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Social and Political Impact in the 100 Days of Genocide
by Ernest Rugwizangoga

It would be confusing, unfair, and overly presumptuous for anyone to say that he or she clearly understands the Rwandan genocide that began in April of 1994. I have chosen the title wanting to focus on social aspects of the Rwandan genocide but I find it hard writing about it without mentioning political aspects. From my experiences and perspective they are strongly connected.

As a child, I saw myself first as a Rwandan because I shared language, culture, and even religion with my neighbors. In Rwanda, everybody speaks the same language called Kinyarwanda. The majority of Rwandans, where I lived in central Rwanda, were Christians. We all liked and ate the same kinds of food. At least 95 percent of my village was farmers. I would never know the difference between Hutu and Tutsi if I did not learn it from school, family and peers.

School was the first place that taught me the concept of Tutsi and Hutu. I attended a Catholic school but the national Rwandan Board of Education set the curriculum. During the first week of the school year, there was what I call the census of Hutus and Tutsis. They asked Hutus to go on one side of the room and Tutsis on the other side. The majority of students was confused and had to ask their parents. That was our assignment one day before the census.

My parents told me that I was a Tutsi. I asked them why? They explained to me by telling me about events that happened in 1959 and 1973. Tutsi houses had been burned, some Tutsis were killed and Hutus kicked others out of school. My parents also told me that at any time this could happen again because Hutus were still in power. That’s how I learned that I was a Tutsi. It meant I was a victim, a powerless person. The Hutu students were learning about the same divisions, but in a different context of history. Their parents taught them the meaning of being Hutu by describing events before 1959 when Tutsis were the oppressors, treating Hutus like serfs or slaves. It was not until 1959 when the Hutus liberated themselves in what’s called the “Hutu Revolution.” After the census, the teacher took his time in telling us the origins of Tutsi and Hutu. The teacher explained that Hutus existed before Tutsis as farmers and Tutsis came after as nomads with their cattle.

This census happened every year, and each year we saw ourselves more and more differently, engaging in sometimes tense discussions. I could not genuinely feel those differences or tensions as a child among my peers. What eventually happened is that everybody became very aware that he or she was a Tutsi or a Hutu. Until I finished elementary school I could not figure out what was the purpose of the census. Why were Tutsis persecuted? Why do they say that Hutus were farmers and Tutsis cattle growers while almost everybody is a farmer? Why were we learning that Hutus and Tutsi came from different countries while we spoke the same language?

I started to discover the meanings of what I learned in elementary school by the time I entered high school in 1989. I was not expecting to face the same census again in high school but again I was asked if I was a Hutu or a Tutsi. The school year started with high tensions between students. The following year, the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF attacked and all Tutsis began to face serious persecution. Because of all this, I started to reflect deeply and asked different people the true meaning of what was happening. My parents, family members, and friends began to express their anger and resentment over the discrimination they faced. It was around this time that I started to truly understand the meaning of what was happening.

That census was a way of showing us that Tutsis were minority and Hutus were majority. Therefore, Tutsis deserved very little and Hutus deserved a big part of the country. Teaching that Hutus came before Tutsis meant that Tutsis were strangers who came to take control over Hutus’ land. Tutsis who had suffered through the events of 1959 and 1973 harbored a deep anger. Tutsis seeing themselves as victims of Hutus and Hutus seeing Tutsis as ex-oppressors pushed a great divide between the two groups. Public, private, and religious education was using a curriculum that was totally politicized to keep these divisions in place. There was a great contradiction between what we were learning in school and what was the reality of every day life in my village. Discrimination, hatred, division and history between two groups had serious consequences.

Ernest Rugwizangoga came to the United States in 1994 and lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He presently works for the Boston Youth Organizing Project.

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