president of Rwanda 1994-2000 and president from then until now, grew up in Uganda as a Tutsi refugee and was leader of the Tutsi forces during the civil war. His policy of healing has focused on asking Tutsi victims to forgive Hutu perpetrators, carefully fostering a Rwandan identity toward the establishment of social cohesion, focusing on humanistic and egalitarian ideals, swift formation of a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, mandatory community service of 3 hours per month for all citizens, use of art for creative expression, and open dialogue — and national mourning. Not without his detractors, who point to violations of civil rights in a strong enforcement of the above, he has nevertheless led Rwanda to a highly functioning society today.
The aftermath of the 1994 genocide, triggered by the assassination of the president but considered by many experts to have been planned for more than a year, saw many who lost their entire families, 500,000 children who were orphaned, hundreds of thousands who were severely maimed, an estimated 250,000-500,000 women and girls raped, and the loss of 70% of the Tutsi population. The long-term impact of such mass physical and psychological trauma, including the element of betrayal — victims were most often attacked in their own villages, by people they knew well — cannot be overstated. There were also deep politics as well as deep prejudices at work: Tutsi terrorist groups had been active for some years prior, supported in part by US military; Belgian colonists had for many years emphasised distinctions between these two groups, considering Hutus inferior and supporting the Tutsi monarchy. This eruption of violence, following earlier violent episodes, ultimately sprung from more than a century of brutality and injustice — on both sides.
Several major genocide memorials and museums have been developed, including a complex in the capital of Kigali that also inters the remains of more than 250,000 victims. The purpose, in addition to providing people with a place of remembrance, is to educate — and to promote peace.
The trauma is never far from the minds of Rwandan people, even those who were born after that time — and open dialogue rather than repression of the topic is encouraged. The country has come a long way since then, however; today, the largely subsistence agriculture-based economy is the strongest it’s been, the government less corrupt and more transparent than nearly any other in the African continent. Free education was expanded in 2012 from 9 to 12 years of schooling, and under the Vision 2020 development programme, health care has been made a priority.
In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide and quest for healing, Rwanda prioritised egalitarianism — and as the country had lost so many men, women’s participation became highly valued. Rwanda has ranked among the world’s top 10 countries for gender equality for several years and now in the top 5, according to the Global Gender Gap Report [WEF]; with a quota of 30% for women in parliamentary positions, it actually has the world’s highest percentage: 64% as of 2013, a record again broken when it rose to 68% in the 2018 election, and 50% of both the cabinet and supreme court judgeship. The nation has the highest percentage in the continent for women in the labour force, with wages at 88% of men’s, and education for girls is strongly emphasised. However, there is still a high percentage of gender-based violence, especially domestic, and girls and women are often prevented from advancement to positions of leadership, in school and in the workforce — so, there’s still room for improvement.
Unlike most African countries — and despite the devastating and largely false distinctions made between Hutu and Tutsi — the people of Rwanda, including the Twa, come from the same ethnic group, Banyarwanda, and share a common language, Kinyarwanda, and heritage. They have long been an agricultural culture (though the Twa are hunter-gatherers to this day), with coffee as a primary export. Music, dance, and oral tradition are highly valued, especially in the form of festivals and other public events; a pop music industry is emerging. While traditional handcrafts were largely utilitarian, today in Kigali there are many galleries; notably, the Inema Art Center includes visual and performing arts, and also works with orphanages to mentor children: the arts as a form of empowerment.