Rise of Rwanda

The centralized kingdom of Rwanda gained prominence in east-central Africa and flourished for nearly a century under mythologized rulers Ruganza II Ndoori and Nyirarumaga. Despite the kingdom’s rise, it also was plagued by conflicts that continued through the century—and beyond—among the region’s Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa peoples.

Summary of Event

East-central Africa’s Great Lakes region witnessed the rise of several powerful kingdoms in early modern times. Among these was the mountainous realm of Rwanda, populated by three groups whose origins are clouded in much mystery and controversy. Its earliest inhabitants were Twa Pygmies Twa Pygmies , who were hunter-gatherers and potters. Eventually forming a marginalized 1 percent minority of Rwanda’s population, they were supplanted by Bantu-speaking migrants from the west, who make up more than 80 percent of all Rwandans. [kw]Rise of Rwanda (early 17th cent.)
[kw]Rwanda, Rise of (early 17th cent.)
Government and politics;Early 17th cent.: Rise of Rwanda[0020]
Expansion and land acquisition;Early 17th cent.: Rise of Rwanda[0020]
Africa;Early 17th cent.: Rise of Rwanda[0020]
Rwanda;Early 17th cent.: Rise of Rwanda[0020]

Traditionally, the pastoral Tutsi Tutsi , who dominated the area, were portrayed as a third people coming from the Horn of Africa in the fourteenth century. The Tutsi were dominant because they possessed cattle and had superior military and organizational skills, while the Bantu Bantu , whose original name remains unknown, became their servants, or hutu.

Fifteenth century Tutsi leader Ruganza Bwimba Ruganza Bwimba founded a kingdom near Rwanda’s current capital, Kigali. To the north, the Nilotic-ruled kingdom of Bunyoro Bunyoro (a region in what is now Uganda), Rwanda’s former overlord, remained dominant in the region, despite a series of droughts, devastating famines, political upheavals, and mass migrations that characterized the period from 1588 to 1621. In Rwanda, a political hierarchy emerged, dominated by Tutsi chiefs who were led by a Tutsi mwami (king), whose symbol was the kalinga (sacred drum). A biru (council of guardians) advised the mwami on his religious duties and court rituals. A council of great chiefs, the batware b’intebe, oversaw cattle chiefs and land chiefs, who collected the tribute all Rwandans paid the mwami.

Subservient to these chiefs were the subchiefs, each of whom governed an umozozi (hill). Military chiefs controlled frontier areas and raided neighboring tribes. In contractual arrangements known as ubuhake, Hutu Hutu farmers pledged their own and their descendants’ homage, services, and crops to Tutsi lords in return for protection and the use of cattle and land. Though always unequal and comparable to medieval European manorialism, ubuhake was traditionally based on reciprocity, and it protected the Hutu from the arbitrary demands of other Tutsi.

Rwanda’s royal court recorded its deeds in the Icitekerezo
Icitekerezo (bequest to posterity), a collection of oral histories and symbolic poetry. Said to have ancient origins, it relates humanity’s divine origin and the superhuman status of savior-kings, who are able to mediate with God and engage in sacred warfare for their people’s defense. However, such official histories are more often reflections of power than historical fact. According to the Icitekerezo, scattered Hutu and Twa groups inhabited Rwanda when the conquering Tutsi arrived from the north in the tenth century. Introducing centralized monarchy, cattle, iron, and other “advancements,” the Tutsi (specifically, the royal Nyiginya clan) developed a powerful, cohesive state from chaos. In one of the Icitekerezo’s allegorical myths, the god Kigwa entrusts each of his three sons—Gatutsi, Gahutu, and Gatwa—with the safekeeping of milk overnight. By morning, Gatwa had drunk his milk, Gahutu had spilled his, and only Gatutsi returned his safely. Thus, only Gatutsi was qualified to rule.

The Icitekerezo provides evidence of one Hutu contribution to Rwanda’s creation. When Tutsi prince Cyilima I Rugwe Cyilima I Rugwe succeeded his father in the 1500’, he went to Hutu diviner Umurera, who refused the prince’s gifts until Cyilima swore a blood pact with him. The prince relented and obtained wise advice, which led him to create an independent Rwanda by linking Tutsi military power with Hutu supernatural power. However, nowhere else are Hutu roles recognized, despite evidence that royal practices, such as the renewal of sacred fires and the reforging of ritual implements, were Hutu in origin.

In the early 1600’, Rwanda faced succession disputes and invasions from Bunyoro. According to the Icitekerezo, Ruganza II Ndoori Ruganza II Ndoori , a herder of Nyiginya royal blood, had been journeying home from neighboring Karagwe (now a district in northwestern Tanzania) when he encountered a band of men who were sent by his greedy, usurping uncle Byinshi Byinshi to assassinate him. Byinshi was trying to prevent Ruganza’s return as rightful heir. Famed as a runner, Ruganza dashed away. A humble young woman named Nyirarumaga Nyirarumaga allowed him to hide in her home, which Byinshi’s henchmen searched in vain. Ruganza, however, had escaped through a hole under the floor. Different versions of this tradition claim that the hole was a snake’s den, a rabbit warren, a monkey’s cave, or the underground lair of a mythical animal named Inyaga. The being that lived there, whether Inyaga or not, aided Ruganza by tunneling through the mountain into Rwanda.

Ruganza was able to claim the throne, but before his royal consecration, he needed a nyiraruganza (Queen Mother, or Lady Commander). Because his own mother was deceased, he needed an adoptive mother. The mwami sent for Nyirarumaga, the woman who earlier had saved Ruganza’s life, considering her a second mother to Ruganza. Hence, a commoner was raised to be elective mother and consort of Rwanda’s greatest early king, just as Ruganza had risen from the umwoobo w’Inyaga (hole of Inyaga) to the throne.

Ruling in peace and stability, Ruganza and Nyirarumaga revived Rwandan culture by collecting royal myths, rituals, poetry, and genealogies. Named mwungura wunguye Ingoma Ubwenge (augmenters of the kingdom’s wisdom), they established the Intebe y’Abasizi (seat of poets), an institution for recording and teaching epics and training poets. The Icitekerezo was further developed by Nyirarumaga and Ruganza, both of whom composed some of its poems. Poetry;Rwanda

Building on Ruganza Bwimba’s earlier state in central Rwanda, Ruganza Ndoori fended off Bunyoro and subdued outlying Hutu communities. Around 1700, Rwanda’s growth was halted roughly at its current borders by increasingly powerful Burundi Burundi . Beset by succession disputes and rebellions, its early rival Bunyoro was eclipsed by Buganda Buganda by 1800.

During the nineteenth century reign of Mwami Kigeri IV Rwabugiri Kigeri IV Rwabugiri , hutu and tutsi became politically charged terms with ethnic meanings. The royal court established a complex network of centrally appointed chiefs. Backed by a military force, this centralization strained relations between Tutsi chiefs and their Hutu subjects. Later, Europeans became important allies of mwami, who submitted to German protection without resistance in 1899. Ruling through the mwami, Germans and later Belgians bolstered royal policies. The precolonial ideology of Tutsi superiority was solidified under the Europeans, who transformed once-fluid categories into rigid, ethnic divisions. The gap grew between the rulers and ruled. Ubuhake became more coercive and inescapable.


During the colonial era, Rwanda’s first written histories entrenched Tutsi supremacy with the racially charged Hamitic hypothesis, which claimed that the Tutsi were of Hamitic origin, tied to the Caucasian Middle East, whereas the Bantu Hutu arose from an inferior “Black Africa.” The Rwandan royal court adopted revised histories, which exaggerated tribal roles even further and gave spurious longevity and continuity to the Nyiginya Dynasty. Officially, the Hutu were only passive recipients of good, strong Tutsi government, presided over by mwami, whose divine attributes had been established by earlier myths, especially those associated with Ruganza II Ndoori. Physical characteristics distinguishing many Tutsi, such as tall, thin builds, thin noses, and light skin, provided evidence to confirm this view. However, these attributes, just as likely to have Nilotic origins, were common only among the 10 percent of Tutsi who were nobles.

Recent scholarship has demythologized Nyiginya and colonial versions of Rwanda’s history. Identities were far more flexible and varied than previously thought. Successful or locally powerful Hutu were adopted into Tutsi lineages, and their origins were forgotten. All Rwandans speak the same Kinyarwanda language, and their clans contain Hutu, Tutsi, and even Twa, which suggests common descent or at least the inclusion of migrants into existing clans. Identities also appear to relate to one’s proximity to the mwami. Those with loose ties to the court may not have distinguished Hutu and Tutsi at all. Hence, ethnic identities may be recent, political constructions.

After World War II, the Belgians reversed their policies and backed the increasingly politically active Hutu, undoing the system they helped build. Ubuhake was abolished in 1954, though Hutu dependence on Tutsi overlords continued. The Catholic Church supported the Hutu, many of whom had been schooled by Flemish priests who had been treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

Hutu activism, voiced in the 1957 Bahutu Manifesto, resurrected and reversed the Hamitic hypothesis, claiming that the Hutu’s oppressors were the Tutsi, not the Europeans. Seeing the Tutsi as foreign threats, militant Hutu nationalists overthrew the system in 1959 and laid the groundwork for the genocide that would take place thirty-five years later, in 1994.

Further Reading

  • Chrétien, Jean-Pierre. The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History. Translated by Scott Straus. New York: Zone Books, 2003. An excellent history drawing on colonial archives, oral traditions, and archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic evidence.
  • Des Forges, Alison. Leave None to Tell the Story. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999. This report links Rwanda’s early history with the 1994 genocide.
  • Maquet, Jacques. The Premise of Inequality in Ruanda. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. Published immediately after Rwandan independence, Maquet’s study details the Tutsi hierarchy’s hold on Rwanda.
  • Newbury, Catharine. The Cohesion of Oppression: Clientship and Ethnicity in Rwanda. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. This excellent work examines historical relationships among Rwanda’s groups.
  • Prunier, Gérard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Chapter 1 is a survey of the myths and dynamics of early Rwanda.
  • Vansina, Jan. Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. Vansina guides readers through Rwanda’s often-complicated history, analyzing and even correcting the records of early missionaries and court historians. He describes the formation of Hutu and Tutsi identities, explores their differences and their bitter feuds, and examines how Rwanda’s past informs its twenty-first century identity as a nation.

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