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The cultural origins of the genocide in Rwanda

Kayitana ka Ruterandongozi

Culture may be defined as a frame of reference within which the members of a community interact, socialise, develop, and sustain their community through time. Most societies that have evolved and survived have been able to maintain a core culture or reference point and yet have managed to adapt to changing circumstances. Cultures that vanished were either overwhelmed by their environment or were subjected to the genocidal machinations of the colonialists, such as the British dominion over Canada andAustralia that led to the cultural and physical genocide of the Aborigines.

While physical genocide wipes out a people, cultural genocide eliminates the possibility of their reclaiming the cultural roots that were a source of emotional sustenance for their society. This cultural destruction destroys the reference-points of host-cultures and replaces them with a semblance of the coloniser’s culture that we can refer to as pseudo-culture. It is promoted as a higher reference-point for the colonised peoples, and legitimises the supposed superiority of the colonisers’ culture to the host-culture.

Why do some cultures seek to dominate or even destroy others, when it takes generations for cultures to evolve and become compatible with their environment? A culture becomes environmentally compatible through a natural process that is dynamic and responds to numerous stimuli to ensure its continuity. So the question arises: why should another culture—Western in this case, which also claims to be more "civilised"—replace an indigenous culture that is compatible with its environment? Any culture that thrives on dominating or replacing other cultures is guilty of cultural imperialism, because no host-culture capitulates voluntarily. A community that develops an environmentally compatible culture, only to have it hijacked by alien intervention, is thus subverted. When we study the behaviour of various empires (whether French, British, Dutch or others), we discover that their primary motivation was domination and exploitation. This process usually started with delegitimising the host-culture by dismissing it as "primitive". Assessing the political, economic, social and psycho-cultural reasons for the existence of these empires can help us understand the need for their cultures to sustain themselves at the expense of others. Such undertakings are hugely expensive in terms of human life, and invariably involve the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people and in some cases even millions—as inRwanda and Cambodia—to subdue and dominate those societies.

An underlying factor in all these exploits by Western culture is its elites’ total disregard for the host-culture. Or it could be that Western culture, faced with its own inferiority in the presence of other cultures, was afflicted with an impulse to destroy whatever proved or suggested its inferiority. Western culture has historically depended on technological advances to impose its will on other cultures. Once the colonialists succeed in subduing a community that is already undermined by dubbing it as "primitive", they ensure that their lifestyle is presented as more lavish and comfortable, in order to attract the indigenous population to their "superior" way of living. Those that attain this lifestyle are regarded as having "made it" and are considered successful. Social relations then gradually give way to a new priority: excelling in the white man’s culture and habits. It becomes the new reference-point for a small group of people—the "elite"—and is continually portrayed as the choice of a growing proportion of the populace. The more ‘converts’ there are in society, the easier it is to maintain colonial control or an exploitative relationship between the metropolis and the colony. When this is achieved the physical presence of the colonialist becomes unnecessary, and in most cases they move into an absentee-landlord status, secure in the knowledge that laws, law-makers and law-enforcers are now in place to serve their interests.

Let us examine this scenario in light of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. We need to consider both the circumstances that led to and facilitated the genocide and the trials that followed a few years later. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) patted itself on the back for a "job well done" for convicting just one person, Jean-Paul Akayesy, a former Bourgmestre of Taba commune in Gitarama prefecture, for genocide, out of 33 suspects under detention in Arusha, not to mention the hundreds of coordinators in exile in Canada, the US, Europe and Africa. The conviction, in May 1998, of Jean Kambanda, former prime minister of the interim government from April to June 1994, was based on his own admission of guilt for crimes of genocide. This ex-head of a genocidal administration offered no explanation for his voluntary participation in the genocide, and showed no remorse or sympathy for his victims.

The administration under Kambanda was dominated by Hutu extremists, culturally-uprooted mutants parading as public servants while controlling and using the state to prepare and implement their genocidal plans. Their objective was to eliminate the Abatutsi and "enlightened", "moderate" Abahutu in order to transform Rwanda into a purely Hutu republic. Hutu extremists and their collaborators were thrilled with the chaos they unleashed in Rwanda by their diligent efforts to "civilise" Abanyarwanda from its "backward" traditions of mutual respect and accountability. There were indeed some cases of people who stepped out of line and acted humanely, but they were few and far between.

Contrast this with the behaviour of the people in 1994. Those Abahutu who did not subscribe to the ideology of ethnic hatred were regarded as traitors and deviants from pseudo-cultural norms. What led to such a mutation of cultural norms: the propagation of cults instead of the nurturing of culture? When the social structure of lineages and clans was compromised in the early 1920s by the imposition of different criteria for communal identity: Abatutsi, Abahutu and Abatwa were labels that had previously defined occupational categories (they were by no means rigid, because of people’s tendency to change occupations, often many times in a lifetime); these were then promoted and became the primary criteria for communal identity. An occupational identity that normally accounted for about a third of a day’s activities was transformed into the primary identifying factor for Abanyarwanda, relegating lineage relations that had once regulated social interactions to exotic obscurity. As Abanyarwanda were "guided" out of their primary identity roles to adopt occupational identities as their primary identity, this sowed the seeds for communal division and ethnic strife.

As the Belgians were forced to replace their primary identifies as Flemish and Walloon with cultivators, pastoralists and service sector employees, so the seeds would be sown for a genocide more ruthless than the one that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. An elitethat benefits from such chaos will try to perpetuate it to guarantee their elevated position in society. These thugs masquerading as leaders proceeded to sever linkages that promote genuine social interaction, and to replace them with an individualistic ethos that quenched the thirst for communal living by periodic shows of solidarity within small groups, be they soccer-lovers, basketball-haters, intellectuals, workers, Abahutu, Abatutsi, women, children, or other mutually-exclusive appellations. This tendency to identify exclusively or excessively with groups based on occupational categories, gender, age-group or race is how societies become divided and polarised, often leading to catastrophic consequences. And if there are vested interests or external players involved too, the results are even grimmer.

Kayitana ka Ruterandongozi, a Muslim from Rwanda, was formerly the sub-editor of the New Times of Kigali, Rwanda. He now lives in Canada

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 2

Rabi' al-Awwal 13, 14282007-04-01

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