People & Culture
The affectionate hospitality best describes Rwanda’s culture and people together with the thrill of its intore culture dancers and singers, of which some have referred to Rwanda as a land of a million smiles. The country has a population of about 9.1million people of which close to 1 to 2 million live in Kigali, the country’s capital thus leading to the fact that over 85% of the population live in rural areas.
This is one of the few countries on the African continent with one common language and culture that is the Kinyarwanda. Many people who have had a chance to visit Rwanda have been amused if not intrigued by the actuality that Rwandans are harmoniously living together after the Genocide that threatened to ruin the social fabric and destroy the centuries of long interactions among them.
After the genocide, the people of Rwanda share the common aspirations as it used to be in the past and also live together in harmony. The Rwandan people have a diversity of music and dance with an assortment of acts that express epics celebrating excellence and bravery, humorous lyrics and hunting roots. Intore Dance Troup is the finest model of Rwanda’s varied and dynamic traditional musical and dance style. A wide range of traditional handicrafts is produced in rural Rwanda, ranging from ceramics and baskets to traditional and contemporary woodcarvings.
Dancing to the beat
Rwanda has a rich custom of celebrations involving music and dance. At celebrations, dances are often backed by an ‘orchestra’ of drums, with up to nine players providing the beat.
A set of nine drums typically has a soprano (the smallest drum), a tenor, alto, two baritones, two bass and two double bass (the largest drums).
Today, modern music and gospel hymns are popular in Rwanda, although some people still prefer the traditional folk songs which are very often accompanied by a lone inanga, a zither instrument with a soundboard and up to eight strings.
One of the oldest Rwandan music and dance groups is the Intore Dance Troupe. The Intore – literally meaning ‘the Chosen Ones’ – were founded several centuries ago, when they performed at the court of the Rwandan mwami or king. Today, they perform across the country and also at the National Museum in Huye (Butare).
Kinyarwanda is the mother-tongue of most people of Rwanda although almost everyone speaks a little one of the three languages including French, Swahili or English.
The trading languages in East Africa include; Swahili and English, thus most Rwandans use the two languages when dealing with the other East African counterparts.
Well-educated Rwandans often speak fluent French. But after the ethnic violence in 1994, a number of migrants returned home to help rebuild their country. Coming back from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania or the USA, these returnees tend to speak English as their second language.
As it is anywhere in the world where by a stranger speaking your language seems interesting, Rwandans really appreciate it when visitors speak a few words in their mother tongue of Kinyarwanda. Even saying ‘Muraho’ (good day) or ‘amakuru’ (how are you?) will bring a smile to their faces.
Christianity is the most pronounced religious belief with over two-thirds of Rwandans being Christian, mainly Catholic, though smaller evangelical churches are becoming more popular.
Many Rwandans though still hold to their ancestors’ traditional beliefs. These centre around a supreme being called the Imana. People often hold informal ceremonies asking for the Imana’s blessing.
Women sometimes leave a few drops of water in a jar at night so that the potter has some water with which to work the clay because the Imana is believed to help in the creation of children inside the mother’s womb by shaping the clay which forms us.
History of Rwanda
The name Rwanda is derived from the verb ‘kwanda’ in the local Kinyarwanda language, which means ‘to enlarge, to grow’. Oral traditions describe medieval Rwanda as a tiny kingdom of just a few square miles. The country is in other words originally comprised of many small kingdoms that emerged in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. The earliest known inhabitants of Rwanda were pygmy hunter-gatherers; ancestors to the Twa population that today comprise 1% of the national population.
Prior to the 15th century, a ruler named Gihanga forged a centralized Rwandan state that comprised of cattle-owning nobility, the modern-day Tutsis, and of an agriculturist majority, the modern-day Hutus. The pygmy Twa minority were forest hunters. The kingdom of Rwanda was founded in the 16th century, in the East. The kingdom developed through conquest and alliance, expanding and incorporating neighboring kingdoms and chieftaincies. This means that the country was established based on a complex system of political and economic ties, rather than shared cultural identity. All three groups, however, speak the same language, practice the same religion and cohabit in the same territory. They essentially share the same culture, although each group traditionally had a specific socially proscribed public role.
It was colonial rule, which officially began in 1895, that was the primary force leading to the emergence of the Rwandan national identity. Following the 1885 Berlin Conference, Rwanda became a German colony, although a permanent German presence was not established in the country for another full decade. In 1919, Rwanda was mandated to Belgium. This mandate led to the implementation of a system that intensified already existing divisions and polarizations between the Tutsi and the Hutu population. German and Belgian policies were based on the concept of indirect rule, and sought to administer their colonies through existing structures of power. In Rwanda’s case, colonial administrators mistakenly believed it to be organised along ethnic lines, so they instituted policies where the Hutu were dominated, and the Tutsi were favored and seen as the natural rulers.
During the German and Belgian colonial rule, local social and political variations that had existed prior to colonization were eliminated. The notion of nationality that was introduced by the colonial administrators created political and social conflicts revolving around how Rwandan national identity should be defined, and which ethnic groups were the ‘true‛ Rwandans. Within Rwanda, the myth was that the Tutsis had arrived recently and established their dominance over Hutu and Twa through conquest. The Germans and the Belgians that regarded them as natural rulers further reinforced the Tutsis’ position in Rwanda. In the 1950s, a movement of Hutu ethno-nationalism arose claiming that they were the true Rwandans. This led to the 1959 peasant uprising, where thousands of Tutsis fled to neighboring countries.
A UN General Assembly resolution terminated the Belgian trusteeship and granted full independence to Rwanda effective as of July 1st, 1962. Rwanda thereafter became a republic under Prime Minister Gregoire Kayibanda, leader of the PARMEHUTU Party that promoted a Hutu-supremacist ideology. This prompted frequent clashes between the newly dominant Hutu majority and historically more powerful Tutsi minority, resulting in the flight of more Tutsis across the Rwandan borders. In 1973, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana overthrew the repressive Kayibanda regime. This put the country in an even more complicated political situation over the next 20 years, and simmering ethnic tensions were exacerbated by events in neighboring states. On the 6th of April 1994, Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash triggering the genocide in which an estimated one million Rwandans lost their lives, and twice as many fled in exile. Despite the changing position of Hutus and Tutsis, the Twa remain fixed at the bottom of the hierarchy. They have no political power and remain the poorest segment of Rwandan society.
That is a brief insight into the people of Rwanda and what they have gone through.