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The complex history and ethnography of Rwanda that has its roots and fruits in the rest of the Great Lakes Region could hold the key to the country’s prosperity and ultimate survival. In this regard it might be helpful to deconstruct some of the dominant narratives

Political epistemology grapples with issues of knowledge about political phenomena, by attempting to unravel the issues of certitude, validity of truth claims and logic. As the world focuses on Rwanda to make sense of the complex and tragic events of the 1994 genocide 20 years later, it is important to take the discourse on Rwanda to some higher level of abstraction, and by so doing point to new directions in conceptualizing and theorizing the enigma of the polity that is called Rwanda. It needs to be stated at the outset that both the historiography and political economy of Rwanda are hotly contested issues.

Another important observation to make is that there is increasing renewed interest in studying post-genocide Rwanda, given the horror and magnitude of the 1994 genocide, among English-speaking scholars. And finally, the keen observers of Rwanda all seem to agree that Rwanda presents an exciting paradigm of post-conflict recovery and robust economic growth, amidst a contested democratic experiment.

That is why a political epistemological approach is in order. Factors that have made Rwanda an exceedingly complex polity to comprehend will be briefly analyzed. Some tools will be suggested that can help comprehend Rwanda’s enigmatic political epistemology. And since Rwanda is now the leading country with the highest number of women in parliament in the world at over 50 percent, some cursory feminist perspective will be mentioned. Along the way, some connections will be made to demonstrate that in order to fully comprehend the complex political challenges that Rwanda faces now and in the future, a sober political epistemology is a conditio sine qua non. The conceptual framework of my analysis will be evidently political epistemology and political anthropology. At the end a crucial question will be posed as to what lies ahead.


Rwanda is affectionately referred to as the ‘land of a thousand hills.’ But given its complex contested history, it is safer to refer to it as the ‘land of thousand histories.’ Unraveling the social and political history of Rwanda can be compared to the process of peeling an onion. To show how deep the Rwandan history is, archeologists have unearthed iron works that date to the 15th century AD. The kingdoms of Rwanda are also traced to the 14th Century AD.

First, there is the colonial historiography. French and Belgian scholars have painted Rwanda’s history in their own colours and texture. It is this colonial history that some analysts blame for the dangerous ethno-politics that has marked Rwanda’s political history. Second, follows the post-colonial historiography, by Rwandese and Africanist scholars attempting to redress the distortions by colonial historiographers. Third, is the post-genocide historiographical critique of the previous approaches, either in opposition or in agreement with the previous claims. Whichever school one subscribes to with regard to Rwandan history, the enigma still remains: who has the correct version of history?

One thing is sure, that Rwanda, which was formerly like a historiographical ‘black box’, has been subjected to rigorous historical investigation following the 1994 genocide. The English-speaking world has picked a great interest in the hidden narratives of this mystical gem of the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Scholars all over the world have developed an interest to explore what lies behind the exquisite Rwandese dance, breathtaking mountains and volcanic lakes. Jean Marquet’s ‘The Premise of Inequality’, soon gave way to Jan Vansina’s ‘The Nyigyinya Kingdom: Antecedents to Modern Rwanda’ written in 2005. Using oral sources, and true to his thesis of oral tradition as history, Vansina uses numerous grass-roots narratives to demonstrate the pre-colonial and colonial roots of the 1994 genocide. Vansina’s argument identifies politics of identity as the major contributory factor to Rwanda’s crisis. If oral tradition is history as Vansina claims, what do we use to cross-check conflicting oral traditions in the same polity such as Rwanda?

As for Gérard Prunier, he traces history of the Rwandan genocide to the crisis that started from 1959, reaching its climax in 1994. His 1995 land-mark study marks a watershed in the scholarly investigation of Rwanda’s political and social history. From these few works on Rwanda, the question of epistemological interest is: where does one begin in delving into the root causes of political upheavals in Rwanda? How far should one go in isolating the various causes of the Rwandan crisis? It seems that nobody has a last word about Rwanda’s historiography—the land of thousand hills as a terrain of historical investigation is a work in progress. The situation is worsened by the competing and conflicting ethnographies.


The area where Rwanda is located, known as the Great Lakes Region of Africa, is an exciting and complex region of rich ethnographical data. As early as 1300 to 1400 AD, the region was home to several kingdoms: Luo, Abatembuzi and Chwezi. Some legends about these rulers border on the fantastic with little proof of claims made about their influence and power. But there is archeological evidence for their existence--the fact of their existence is not disputed. Given the large scale migration of these groups of dynasties, it is very difficult to claim with certainty whether there is a pure ethnic group in the Great Lakes Region. This is why it is very dangerous to construct political narratives largely on the basis of ethnicity. Even the lifestyle cannot be a solid basis for identity since one group that was originally cattle keepers would easily shift to agriculture and vice-versa, or a combination of the two. Looking at language will also not solve the puzzle since as people migrate they pick languages along the way ad libitum.

The other ethnographical challenge is the existence of one ethnic group across national boundaries. For instance around 1928-1929 during the famine in Rwanda, it is estimated that over 100, 000 people moved from Rwanda to Uganda and Belgian Congo (present day DRC). Given that long before that, the kingdoms of the region did not follow colonial boundaries (which did not yet exist), the peoples of the region must have been mingling more freely. For instance, in South Western Uganda an entire district of Kisoro has a population of Rwandese speakers known as Bafumbira. What was formerly known as Kigezi (now Districts of Rukungiri, Kisoro, Kanungu and Kabale) shares borders with DRC and Rwanda. Ethnographically speaking, one would have hard time distinguishing these people who share a language, culture, history and belief systems. For instance the Nyabingyi cult that was prevalent during the pre-colonial and colonial era was practiced in both Rwanda and South Western Uganda.

To complicate the matters further, early ethnographers such as Dr. Edel, M.M. who wrote ‘The Chiga of Western Uganda’ in 1959, as well as Paul Ngorogoza in his ‘Kigezi and its People’, concur that the Kiga came from Rwanda some time before 1500 A.D. If some parts of Rwanda such as Byumba and Ruhengyeri were home to the Kiga, then this fact alone brings into question the standard ethnic taxonomy of Rwanda. As early as the colonial era, there were already some form of regional militarism as demonstrated by the Nyabingyi cult’s resistance that was led by Queen Muhumuza, daughter of Nkanza, wife of Rwabugiri. This courageous woman resisted colonial power and was assisted by people from South Western Uganda. She could be considered one of the forerunners of feminist political struggle in Africa.

Given the complex ethnography of Rwanda in regional context, is it possible to invent new ethno-epistemologies that might help to neutralize the dominant colonial and post-colonial ethnopolitical narratives that are highly divisive and politically toxic? This process, if taken as a feasible option, might require sophisticated conceptual engineering such that more soteriological concepts embedded in the rich ethnic cosmos of the Great Lakes Region can gain currency. As the famous Runyankore/Rukiga proverb says: ‘Ndaragurira abahaansi, abaheiguru behuririre’, translated as: I divine for those below, while those above are listening. The complex history and ethnography of Rwanda that has its roots and fruits in the rest of the Great Lakes Region could hold the key the country’s prosperity and ultimate survival. Once again a Runyankore/Rukiga proverb comes handy on the usefulness of history and long memory: ‘Akabikirwe, takabura mugasho, omukeikuru akazoresa enza omuriro’, translated as: What is kept cannot fail to be of value, an old lady used pubic hair to light a fire. To confirm this age-old wisdom, Edmund Burke reflecting on the French Revolution opined that: ‘A people will not look forward to posterity, who do not look backwards to their ancestry.’

To reconcile the competing ethnographies, it might be helpful to deconstruct the dominant patriarchal narrative in Rwanda. The opportune time might be now when the Rwandan legislature is leading world over in women representation, that is well over 50 percent. The other factor that is of great epistemological importance is the less known feminist corporeal modification that was formerly widely practiced in Rwanda and the rest of the Great Lakes region. Some Western scholars such as Koster M and Price LL have studied in great detail this ethno-medical technique that combines the use of ethnobotanical species such as Bidens Pilosa to prevent infection. Such an indigenous knowledge system that has immense potential for gender equality with regard to marital bliss and aesthetics is vital for the survival of the marriage institution, that is in turn crucial for political stability, since the family is the basic unit for any polity. If such an area is well explored, Rwanda could be a hub for ethnobiotechnology and ethnofeminist scholarship. In this type of scholarship, a job might be well cut out for leading feminist scholars like Prof. Sylvia Tamale, who have broken new ground in theorizing feminist discourse with a focus on African sexualities. The political economy of such feminist discourse needs no further elaboration. It is high time Rwanda broadened its resource base to include indigenous culture as a global resource given its comparative advantage in tourism.


Religion plays a pivotal role in the Great Lakes Region, Rwanda inclusive. Long before Christianity was introduced in the region, people worshiped divinities and a supreme God known by various names. Even when the genocide took place in Rwanda, the common question was: ‘Had God abandoned Rwanda?’ To demonstrate the great impact of metaphysical beliefs in Rwanda, even before the 1994 genocide, it is claimed that some supernatural happenings took place and Mary the Mother of Jesus appeared in Kibeho. Others have wondered why a people so devoted to religion could descend to such violent reprisals and commit genocide even in sacred places such as churches. Where is God in all this?

While closely studying the Great Lakes Region, Prof. Murindwa-Rutanga examines how power struggles in the region are intimately linked to political, religious and power relations. Right from pre-colonial and colonial days of the Nyabingyi movement up to the coming of Christianity, religion has played a significant political role in the Great Lakes Region. The political epistemological problem here is of whether religion controls politics or politics controls religion.

The two are clearly mutually interdependent. Society needs metaphysical and supernatural beliefs to provide ultimate meaning and reality, while religion requires state structures to manage the competing and often conflicting interests of numerous citizens. The issue to carefully examine is whether Rwanda has managed to keep the balance of the needs of the supernatural realm and of the secular city. It should also be pointed out that both spheres should serve as a check on the other, as both are capable of excesses. It requires a bold move to assert one’s cultural resources and indigenous knowledge amidst the dominant colonial mindset that is ubiquitous in Africa’s educational system.


All astute observers of Rwanda agree to one basic truth that Rwanda’s political economy is intimately connected to the geopolitics of the entire Great Lakes Region. One can safely argue that Rwanda is at the epicenter of the Great Lakes Region. But also it needs to be pointed out that Rwanda as a cradle of one of the oldest Kingdoms in Africa, has not fully reconciled itself with its ancient monarchical legacy. For instance it is not clear why the exiled King Kigeri VI cannot return to Rwanda, while the monarchies in Uganda were restored at least as cultural leaders. If the long term stability and unity of a country that has undergone serious pogroms is to be restored, it seems to me that the oldest political institution that holds metaphysical and cosmogonic elements as symbols of unity, needs to be restored in some modified version to accommodate contemporary democratic aspirations. After all even among the Western democracies, there is some kind of compromise whereby old monarchies are constituted along modern democratic systems such as UK, Holland, Spain, not to mention in Africa where we have constitutional monarchs such as Swaziland and Lesotho. Models for emulation are not lacking. Borrowing a leaf from some successful political experiments is not a bad idea.

Post-genocide scholars on Rwanda have all pointed out the complex trajectory of how internal political strife in Rwanda quickly spread to the region, especially to DRC. Once Rwanda sneezes, the region catches a cold. For starters Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda’ of 2001 is quite instructive and incisive in analyzing the complex emergencies that followed the 1994 genocide. Just as during the colonial and post-colonial Rwanda, whenever there was severe internal political or social stress, hundreds of thousands of Rwandese would seek sanctuary in the neighbouring states. The political and demographical implications of such large-scale displacement need no great elaboration.

As a result of this complex combination of internal political strife and geopolitical realignment, humanitarian tragedies and insecurity have taken on a life of their own in the region especially in the DRC. Rebel groups have taken advantage of the fragile states to rake havoc in the neighbouring states. Refugees from the Great Lakes Region now constitute the largest percentage of refugees across the continent. John F. Clark (ed.) in his celebrated ‘The African Stakes of the Congolese War’ of 2002 has presented a detailed analysis of the Congo War, the rebel groups and the role of neighbouring states in this never-ending war. Given the abundance of mineral resources in DRC, it is not hard to sustain a rebel group.

Great interest on the Great Lakes Region has been generated among Africanist scholars, thanks to the late 1990s war in DRC that drew in Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and other African countries. Literally, the African continent has been drawn into the Great Lakes Region, with DRC as the magnetic pull. But as we pointed out, the epicenter of this crisis can be traced in Rwanda. Due to this fact, Gérard Prunier labeled the DRC war of the late 1990s as Africa’s World War in his ‘Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide’, and ‘The Making of a Continental Catastrophe’ of 2008.

In terms of serving as a catalyst for knowledge production, the Rwandan genocide has no rival in the African continent. It has generated incredible research that traverses borders in the process of searching the deep roots of one of the most tragic episodes in human history of the 20th Century. In this regard, the 2000 landmark study involving several scholars from all over the world, ‘The Path of a Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire’ by Howard Adelman (Editor) and Astri Suhrke (Editor), is a welcome addition to the growing body of research on The Great Lakes Region. This study is unique in that it traces the path of genocide to the 1986 regime change in Uganda, then the actual genocide in 1994, followed by the war in DRC in 1997-98. With this study, the major dimensions of the Great Lakes crisis are well discerned. Now what is left is a coherent definition of the political theory of the Great Lakes Region, constructed from the available empirical evidence


Social sciences have not yet developed a reliable tool for predicting the future with accuracy. One can only rely on the available data and trajectory to speculate on what might happen in the future. Rwanda no doubt is on a fast-moving economic growth trajectory. Greater scholarly interest has been generated about this idyllic landscape of a polity. What most analysts are now concerned about is the sustainability of the political and economic gains made so far. There is constant mention of whether Rwanda is sufficiently democratic. This concern has to be addressed squarely.

Rwanda is also celebrated for its open door immigration policy that is crucial for attracting foreign investment. It has embraced regional integration full scale and is a committed member of the East African Community. Terms and conditions for doing business in Rwanda are considered one of the best in the world. ICT is mentioned as taking a foothold in Rwanda. If this trajectory continues, supported by rule of law and standard democratic principles, there is no reason why Rwanda cannot become the Great Lakes Tiger.

Given the pogroms that have plagued Rwanda for generations, there is also need to bring to the closure the various strands of hostilities and conflicting narratives through a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process. This is where political epistemology comes handy. The various truth claims about Rwanda’s political realities need to be well tested as objectively as possible.

Attention has been paid to the ethnographical, historiographical, geopolitical, and metaphysical dimensions of Rwanda’s political epistemological enigma. Since the study of Rwanda is just beginning to take shape as an object of scholarly interest, posing more questions for investigation might be more helpful than just providing answers. For indeed it is the task of philosophy to raise more questions than to provide answers.

The land of a thousand hills will continue to fascinate and mesmerize interested observers. Its hypnotizing landscape, deep-blue lakes, volcanic mountains, mountain gorillas, and breathtaking dance, might tempt the UN to declare the entire country a World Heritage Site! Its politics will for a while continue to baffle analysts just as its dynastic genealogies have been. Whether the exiled King Kigeri VI returns or not in the process of national healing, reconciliation and quest for unity, the concept of monarchy in Rwanda, given its long genealogy, will continue in the political and anthropological imagination of Rwandans and other people in the Great Lakes Region who might in one way or another be connected to this mystical and mythical institution. Memory, just like identity is impossible to erase.

It could also be that what keeps Rwanda enigmatic is the approach of studying small polities that were curved out of a complex political entity instead of studying the entire region known as the Great Lakes Region. A device from methodological holism comes handy: to understand the part, study the whole. This approach is further enhanced by Rwanda’s entrance to the East African Community, and by adopting English as one of its official languages. With this shift in language policy, Rwanda might have outsmarted the countries in the region by adopting a tri-lingual policy that will help develop Kirwanda, English, and French with equal force. Do not forget Swahili that is also widely spoken in Rwanda. The contribution of an efficient language policy to political epistemology and economic growth is easy to discern. Ease of communication in several media, high literacy rates, and political cohesion while being open to global realities. The political epistemological enigma in the heart of Africa, that is Rwanda, is a polity to watch in the decades to come.

* Dr. Odomaro Mubangizi is Lecturer and Dean of Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, and is also editor of Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin. He did his doctoral dissertation on the normative theory of international relations for the Great Lakes Region.



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