Rwanda: What to know?

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Rwanda is a small, densely populated country in Central Africa, with a population of 9 million. The country has a complex history of ethnic tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups, which were exacerbated by colonial powers. After gaining independence in 1962, the country experienced a genocide in 1994 that killed over 800,000 Tutsi. Since then, the country has had a facade of democracy but remains essentially a one-party system. Travel to Rwanda is not recommended due to ongoing violence in neighboring countries.

Rwanda is a small country in Central Africa. It covers 10,100 square miles (26,800 square km), making it barely smaller than the state of Maryland. The country borders Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Uganda. The country is the most densely populated in all of Africa, with a population of 9 million.
Rwanda was first settled around 35,000 years ago by an ethnic group known as the Twa, who were eventually replaced by ancestors of the current Hutu ethnicity. It is a matter of debate whether the other major ethnic group in Rwanda, the Tutsis, were introduced via a third major migration, or are they actually an offshoot of the Hutu group.

Eventually the different people who lived in the area that is now Rwanda were all taken over by one powerful clan. The later kingdom was mostly uneventful until the late 16th century, when it expanded greatly outward. This expansion continued throughout the eighteenth century, through both military and cultural means. During the reign period, the Tutsi cultural group came to power, with a Tutsi king and mostly high-level Tutsi officials.

When Europe divided Africa among the various colonial powers, Rwanda came under the control of Germany. The Germans would play a vital role in further dividing Rwanda’s Tutsi and Hutu races. Physiologically the Tutsi exhibited traits that the Germans felt marked as “superior”, in particular their narrow “apparently white” noses and tall features. They have also shown more interest in converting to Catholicism. This led to the Germans placing them in positions of power, both over the nation and over their Hutu brethren, even though the latter made up over 80% of the population.

After World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda from Germany. For the most part Belgium continued to promote the Tutsi group along the same lines as the Germans did before, giving them greater power and access to education. Belgium was also much tougher in many ways than Germany, forcing the colony to be profitable and using quite abusive tactics to achieve this, mainly imposed by the Tutsi on the Hutu workers.

The ethnic divide between Tutsi and Hutu was encouraged and exacerbated by the colonial powers. Belgium issued racial identification cards, continued to promote Tutsis as inherently superior, and fabricated a whole story to justify their belief in one group’s racial superiority over another. This division continued to grow, and at the same time the Hutus began to develop a cohesive sense of being a collective group and a resistance to entrenched Tutsi rule.

After the assassination of a populist president in 1959, and subsequent rumors of the murder of a Hutu politician, this ethnic frustration eventually boiled over. The Hutu majority went on a rampage against the Tutsi, killing thousands, while thousands more fled across the borders. In 1960 the Belgian government allowed democratic elections, in which the Hutu were widely elected; not surprising, as they constituted the definitive majority of the country’s population. Over the next few years Tutsis attacked Rwanda from countries they had fled to, leading to a substantial Hutu backlash against the Tutsis remaining in the country, killing more than 10,000 people after the country finally gained independence in 1962.
In 1990, in response to the problem of more than 500,000 Tutsis living in virtual exile worldwide, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda, where they had trained and gathered forces. After a brief period of relative calm, the situation exploded following the assassinations of the Hutu president of Rwanda and the Hutu president of Burundi. This triggered a genocide in Rwanda that ultimately killed more than 800,000 Tutsi in the three months it took place before the country was seized by the Tutsi RPF.

Since the Tutsis took power the country has had a facade of democracy, though it remains essentially a one-party system despite a brief stint of having a Hutu president, who has been seen by most as a puppet of the military leader. and now president, Paul Kagame.

While Rwanda is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and is inexorably linked with images of gorillas and lush forests, it’s not recommended for travel except for the most seasoned adventurers. The country remains tense, with violence regularly pouring out of neighboring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those wishing to travel should avoid land routes to or from neighboring countries at all costs.

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