Creating a Collective Identity out of the Dust of Atrocity

Since the genocide, Rwanda has been stigmatized as being eternally divided by two ethnicImage groups: Tutsi and Hutu. However, reducing the country’s history to this internal ethnic dynamic is not only highly simplistic but also incredibly inaccurate. Rwanda has a deep history that transcends these divisions. The idea of a Rwandan identity – an identity that supersedes ethnic divisions, creating a unified Rwanda – has been a primary goal in Rwanda’s post-conflict reconciliation process; a goal that is evident upon visiting the Kigali Memorial Center.

The theme of the Rwandan reconciliation process, and consequently the Kigali Memorial Center, can be summarized in one quote written on the first panel when one enters the museum’s first exhibit:

“We are one people. We speak one language. We have one history.”

The goal of the exhibit is to tell a very specific narrative: Yes the genocide happened, yes it occurred along ethnic divisions, but Rwanda has historically had a unified identity and there is a need to recreate this identity to unify Rwandans once again. The exhibit commences with a strong statement against colonialization:

“We did not choose to be colonialized”.

In effect, this statement places blame on colonization for the creating of strong Hutu/Tutsi divisions within Rwanda, divisions that would result in a constant strong between these two groups culminating in the 1994 genocide. Prior to colonialization, as the exhibit denotes, Rwandans associated themselves with one of eighteen different clans. Moreover, although the categories of Hutu, Tutsis, and Twa did exist, they were fluid socio-economic divisions within these eighteen clans, changing based on individual circumstance. Thus, prior to colonialism, were was no strong societal division based on Hutu/Tutsis/Twa ethnic categories. Colonialism, however, constructed these divisions and solidified them in 1932 when the identity cards were issued to Rwandans. The determination of one’s ethnicity was based on the number of cattle owned: anyone with ten cows or more was deemed to be a Tutsi and anyone with less than ten cows was labeled a Hutu. Moreover, Belgium colonialist chose to elevate the Tutsis, perceiving them to be more ‘European’ and thus more capable of colonial administration. This created a system in which Tutsis were seen a ‘superior race’ and were given positions of power in the government. The resulting structural violence against the Hutus fostered animosity between these two colonial defined groups.

In giving this storyline, the exhibit creates the narrative of colonialism being the force that disrupted the unified Rwandan state, created ethnic divisions within the country, and planted the seeds for the genocide. After detailing the precursors to the genocide and the genocide itself, the exhibit come full-circle to reiterate this point by giving the following statement:

“There was no ethnic war. There was a civil war. But genocide happened and it was something different.”

In this statement, the exhibit reiterates the point that there was not an ethnic war in Rwanda. The conflict in Rwanda was a civil war; a struggle between exiled Tutsis and the Hutu extremists for control of the country. Genocide happened within the context of this civil war, not separate from it. It was not isolated, but rather the culmination of decades of propaganda and fighting.

The Kigali Memorial Center clearly frames colonialism as being the root cause of Rwanda’s ethnic tensions. Consequently, the goal of its reconciliation is the return to post-colonial state.  This narrative is also apparent in other Rwandan memorial sites and from the mouths of local Rwandans. One Rwandan who I have met, referred to the genocide as ‘The War’ rather than the ‘Tutsis genocide’. His use of the word ‘war’ rather than ‘genocide’ is demonstrative of the understanding that Tutsis and Hutus were both victims of the genocide. Although Tutsis were undoubtedly targeted, statistics also suggest that between 100,000 and 200,000 Hutus were killed doing the outbreak of violence in 1994. Although this sentiment appears small, it is instrumental in the reconstruction of the Rwandan identity.

Identity reconstruction is not something that happens over night. It takes time, generations in fact, for these identities to be adopted. The history of colonialization has demonstrated that ethnic identities can be constructed; therefore, the reconstruction of identity should also be possible. This, however, needs to start with education. This generation of Rwanda’s children, the generation post-genocide, has been educated to adopt the Rwandan identity rather than a Hutu, Tutsis, or Twa identity. If this education is maintained, and the Rwandans continue to be responsive to this concept, then the creation of a renewed, collective Rwandan identity is hopeful. Identity is one of the foundations of human behavior. It can bring people together, but as the Rwandan genocide has demonstrated, it can also tear people apart. This is why the creation of a collective Rwandan identity, an identity that encompasses all Rwandans irrespective of ethnicity, is tremendously important in the creation of a strong, stable, and peaceful Rwanda.

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Currently she is travelling to Rwanda with Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar with the Zones of Conflict, Zones of Peace Program. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s