Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rwanda: the Hutus, the Tutsis and the Mountain Gorillas

Greetings from “Hotel des Mille Collines” in Kigali where I'm having Sunday lunch. In English it would be Hotel of a Thousand Hills, which is an appropriate description of Rwanda, often called a “tropical Switzerland." Although Kigali lies close to the equator, it's elevation is over 5,000 feet with frequent rain, which gives it a spring-like climate and accounts for its verdant hills. I'm staying in the Serena Hotel on this trip, but was in the Mille Collines in 1986 on my last stop here.  The Mille Collines has become famous as “Hotel Rwanda” through the movie of the same name ( It is where the heroic Hutu hotel manager together with his Tutsi wife, were able to save approximately 1,200 lives. lt is also one of the venues where UN and Western government officials dithered while there was still time to prevent the impending Genocide ( They ultimately made the decision to evacuate all Europeans and to leave the fate of the Tutsi minority in the hands of the Hutus. The result was the slaughter of nearly 1 million Tutsis, mostly from being hacked to death because there were few guns in the country. 

For a little background: the much taller Tutsis have traditionally been the cattle herders and the ruling class while the smaller Hutus have cultivated the land and generally accepted Tutsi rule.  However this acceptance changed when German and Belgian colonialists decided to try to use the Tutsis to support their colonial aims. They began issuing them ID cards which entitled them to rights and powers not granted to the Hutus and which undermined the long-time stability between the two peoples. Following are several more links on the Rwandan Genocide as well as on the Civil War in neighboring Burundi where nearly 200,000 Hutus were killed.  

I realize that I have egg on my face: in my recent post on Namibia, I listed four African countries as having been colonized by the Germans. The above links report that Burundi and Rwanda (Urundi & Ruanda) were also under the German colonial administration in Tanganyika between 1894 and 1916, which was new to me. After World War I, Rwanda and Burundi became Belgian colonies and then independent countries in the early 1060.

A few more comments on Rwanda: it is one of Africa's most densely populated countries and also has one of the highest percentages of land under cultivation. Very steep hills are plowed nearly to the top and it appears that a lot of forests have been cut down over the years to expand farms.  Prior to the Genocide, approximately 94 percent of the population got its livelihood from farming. While the percentage remains high, important minerals have recently been discovered in the country, which seems to be broadening its economic base.  It certainly has much more infrastructure than I recall from my trips here in the mid-1980s from Nairobi. The current government is also working hard to overcome the legacy of the genocide and to prevent such conflicts from happening again. It supports a Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali to remind people of this terrible history and to educate the young.  ( It is now government policy that all citizens be referred to as Rwandans and that there be no public differentiation between Hutu and Tutsi.  Colleagues at the Embassy also advised me that I should not ask any locals about their ethnic backgrounds.

Now on to the other subject Rwanda is known for -- the endangered primates called the Mountain Gorillas.  lt seems that there is usually a movie I can link my posts to and the obvious choice here is "Gorillas in the Mist, the Dian Fossey Story" starring Sigourney Weaver (
In 1984, on my first trip here, I was extremely fortunate that the embassy could arrange for me to join an early morning hike to visit one of the Gorilla groups.  As one might expect from the movie title, we hiked through a mist-covered bamboo forest for about an hour before reaching the gorillas. The gorilla families are very friendly towards humans as long as one pays proper respect to the dominant male silverback in charge.  We were advised to stay low, to appear demur, and to refrain from looking the silverback in the eye.  We were also told that if he came toward us, to simply kneel or lay down on the ground and we would be fine.  Otherwise we could get as close to the females or babies as they would allow. The little ones were just as curious about us as we were about them and they came very close to inspect us while we in turn inspected them.  Perhaps they were thinking "these aunts and uncles seem vaguely familiar and must be related to us."  Being so close to these incredible primates and interacting with them was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. I had hoped to visit them again on this trip, but decided not to due to the $750 cost per person for a day trip  -- $500 for admittance (most of it as a fee on tourists to fund the gorilla protection program)  and $250 for round trip transportation. This brings me to my two favorite gorillas stories: the first is definitely true but I'm not sure about the second:

1) Our ambassador and our defense attaché in Kenya took a trip to Rwanda to visit the Gorillas. Their guide provided them the same directions I received which was that if the large silverback charged, one should immediately drop to the ground. Well sure enough, the silverback headed for the ambassador who quickly lay down on his back.  The silverback moved forward and stepped right up on top of the ambassador's chest, perhaps to prove he was boss.  The defense attaché had a camera in hand and had the presence of mind to take a picture.  When they returned to Nairobi, the ambassador showed a sense of humor by blowing up the photograph and hanging a copy on the wall of the embassy cafeteria for everyone to see. It was quite the conversation piece.

2) On my initial trip to Kigali in 1984, the first things I noticed on the airport walls were several posters of a large male gorilla followed by the French words "Protégé Moi" which would be "Protect Me" in English.  I was subsequently told by someone in the embassy that former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi had arrived at the Kigali Airport on a state visit to be greeted by these posters.  He is said to have quickly gotten back on his plane to return to Kenya because he thought the Rwandans were making fun of him.  His interpretation of the posters was that they were calling the gorillas his protégés.

The following link contains photographs of gorillas in their natural habitat.  The young are very human-like and extremely playful which makes them particularly endearing. 

And this final link describes the current gorilla situation in the world,emphasizing the fact that there are less than 1,000 left, virtually all in the rain forests of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo.

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