Sunday, December 10, 2017


If you were at least a teenager during the 1990s, it’s hard not to escape the Rwanda of that decade. The horrific images dominated the news just as Syria does now. (I wonder what Syria will look like in 25 years??). I didn’t quite understand what it was all about entirely; I was 14 years old in 1994. But when I watched the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda many years later, it put a face to the events. 

Scene from the movie Hotel Rwanda
The name Rwanda means “land” and may be based on the word kwanda, meaning “expand” in the Kinyarwanda language. It may also be based on the similar Rwanda-Rundi word rwanda, which means “domain” or “place that’s occupied by a swarm.” Probably not the most pleasant of origins. 

Rwanda is located in eastern Africa and is surrounded by Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Lake Kivu (on of the deepest lakes in the world) is a significant body of water on the border with the DRC. This landlocked country is one of the smallest countries in Africa and only a few degrees north of the equator. The central and western portions of the country are fairly mountainous. Typically, they have two rainy seasons separated by a couple of dry ones, even though global warming has changed the amount of rain they get and the severity of storms.

Part of Volcano National Park
During the Iron Age, several groups that were part of the Bantu migration moved into this area. Most of these groups were hunter gatherers. There are a few theories about the origins of the Hutu and Tutsi groups, but most center around making a racial or classist distinction between the two groups. The Twa (pygmies) were also originally in the area, but later moved to the mountain areas as others moved in. There were about eight kingdoms here when the Kingdom of Rwanda began taking over some of the smaller ones. King Rwabugiri issued a ruling forcing Hutu to work for Tutsi chiefs, which exacerbated the rift between the Hutu and Tutsi. After the Berlin Conference of 1884, this land was put under German control, then called German East Africa. The Germans really didn’t change a whole lot and deferred most matters to local authorities. But then the Belgians took control of Rwanda and Burundi during WWI, combining the two into Ruanda-Urundi. The Belgians, like the Germans, still favored the Tutsis in control, but took it a step further by requiring people who have ID cards establishing which group they belonged to. Tensions arose, leading to the 1959 Rwandan Revolution that displaced nearly a hundred thousand people into nearby countries. In 1962, Rwanda finally broke off of Burundi and declared its own independence. Juvénal Habyarimana took over in a coup; however, the violence and tensions between the two groups continued for the next two decades. The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) invaded from their base in Uganda and all hell broke loose. When Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in 1994, it led to the infamous Rwandan Genocide. It’s estimated that between a half million and one million people died during a period of about 100 days. I remember journalists reporting that rivers were running red from the amount of bodies being dumped in the rivers. Although it took a long time to recover from the civil wars, Rwanda has taken several initiatives to a better quality of life. Rwanda is only one of two countries with a female majority in its national assembly (Bolivia is the other one.).

Kigali Convention Center
Centrally located, the capital and largest city in Rwanda is Kigali. The city actually wasn’t founded until 1907 when it was under German control. When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, they established the capital in Kigali. Traditionally, the capital city had been at Nyanza, which was where the seat of kings had been. The colonial capital had been in Astrida (now known as Butare). And Kigali only won out because of its central location. It grew rather quickly, although it was the center of the Rwandan Genocide. Today, it has over 1.1 million people. It’s the center of government, commerce, finance, transportation, and media. It also has several colleges and universities, museums, sports venues, restaurants and hotels, parks, shopping centers, and arts venues.
Ecotourism, especially to see mountain gorillas, is especially popular.
After the genocide, it took a while for Rwanda’s economy to recover, partnering with China, Germany, and the US for major exports. There aren’t that many natural resources in Rwanda at all, so many people depend on subsistence farming, mostly in sweet potatoes, cassava, matoke (green bananas), maize, potatoes, wheat, coffee, and beans. Even at that, there are a few minerals that are mined to go with a small manufacturing and industry side of the economy. Tourism, and especially ecotourism, has grown since reconstruction.

Because of European colonialism, Roman Catholicism is still the dominant religion in Rwanda. However, since the genocide, Protestantism has grown in numbers, and to a smaller degree, so has Islam. There’s an extremely low number of people who do not adhere to any religion while many people still hold onto traditional beliefs (although they’re often coupled with following a major religion at the same time).

Primarily, most Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, which is considered the official language. English and French are also official languages; English is the language most schools teach in, and French is left over from the Belgian occupation. Both French and English are also widely used in the African community, so it’s certainly an advantage to having a functional fluency. German is also used in certain aspects as well as Swahili, a lingua franca in East Africa.

Several years ago, Rwanda banned plastic bags. While initially, I thought (and probably a lot of environmentalists across the world) that this was a great thing. Right? I mean, plastic bags take FOREVER to dissolve, if ever. But I came across an article on Al Jazeera that said there’s also been an unexpected downside to all of this: it’s created an underground plastic bag smuggling operation. For many grocers, plastic bags are just more practical; as vegetables sweat, it dampens the paper bags, which just falls apart. People have gone to great lengths to sell plastic bags on the down low at a great risk—some who have been caught were handed six months’ jail sentence. So, while the intentions were good, there is probably a better way to handle situations like this. In the coming week, I’ll revisit these markets, except on the side of the food. And what I picked out sounds so good.

Up next: art and literature

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