Every year at CU Boulder I saw students and self entitled “explorers” “wander” to Rwanda to see the victims of the horrendous genocide. They played the humble witness sanctimoniously taking pictures with groups of black Rwandan kids. They shed the ceremonious tear and felt the horror and grief that is “the real Africa.” In the air conditioned classrooms the following Fall they’d pledge their undying love to the people of Africa and their devotion to saving them while giggling about their amazing tan and the adorable kids “who taught us, more than we taught them.” You get the picture.
I’m not saying these are disingenuous actions, feelings, or words. These students were doing what they had been taught to do: “save Africa.” After all their parents had reprimanded them: “be grateful for those peas on your plate there are kids starving in Africa.” After all they had seen nothing but evidence of Africa’s misery in media, by humanitarian organizations, even in college classes where true experts on Africa are scarce and classes are often bereft of depth. These cautionary tales meant to remind us to be thankful, but more than that be particularly grateful we aren’t African. Because Africa is filled to the brim with famine, corruption, dictatorship, tribalism, primitive and violent practices, weird traditions and superstitions.
We like to pretend we’ve moved beyond believing Africa was the “Heart of Darkness.” But we haven’t. We’ve repackaged it into words that sound fitting for our “impeccable liberalism.” It doesn’t help of course that every outbreak of violence or conflict in Africa is also reported on by a media that overwhelmingly understands little about Africa. And so the Rwandan genocide seemed, to the average American, to confirm the savagery, brutality, and pointless tribalism of Africans. It was easy to stare down our noses at a country whose black citizens were hacking apart other black citizens. Average “developed world” citizens ate up the images of black bodies chopped apart and said “this is Africa.”
So yes, victims were mainly Tutsi peoples and the Hutu moderates protecting them. Yes, the killers were mainly Hutu. However, what the Rwandan Genocide actually exemplified was the vicious cycle of African colonization. Colonizers established tribal politics through divide and conquer strategies in response to what they perceived. They perceived what they expected to see. A people descendant from Abraham who ruled over the lesser African herdsmen. They perceived a rigid, tribal hierarchy; a projection of their prejudice and European societies own rigid class and race hierarchies. Then they “maintained” the political structures in the hierarchical and discriminatory laws of colonial Rwanda. It was a self confirming assumption. Confirmation bias at its extreme.
They split and defined, even registered the “tribes” by physical differences. Tutsis were the more European looking Africans. “longer and leaner faces, bodies, noses, lips” basically they were lighter skinned Africans who more closely resembled Europeans’ norm. Hutus in contrast were darker, “stocky,” “square,” with broad features and flatter noses, their blackness was blacker. But even today discerning if someone is Hutu or Tutsi is not easily or correctly done by sight. The truth is the difference is more theoretical than practical. Just as the difference in how they lived was more theoretical than actual.
Additionally, the Hamitic myth of Noah and his lost African sons that had “justified” and in some ways propelled European exploration and colonization of Africa served again as justification for European’s white Christian ideology. Tutsi’s were descendants of Christians, they could be saved.
In reality though ethnicity was relatively unimportant. African societies mixed, “tribe” was fluid. Marriage, children, and fluctuations of cattle, could all shift the “tribe” you societally identified or self-identified as. Rwandans nearly all spoke the same language Kinyarwanda. This all changed with German rule in which the roles were set and social mobility stagnant. After World War I, when the German’s lost Rwanda, Belgium Colonial policies continued to upset this fluidity and instead put in place rigid inequality in its stead. Insanity! European’s gave privilege and power to Tutsi’s and enforced policies that hurt Hutu’s. They created a conflict between the “tribes” they had rigidified and partly created.The same divide and conquer strategies were deployed in many other countries in Africa where “ethnic violence” seems to rear its ugly head “constantly.”
The Hutu’s began revolting against this twisted hierarchy of race from 1959 to 1961. This social revolution reached what seemed to be a conclusion by the time Rwanda gained independence in 1962. The Hutu majority (of around 85% of Rwanda’s population) now had power over the Tutsi minority that had previously been made implicit in Hutu subjugation through colonial policies. Civil war split along these no longer so artificial lines exacerbated tensions between majority power and the minority (Tutsis) who had previously held power. A plan was put in place to eliminate the Tutsi “problem.” When Habyrarimana’s plane was shot down in 1994; the president was killed. The Hutu Power plan was sparked and direct orders over Hutu Power radio stations was given. “Kill the cockroaches.”
Who was responsible for the president’s assassination is still hotly debated. Some claim the Hutu’s arranged his assassination and blamed it on the Tutsi’s in order to spark the necessary rage and political instability to execute a genocide. Others claim it truly was the Tutsi’s resentful of being dethroned and struggling to get their power back. However, the evidence may lean towards a conspiracy in Habyrarimana’s inner circle due to the timing of his assassination, numerous testimonies, and the missile fire. Habyrarimana was likely to sign a peace agreement with Rwandan Tutsi rebels who were forced to leave the country during the previous civil war.
The truth is that religion, ethnicity, and race do not intrinsically set us apart nor against one another. They can be rather inconsequential to how your life works day to day. Colonialism makes these identities matter. Colonialism makes them mean everything.
What happened in Rwanda does not confirm that Africans in general are primitive beings and warring tribes. It confirms that colonialism left tangible and intangible legacies. The Western response to Rwanda proves that we aren’t far from the mindsets of Europeans that created these issues to begin with.