GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

History of Conflict


To Read

Please go to the Rwandan Stories website and read the following sections (links will be on the right side of the webpage).

The Politics of Racism

Group Digital Video Policy Memo Rough Draft Critique

Please visit the Lesson 10 Module in Canvas for a detailed description of the assignment.

In particular, the short video on the page “A history of conflict” should remind you of a couple of topics we’ve discussed in this class. The impact of colonialism, the drawing of borders and boundaries, and territorial geopolitics are among the salient topics that connect to Rwanda’s history of conflict.

How did this happen?

The Hutus and Tutsis are two groups of people that settled in present day Rwanda close to two-thousand years ago. Some scientists believe the Tutsis migrated from present day Ethiopia. They developed a single language (Kinyarwanda) and one set of religious and philosophical beliefs. The Hutus and Tutsis were agricultural cultivators and raised livestock (respectively). With fertile soil and regular rainfall, the region where the Hutus and Tutsis lived eventually became the most densely populated nation on the entire African continent.

A division begins:

In the 18th century, when Rwanda emerged as a powerful and populous nation, its rulers began to measure their power in the number of their cattle. The Tutsi were “rich in cattle”. They were the elite and ruling class. On the other hand, the Hutu had less livestock and less power. The Hutus were the majority – around 85%. But they were considered commoners. Considered the elite, ruling class because of their large estates, large number of servants, and large number of cattle, the Tutsis were the minority – around 14%.

Physical appearance:

Because the Hutus and Tutsis did not usually intermarry, their offspring began to develop similarities in their features (within groups, not between groups). The Tutsis were often very tall, thin, with narrow features, and fair skin. The Hutus were often shorter, stronger, with broader features, and darker skin. “Hamitic” Bantu-speaking Tutsi people were written and said to be ‘superior’ to the Bantu Hutu because among other facets they were said to be more Caucasoid in their facial features.


The Germans were the first Europeans to colonize Rwanda in the early 1900s. The Germans helped to fight off other countries that wanted to attack Rwanda (the Hutus and Tutsis). After WWI, the United Nations predecessor, the League of Nations, decided that Germany could no longer rule Rwanda. The country was now under the safeguards of the League of Nations, and it was to be governed by Belgium. Belgium decided to use the class system (that had already been put into place) to their advantage. The Belgians favored the Tutsis and gave them privileges and western-style education. In 1933, ethnic identification cards were used to classify one's ethnicity. The Belgians did this because they could control Rwanda from a distance. The Belgians also favored the Tutsis because they appeared more European in their tall, slender features. They discriminated the Hutus because they appeared less European. The Belgian colonialists continued to depend on the Tutsi aristocracy to collect taxes and enforce Belgian policies. It maintained the dominance of the Tutsi in local colonial administration and expanded the Tutsi system of labor for colonial purposes. The United Nations (the League of Nations dissolved in 1946) later decried this policy and demanded a greater self-representation of the Hutu in local affairs. In 1954, the Tutsi monarchy of Ruanda-Urundi demanded independence from Belgian rule. At the same time, it agreed to abolish the system of indentured servitude (ubuhake and uburetwa) the Tutsis had practiced over the Hutu until then. In the 1960s, Belgium withdrew from Rwanda. Rwanda and Burundi subsequently split into two different countries.

map of rwanda and burundi
Figure 10.1. Map of Rwanda and Burundi

On July 1, 1962, Belgium, with UN supervision, granted full independence to the two countries. Rwanda was created as a republic governed by the majority Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (Parmehutu), which had gained full control of national politics by this time.

Works cited:

Human Rights Watch Publications: “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda”

BBC News: “Rwanda: How a Genocide Happened”

PBS Frontline: “Timeline Rwanda: A Chronology of Key Events”