The Ethnic Question
Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa don’t exist in Rwanda anymore—at least, according to the government. Eliminating (or, rather, attempting to eliminate) the concept of ethnicity is one main tactic the government is employing to try to move the country forward, to remove the perceived gap between them.
But the gap still exists. Where I lived, all of my friends (and coworkers) were Tutsi. This was not by choice, but it was the simple fact that they were the people with whom I most came in contact. They tended to be well-educated and spoke English and French in addition to Kinyarwanda and Swahili. They tended to grow up in towns, not villages. They tended to come from more privileged backgrounds, despite suffering disfavor in the post-independence era.
During the week, I would venture out into remote villages, where I would talk to some of Rwanda’s poorest people. The vast majority of the villagers I met were Hutu. They lived in destitute conditions, most in stick-and-mud huts with one bed of packed straw which the family shared together. There was usually a “stove” made of an old can of American vegetable oil or a pile of volcanic rocks. Babies without pants chewed on trash and defecated on the dirt floor. Chickens fluttered through, pecking at bits of leaves and errant kernels of corn. These villagers live off parcels of land that are often as big as the average American living room, and the food that it provides can hardly feed one person for a year, let alone the large families of six or seven (or more) that are often found in the villages. The difference in the quality of life between Gisenyi and villages ten minutes outside of Gisenyi are shocking. And as Tutsis tend to be more concentrated in the towns and Hutus tend to be more concentrated in the villages, the socio-economic division continues, and could foment unrest.
The government has taken some important steps to win over the minds of village Hutus, some of whom view Kagame’s presidency as the symbol of a Tutsi government. The first appealed to basic needs: water and education. There are now public water taps within walking distance of even the most remote villages. The government has even been remarkably progressive in teaching the people that they shouldn’t expect utilities to be free (a lesson which will be useful as the country further develops and utilities like electricity become more widely available), and charges 10 francs ($0.02) per jerrycan of water.
Education in the villages before 1994 was difficult to access; if it was available, it required kids leaving the fields to study, a luxury most families couldn’t afford. Tutsis, who tended to inhabit the cities and towns, were able to go to school. The difference in educational opportunities widened the socioeconomic fissure between Hutus and Tutsis.
Now, primary education is available everywhere, and it’s free. The vast majority of rural families I interviewed sent their kids to primary school, even if they themselves hadn’t ever attended. Villagers seemed to be happy that their children, many of whom, they concede, will likely be cultivators like them, are learning to read and write. That said, secondary education remains so expensive (about $150 a year) that urban children (generally Tutsi) make up the vast majority of the student body. In a society where jobs are increasingly asking for at least a university degree (higher degrees preferred), students who can’t attend secondary school for financial reasons are left behind. In other words, the gap remains.
Interestingly, the government is also using psychology in their quest for reconciliation. Having understood that the reason that the youth had cultivated so much hatred of other ethnicities was due to the fact that the youths’ minds were shaped by their parents from a young age, the government is using a similar strategy to teach kids the opposite—that there is no ethnicity, and that everyone is simply Rwandan. The program is implemented through schools, churches, and a National Youth Council with representatives at even the lowest levels. Since I didn’t feel comfortable discussing—er, nonexistent ethnicities, I wasn’t able to get a real sense of whether the programs were working in the villages. Did I mention that it’s illegal to discuss the ethnicities at all? I didn’t feel like standing trial during my time there, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to put any Rwandans into that position.
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I did manage to talk around the proverbial “elephant in the room” with several of my friends. All in their 20s, they were all Tutsi, except for one, who was half-Belgian. “I have no problem with people of another tribe,” B. said. “I live with one and have dated some. We’re all Rwandan. But my family has asked me if I would trust my roommate if there were another war.” He didn’t provide an answer to that question. Another friend said that his family expressed concerns about a mixed (Hutu/Tutsi) child. “If there were another war, which side would the child choose?” It seemed simpler just to keep everyone separate.
One friend was half-Hutu and half-Tutsi, and was dating a Tutsi. He wasn’t afraid to discuss the issue, since he wasn’t in the country during the war. “I don’t care about the girl’s tribe, as long as she’s cute, you know?” My half-Belgian friend agreed. “I’m an equal opportunity dater when it comes to hot girls.” (Sometimes it becomes very clear that Rwandan guys don’t differ much from American guys.)
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The ethnic question in Rwanda is complex and historical. (I had mentioned it earlier here.) The three tribes peacefully coexisted for years—the Twa pygmies originally inhabited the land. Then Hutu cultivators moved onto Rwanda’s lush terrain, followed by Tutsi cattle-raisers who came in from the north. Cattle has always been more lucrative than produce in agrarian societies, and the Tutsis, as a result, gained political power; the mwamis (spiritual leaders and kings) were all Tutsi.
During the era of colonialism, the Germans and the Belgians trampled into Rwanda, miraculously preserving the country’s historical boundaries largely intact (Ruanda-Urundi chose to split under UN supervision in 1961) but placing more emphasis on the tribal divide in order to control the population. Anyone with a certain number of cattle on census day was deemed a Tutsi, whether or not they were really ethnically Tutsi. Many Rwandans I know point to this to prove that the differences in ethnicities are fabricated, that there was considerable crossover long ago which blurred the lines. I disagree. I’m certain that quite a few ethnic Hutu found themselves to be called “Tutsi” on census day, but since raising cattle was a specific tribal practice, it can be assumed that the vast majority of those who were labeled “Tutsi” actually were.
The rest of the story, of course, is that the Belgians exploited the differences between the two tribes, favoring Tutsis and providing them with more opportunities. This generated resentment among the Hutu population, which began to exact its revenge in 1959, when the Belgians began to hand over power to the Hutus in advance of independence (the Belgians, 50 years too late, had been struck by the revelation that governments should be run with the will of the majority). Ineffective governance led to a continuation of the socio-economic status quo—that Tutsis primarily occupied the educated classes—and starting in 1990 and culminating in 1994, the terror began again.
So how is the country now? Peaceful, on the surface. The government estimates, however, that 30 percent of the population still maintains genocidal opinions, but I’m not sure if that’s accurate. Perhaps the willful ignorance of the ethnic differences is actually working, in a sense—there is general calm, despite the fact that everyone can still generally tell at a glance who belongs to which tribe. Most people are tired of war, many are scarred, and most Tutsis I’ve talked to still fear another genocide. But others talk of how few Hutu leaders they see, and they talk of the continued poverty of Hutu-dominated villages. The country is still unbalanced, and the longer it remains that way, the more likely that resentment could bubble up again. Just ignoring the ethnic issue won’t work. Perhaps what Rwanda needs to move forward are equal educational opportunities and their own brand of affirmative action.