The Rwandan genocide of 1994 wasn’t an isolated event. It was the most horrific in a string of mass murders perpetrated by the Hutu against the Tutsi, and vice versa, since 1962, when Belgium granted independence to Rwanda and Burundi, two neighboring nations in Africa’s Great Lakes region.Read more about the Rwanda Genocide (click here for … Continued
The Rwandan genocide of 1994 wasn’t an isolated event. It was the most horrific in a string of mass murders perpetrated by the Hutu against the Tutsi, and vice versa, since 1962, when Belgium granted independence to Rwanda and Burundi, two neighboring nations in Africa’s Great Lakes region.Read more about the Rwanda Genocide (click here for information and purchase)Read more writing by Haki MadhubutiRead more poetry by Susan Kiguli
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Who’s a Hutu, Who’s a Tutsi?
Together, Hutus and Tutsis account for nearly all the people of Rwanda and Burundi. Roughly 90 percent of Rwandans are Hutu, while 9 percent are Tutsi. About 85 percent of Burundians are Hutu, and 14 percent are Tutsi. (The rest are mainly Twa, an indigenous pygmy people.)
Contact between the two groups dates back to the Tutsis’ arrival in Hutu territory six centuries ago. But, until the 20th century, they apparently got along well – so well, in fact, that experts now disagree, sometimes vehemently, about the nature of the differences between them.
Nature, or Nurture?
Some say there are racial differences. Tutsis are supposedly taller, thinner, and lighter-skinned, while Hutus are supposedly shorter, thicker, and darker-skinned. Yet others say these biometric measures are groundless, if not racist garbage. They point out that years of intermarriage have long since blurred racial boundaries – if they existed at all. The Hutu and the Tutsi aren’t much different ethnically, either. They speak the same languages (which used to be the Hutus’), follow essentially the same clan and kinship systems (borrowed from Tutsi traditions), and practice the same religions. Many in both groups are now Roman Catholic.
Ancient History, or Recent?
Hutu language and customs were well established in the Great Lakes region when the cattle-herding Tutsi started arriving around 1400. But the Tutsi brought more than livestock. They also brought a more sophisticated understanding of war, which eventually helped them dominate despite smaller numbers.
The Tutsi social and political system centered on a quasi-divine king (the “mwami”), who was surrounded by chiefs and sub-chiefs, each in charge of a single hill. Scholars have compared it to a feudal or caste system, with Hutus at the bottom and Tutsis at the top of the socioeconomic heap. Unlike some such systems, however, there seems to have been a fair amount of movement up and down the heap – at least until westerners arrived at the turn of the 20th century.
The westerners – mainly Belgians – used race not only for classification, but also for colonial administration. They issued ethnic identity cards and discriminated in favor of the minority Tutsi, who they perceived as closer to white. They then repeatedly played the race card to divide and rule Rwanda and Burundi. Whatever animosity existed between the Hutu and Tutsi before, the Belgians made it much worse.
Scylla, or Charybdis?*
By the time Rwanda and Burundi officially came into being in 1962, Hutu-Tutsi antagonism was causing trouble for both nations. A Rwandan Hutu revolt ousted the Tutsi king, who fled the country with some 200,000 other Tutsis. Many ended up in Burundi where, fearing a similar fate, the Tutsi powers-that-be cracked down hard on the local Hutu. In 1963, a group of exiled Rwandan Tutsis returned home as a rebel army, attempting to overthrow the Hutu government. They failed, but the effort prompted a large-scale massacre of Tutsis by Hutus, followed by smaller-scale reprisals. Then, in 1972, a Hutu uprising in Burundi resulted in widespread massacres by Tutsi-led forces, who killed at least 100,000 people, most of them Hutu.
*Being between Scylla and Charybdis is an idiom deriving from Greek mythology. Several other idioms, such as “on the horns of a dilemma”, “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, and “between a rock and a hard place” express the same meaning of “having to choose between two evils”.
Worse Comes to Worst
Horrific as they were, these massacres pale in comparison to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Hutu extremists carefully planned, then led, the murder of some 800,000 fellow Rwandans, mostly Tutsi. Hutus who refused to go along were murdered, too. A Hutu-controlled radio station repeatedly urged the nationwide slaughter on, shouting “The graves are not yet full!” Tutsi-led military forces eventually turned the tables, ousting the Hutu-dominated government and chasing the extremists (along with thousands of other Hutus) out of Rwanda. Across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the fighting continued, helping to precipitate a complex regional war that has claimed 3 million lives.
Officially, the Rwandan government now refuses to distinguish between Hutu and Tutsi. In this case, forcing everyone to toe the party line just might be a good idea.
Who has the moral high ground? Fifteen blocks from the whitehouse on small corners in northwest, d.c. boys disguised as me rip each other’s hearts out with weapons made in china. they fight for territory.
across the planet in a land where civilization was born the boys of d.c. know nothing about their distant relatives in Rwanda. they have never heard of the hutu or tutsi people. their eyes draw blanks at the mention of kigali, byumba or butare. all they know are the streets of d.c., and do not cry at funerals anymore. numbers and frequency have a way of making murder commonplace and not news unless it spreads outside of our house, block, territory.
modern massacres are intraethnic. bosnia, sri lanka, burundi, nagorno-karabakh, iraq, laos, angola, liberia, and rwanda are small foreign names on a map made in europe. when bodies by the tens of thousands float down a river turning the water the color of blood, as a quarter of a million people flee barefoot into tanzania and zaire, somehow we notice. we do not smile, we have no more tears. we hold our thoughts. In deeply muted silence looking south and thinking that today nelson mandela seems much larger than he is.
Haki R. Madhubuti (born Don Luther Lee on February 23, 1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas, United States) is a renowned African-Americanauthor, educator, and poet. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and served in the U.S. Army from 1960 to 1963.
Madhubuti is a major contributor to the Black literary tradition, in particular through his early association with the Black Arts Movementbeginning in the mid-60s, and which has had a lasting and major influence, even today. A proponent of independent Black institutions, Madhubuti is the founder, publisher, and chairman of the board of Third World Press (established in 1967), which today is the largest independent black-owned press in the United States.
Mothers Sing a Lullaby(after the 1994 Rwandan genocide)
Susan KiguliMothers sing a lullabyAs the dark descends on treesShutting out shadows.The sensuous voices swish and swirlAround shrubs and overgrown grassHiding mountains of decapitated deadAnd the glint of machetesThat slashed shrieking throats. In these camps without happinessMothers maintain the melody of lifeCapturing wistful windTo sing strength into the souls of childrenWho have never knownThe taste of morning porridgeOr heard the chirrup of crickets in the evenings. Mothers sing a lullabyFor the staring facesWho cringe at the sound of footstepsWhose playmates are grinning skeletons. Mothers become a lullabySilencing the sirens of sorrowRestoring compassion to the nation.
Susan Nalugwa Kiguli, born on June 24, 1969 in Luweero District, Uganda, is an internationally recognized Ugandan poet and literary scholar. Currently (as of 2011) a senior lecturer at Makerere University, Kiguli has been an advocate for creative writing in Africa, including service as a founding member of FEMRITE, as a judge for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (African Region 1999), and as an advisory board member for African Writers Trust. As a poet, Kiguli to date remains best known for her collectionThe African Saga;  as a scholar, for her work on oral poetry and performance.
BLOOD OF KINGS
Ndahiro BazimyaI am the son of scholarsSoldiers, warriors, dancersPoliticians, FarmersHerders, poetsAthletes, survivors’ I saw my father’s destinyrise,Despite all who opposedWho waitWith teeth gnashing and weapons readyFor his downfallAnd through which in strength and integritywill never come. I have listened to my mother’s voicePainting a picture through brown eyesOf her childhoodAbout her family’s noble lineage and dignityAnd the horror that changed it allThrough murder and destructionMen prayed for death, not gods My parents were pioneersRising above hateThe pride of Africa in their skinAs they led the wayIn that I was conceived inThird born of a new ara. Blood of AfricaBorn of the Western worldRaised with new ideasWhile holding tradiitionThe son who willBlaze through a new worldWhile keeping in his heart an old one.
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