The Hutu Jacobin Revolution, 1959

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 2251-2292:

The Tutsis are not shepherds or nomads; they are not even breeders. They are the owners of the herds, the ruling caste, the aristocracy.

The Hutus, on the other hand, constitute the much more numerous and subordinate caste of farmers (in India they are called Vaisyas). The relations between the Tutsis and the Hutus were authentically feudal—the Tutsi was the lord, the Hutu his vassal. The Hutus lived by cultivating land. They gave a portion of their harvest to their master in exchange for protection and for the use of a cow (the Tutsis had a monopoly on cattle; the Hutus could only lease them from their seigneurs). Everything according to the feudal order—the dependence, the customs, the exploitation.

Gradually, toward the middle of the twentieth century, a dramatic conflict arises between the two castes. The object of the dispute is land. Rwanda is small, circumscribed, and densely populated. As often in Africa, a battle erupts between those who make their living raising cattle and those who cultivate the land. Usually, however, the spaces on the continent are so great that one side can move onto unoccupied territory and the sparks of war are extinguished. In Rwanda, such a solution is impossible—there is no place to go, nowhere to retreat to. Meantime, the Tutsis’ herds increase and need ever more grazing land. There is but one way to create new pastures: by taking land from the peasants, i.e., by ejecting the Hutus from their territories. But the Hutus are already cramped. Their numbers have been swelling rapidly for years. Making matters worse, the lands they farm are poor, for all intents and purposes infertile. The mountains of Rwanda are covered with a very thin layer of soil, so thin that when the rainy season comes each year, the downpours wash away large stretches of it, and in many places where the Hutus had their little fields of manioc and corn, naked rock now glistens.

So, on the one side, the powerful, expanding herds of cattle—the symbol of Tutsi wealth and strength; and on the other the squeezed, huddled, increasingly displaced Hutus. There is no room, there is no land. Someone must leave, or perish. Such is the situation in Rwanda in the fifties, when the Belgians enter the picture. They have suddenly become highly involved: Africa is just then at a critical juncture, there is a surging wave of liberation, of anticolonialism, and there is pressure to act, to make decisions. Belgium is among those powers whom the independence movement has caught most by surprise. Thus, Brussels has no game plan, its officials do not really know what to do. As is usual in these circumstances, their response is to delay finding real solutions, to stall. Until now, the Belgians ruled Rwanda through the Tutsis, leaning on them and using them. But the Tutsis are the most educated and ambitious sector of the Banyarwanda, and it is they who now are demanding freedom. And they want it immediately, something for which the Belgians are utterly unprepared. So Brussels abruptly switches tactics: it abandons the Tutsis and begins to support the more submissive, docile Hutus. It begins to incite them against the Tutsis. These politics rapidly bear fruit. The emboldened, encouraged Hutus take up arms. A peasant revolt erupts in Rwanda in 1959.

In Rwanda, alone in all of Africa, the liberation movement assumed the form of a social, antifeudal revolution. In all of Africa, only Rwanda had its siege of the Bastille, its dethronement of the king, its Gironde and its terror. Groups of peasants, enraged, inflamed Hutus armed with machetes, hoes, and spears, moved against their masters-rulers, the Tutsis. A great massacre began, such as Africa had not seen for a long time. The peasants set fire to the households of their lords, slit their throats, and crushed their skulls. Rwanda flowed with blood, stood in flames. A massive slaughter of cattle began; the peasants, often for the first time in their lives, could eat as much meat as they wished. At the time, the country had a population of 2.6 million, including 300,000 Tutsis. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Tutsis were murdered, and as many fled to neighboring states—to the Congo, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Burundi. The monarchy and feudalism ceased to exist, and the Tutsi caste lost its dominant position. Power was now seized by the Hutu peasantry. When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, it was members of that caste who formed the first government. At its head was a young journalist, Grégoire Kayibanda. I was visiting Rwanda for the first time then. My memories of Kigali, the capital, are of a small town. I was unable to find a hotel; perhaps there wasn’t one. Some Belgian nuns finally took me in, letting me sleep in the maternity ward of their neat little hospital.

The Hutus and the Tutsis awoke from such a revolution as from a bad dream. Both had lived through a massacre, the former as its perpetrators, the latter as its victims, and such an experience leaves a painful and indelible mark. The Hutus have mixed emotions. On the one hand, they vanquished their masters, cast off the feudal yoke, and for the first time attained power; on the other hand, they did not defeat their lords in an absolute way, did not annihilate them, and this consciousness, that the enemy was painfully wounded but still lives and will seek vengeance, sowed in their hearts an insuppressible and mortal fear (let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality, that the immemorial right of reprisal has always regulated interpersonal, private, and clan relations here). And there is a lot to be afraid of. For although the Hutus seized the mountainous fortress of Rwanda and established their rule there, a Tutsi fifth column, numbering around 100,000, remains within its borders; furthermore, and perhaps even more dangerously, the fortress is encircled by the encampments of Tutsis expelled from it yesterday.


Filed under Belgium, democracy, economics, nationalism, Rwanda, war

4 responses to “The Hutu Jacobin Revolution, 1959

  1. Pingback: Rwanda can't achieve reconciliation without fixing its democracy

  2. Pingback: Rwanda can’t achieve reconciliation without fixing its democracy – NewsWave

  3. Pingback: Rwanda Can’t Achieve Reconciliation Without Genuinely Opening Democratic Space

  4. Pingback: Rwanda can’t achieve reconciliation without fixing its democracy – Today in Kenya

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