World Cultures | Rwanda

Culture Name


Alternative Names

Banyarwanda, Banyamulenge, Bafumbira


Identification. The Rwandan culture includes not only the population of Rwanda but people in neighboring states, particularly Congo and Uganda, who speak the Kinyarwanda language. The important ethnic divisions within Rwandan culture between Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa are based on perceptions of historical group origins rather than on cultural differences. All three groups speak the same language, practice the same religions, and live interspersed throughout the same territory; they are thus widely considered to share a common culture, despite deep political divisions. The Rwandans in Congo and Uganda include both refugees, who generally maintain a strong identification with the Rwandan national state, and Kinyarwanda speakers who have lived outside Rwanda for generations and therefore have a distinct cultural identity within the wider national culture.

Location and Geography. Known as the "land of a thousand hills," Rwanda is a mountainous country located on the far western edge of the Rift Valley, bordering on Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Rwanda rises from relatively flat plains in the east along the Tanzania border to steep mountains in the west along the continental divide between the Congo and Nile rivers. From the continental divide, the land drops sharply to the shores of Lake Kivu, which forms most of Rwanda's border with Congo. A range of high volcanoes forms Rwanda's northwest border. The mountainous topography continues in the North Kivu region of Congo, where almost half of the population identifies as Rwandan. A concentration of Kinyarwanda-speaking Tutsi, known as the Banyamulenge, lives in the high plains and mountains above Lake Tanganyika in South Kivu. The Bufumbira region of southwest Uganda is also Kinyarwanda speaking. The difficulty of travel and isolation resulting from the mountainous topography historically encouraged largely self-sufficient local communities and many local variations of the culture, but the modern centralized state implemented during the colonial period has encouraged a degree of cultural homogenization, at least within the borders of Rwanda.

Demography. War and political turmoil have led to radical population shifts in Rwanda in the past decade. According to the 1991 census, the total population of Rwanda was 7.7 million, with 90 percent of the population in the Hutu ethnic group, 9 percent Tutsi, and 1 percent Twa, though the actual percentage of Tutsi was probably higher. During the 1994 genocide, an estimated 80 percent of the Tutsi population living in Rwanda was killed, perhaps 600,000 people, but after a Tutsi-dominated government came to power in Rwanda in 1994, an estimated 700,000 Tutsi refugees returned from abroad. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand Hutu also died in the genocide and war and from diseases like cholera that spread in refugee camps when, at the end of the war, several million Hutu fled to Tanzania and Congo. Several million more were internally displaced within Rwanda. War that broke out in Congo in 1996 killed thousands more Hutu and drove most Hutu refugees back into Rwanda. As a result, the size and ethnic breakdown of the population are thought to be roughly comparable today to that before the 1994 war.

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. Prior to the 1994 war, Rwanda was among the most rural countries in the world, but the war precipitated rapid urbanization, with many



refugees choosing not to return to their rural homes but to settle instead in the cities, primarily Kigali.


Linguistic Affiliation. Kinyarwanda is a unifying factor within Rwanda, since it is spoken almost universally. Closely related to Kirundi (spoken in Burundi), Mashi (spoken in the South Kivu region of Congo), and Kiha (spoken in northwestern Tanzania), Kinyarwanda is a Bantu language. Less than 10 percent of Rwanda's population also speaks French, and a small portion speaks English, primarily refugees returned from Uganda and Kenya. Kinyarwanda is the primary cultural identifier for Rwandans living outside Rwanda.

Symbolism. Historically, Rwanda's three ethnic groups have been identified with distinct aspects of the economy: the Tutsi with cattle, the Hutu with the land, and Twa with the forests. Each group had distinct roles in public rituals, and each group had a distinctive mode of dress. The monarchy served as an important unifying symbol, representing the interest of all three ethnic groups. Hutu and Tutsi were also linked together throughout much of the territory in a system of cattle vassalage, in which Tutsi patrons provided cattle to Hutu clients. During the colonial period, however, the monarchy lost much of its legitimacy as it became increasingly identified with the Tutsi minority, and the system of cattle vassalage became viewed as a system of exploitation of Hutu by Tutsi. The cattle vassalage system was abolished in the 1950s and Hutu politicians deposed the king in 1961. After independence in 1962, the all-Hutu government sought to portray Rwanda as a Hutu country, emphasizing agrarian cultural symbols. Christianity became an important source of national symbols, with almost all national leaders openly identifying as Christians, the large majority as Catholic. Since the Tutsi retook power in 1994, historic symbols such as cattle have been revived, and a strong political faction has called for the reinstallation of the monarchy as a means of reunifying the country's ethnic groups.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Rwanda traces its origins to one of the many small kingdoms that emerged in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa beginning five hundred years ago. Land pressures throughout the densely populated region encouraged increasing political centralization, particularly among cattle-raising people, who feared the loss of pasture land to encroaching cultivation. The kingdom of Rwanda was founded in the sixteenth century in what is today eastern Rwanda, then moved west to modern central Rwanda, where it developed a unifying social system and a strong army and began to expand, incorporating neighboring kingdoms and chieftaincies through conquest or alliance. A complex system emerged, based on political and economic ties rather than shared cultural identity. In the central kingdom, power was centralized and an ethnic division between Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa became well developed. A system of cattle vassalage bound local communities together and tied them to the monarchy. Areas outside the central kingdom retained their distinct political and social organizations to varying degrees, with some chief-taincies merely paying tribute to the Rwandan king, but remaining otherwise autonomous. During this period, some Rwandans who resented the increasing political control emigrated from the kingdom, resettling in Congo, where they formed a distinct Rwandan community later known as the Banyamulenge.

National Identity. Colonial rule, which began in 1895, was the primary force leading to the emergence of the Rwandan national identity. German colonial authorities and the Belgians who replaced them in 1916 actually regarded the Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa as three distinct national groups, but colonial policies led to a greater identification with the Rwandan national state for all groups, even as they also created greater ethnic identification and polarization. The colonial overlords helped the Rwandan monarchy to centralize its control and extend its social system throughout the territory that is contemporary Rwanda, eliminating the local social and political variations that had existed in the precolonial period. By establishing modern state institutions in Rwanda, the colonial administrators also imported the ideas of nationality associated with the modern nation-state. Subsequent social and political conflicts have revolved around how exactly Rwandan nationality should be defined (for example, which ethnic groups should be included as "true" Rwandans) rather than over the validity of Rwandan as a national identity, as in many African states.

Ethnic Relations. The three ethnic groups in Rwanda emerged through a complex process of immigration and social and economic differentiation that took place over several centuries. Tradition holds that Twa were the original inhabitants; Hutu came second in a wave of migration from the west, and Tutsi came much later from the northeast. Archeological and anthropological research, however, indicates that in fact patterns of migration were much more complex, as populations moved into Rwanda over many centuries. Each new group of migrants adopted the local language and most local customs, although they also added some of their own beliefs and practices to the local culture. Modern ethnic identities emerged fairly recently and therefore could not derive primarily from migration. In fact, the differentiation throughout the region into three fully distinct ethnic groups occurred only during the colonial period and grew much more from European ideas about race and identity than from historic cultural patterns.

German and Belgian policies were based on the concept of indirect rule which sought to administer colonies through existing structures of power. Colonial administrators mistakenly believed power in Rwanda to be organized primarily along ethnic lines, and thus they instituted policies that subjugated the Hutu and favored the Tutsi, whom they saw as the natural rulers. The colonial rulers did not, in fact, maintain local power structures unchanged but centralized the political system, eliminating local political variations, including abolishing autonomous Hutu chieftaincies. In strengthening the rule of the Rwandan monarch throughout the territory, the colonials and their Tutsi allies in the royal court helped to extend the culture of central Rwanda to the rest of the territory. Many of the myths, practices, and beliefs of central Rwanda were spread to the rest of the territory, as were the system of cattle vassalage and the clear distinction between Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. The northern region of the country, which was least integrated into pre-colonial Rwanda, has remained somewhat politically distinct from the rest of the country, and competition between the north and the rest of the country has remained an important political factor.

With the establishment of colonial borders, some Kinyarwanda-speaking people were situated outside Rwanda. The Rwandan populations of Bufumbira in southwest Uganda and the border regions of North Kivu, as well as the Banyamulenge population in South Kivu, had little connection to the Rwandan court even before colonial rule. Under separate colonial authorities, these groups developed distinctive cultural identities, even as the populations of Uganda and Congo associated them with Rwanda. Meanwhile, thousands of Rwandans migrated to Congo and Uganda for economic purposes, creating large Rwandan communities with a stronger identification with Rwanda in places such as Masisi in North Kivu. In the Rwandan community outside Rwanda, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi remained less significant than it became within Rwanda, as most Kinyarwanda-speakers were collectively known as Banyarwanda.

Within Rwanda the myth that Tutsi were a distinct race that arrived recently and established its dominance over Hutu and Tutsi through conquest came to be embraced by most of the population. It served the interests of the Tutsi elite who used it to reinforce German and Belgian prejudice that regarded Tutsi as natural rulers. During the colonial period, Rwanda was administered jointly with its neighbor to the south, Burundi, which had a closely related language and a similar social structure. With Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa in Burundi as well, the ethnic politics in the two countries tended to develop in tandem, with events in one country inspiring a response in the other.

In the 1950s, as independence approached, a movement of Hutu ethno-nationalism arose in response to the growing impoverishment of Hutu and the dominance of Tutsi. The Hutu ethnonationalists claimed that Hutu were the true Rwandans and that Tutsi were foreign interlopers. A peasant uprising in 1959 drove Tutsi chiefs from office and led thousands of Tutsi to flee the country, most of them to Uganda, Congo, and Burundi. Anti-Hutu violence in 1972 in Burundi, where Tutsi remained in charge, inspired anti-Tutsi violence in Rwanda in 1973 and led thousands more Tutsi to flee into exile. Hutu ethno-nationalism remained an important ideology in Rwanda and ultimately Hutu leaders used the idea that Tutsi were not "true" Rwandans to inspire Hutu soldiers and militia to slaughter the country's Tutsi population in 1994 along with moderate Hutu who challenged the exclusivist national ideology.

Although they embraced an exclusivist notion of identity during the colonial period, Tutsi since independence have sought to promote a more inclusive conception of national identity that regards Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa as one nationality. In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a group of Tutsi refugees based in Uganda, invaded northern Rwanda to attempt to force the government to allow Tutsi refugees to return to Rwanda. Although hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were killed in the 1994 genocide—in part because Hutu were frightened by the RPF invasion—the RPF was ultimately successful on the battlefield, and in July 1994, they took control of the country. The current RPF-dominated government now promotes a multi-ethnic idea of Rwandan national identity.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Rwanda is among the most rural countries in the world. Most people live in individual family compounds surrounded by banana groves and fields and scattered across the hillsides. The hill—the collection of families living on a single hill—has historically been the central social and political unit. Each hill had a chief who linked the population to the monarch. Although chieftaincies were abolished in the 1960s, the new administrative units generally preserved the hill divisions.

The extreme violence that swept the country in 1994 devastated Rwanda's rural social structure. With millions of people uprooted from their homes, hundreds of thousands killed, and hundreds of thousands more returned from long exile, Rwandan society underwent rapid social change. Most of the returned Tutsi refugees chose to settle in urban areas, while most Tutsi in the countryside were killed or chose to move to the cities. As a result, urbanization took on a new ethnic character, even as the rate of urbanization jumped dramatically. Meanwhile, the government instituted a program of villagization in the countryside, forcing peasant farmers to leave their isolated homesteads to live together in small overcrowded villages. While the government claimed that these villages were intended to facilitate the administration of social services, many critics believed that the program was designed to facilitate social control.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Rwandan food is quite simple, with beans, bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and sorghum being the most common foods. Dairy products are also widely consumed, particularly a traditional drink of curdled milk. Those who can afford to do so also eat meat, primarily beef, goat, and chicken. Sorghum and banana beers are common as well.

Rwandans traditionally eat food in public settings only for ceremonial purposes, but otherwise eat only in the home. In recent years, the taboo on eating in public has diminished significantly, and restaurants have appeared in most urban areas. While the system of clans has diminished sharply in importance in Rwanda, most Rwandans will still not eat the totemic animals associated with their clans.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Important occasions in Rwanda always involve the ceremonial consumption of alcohol and food, but full meals are never served. People in attendance at a wedding or funeral are formally served a piece of meat and something else to eat, usually a roasted potato. A pot of sorghum beer is placed in the center of the room with numerous reed straws, and participants come forward to partake. Calabashes of banana beer are passed through the crowd.

It is also customary to serve people food and drink when they visit a home. Refusing to partake of offered food or drink is considered a grave insult. Hosts typically sip from drinks and taste the food first before passing them to the guests to show that they are safe for consumption and have not been poisoned. Visitors are often presented with food as gifts to take with them at the conclusion of their visits.

Basic Economy. Rwanda has an overwhelmingly agrarian economy. Most residents live largely from subsistence farming, growing some coffee on the side as a means of earning income. The level of industrialization remains extremely low.


A Batwa holds up his identity card, which notes his ethnic origin. The Batwa have been subject to much discrimination in Rwanda.


Land Tenure and Property. Most Rwandans own the land that they work. Traditionally, all land was formally held by the king and rights to the land were distributed to subjects by the local chiefs, but in practice, Rwandans controlled their own land and passed it down as an inheritance to their male children. Private land ownership was formalized during the colonial period and continued as a general practice. Overpopulation and related poverty have led to land accumulation by a limited elite and the emergence of a class of landless poor, but most rural residents, even the very poor, own at least some of the fields they work.

Commercial Activities. With almost no natural resources other than land, no access to the ocean, and extremely dense population, Rwanda's economic possibilities are extremely limited. Coffee has been the most important export, followed by other agricultural products such as tea and pyrethrum. Since the 1970s, Rwanda's economy has been heavily dependent upon foreign economic assistance. Foreign aid has financed the construction of roads, water and electrical systems, and the development of new economic ventures, most recently flowers for export. These ventures have generally benefitted only a limited elite associated with the government, while doing little to address the growing poverty of the masses.

Major Industries. Rwanda has developed a few small industries to meet local demands for products such as bottled beer, soap, and fabric, but these provide little employment and contribute little to the economy.

Trade. Coffee is the country's primary export, along with tea, which is grown on large estates in areas of high elevation, and pyrethrum, a type of chrysanthemum grown as a natural insecticide. Since the 1990–1994 war, Rwanda has become more involved in international trade with Uganda and Congo. Rwanda has become a major transport center for gold, diamonds, and other commodities mined in Congo.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Historians have described the pre-colonial division between Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa as both a class and a caste division, though neither term is wholly accurate. Like caste divisions, one's group determined to some extent one's occupation, with Hutu engaged more in cultivation, Tutsi in raising livestock, and Twa in hunting and a few other activities such as making ceramics. The occupational lines were not, however, strictly enforced, as Hutu could own cattle and goats and most Tutsi engaged in at least some cultivation. The terms may be somewhat closer to class labels, because there clearly was a status distinction between Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa, with Tutsi at the top of the social hierarchy and Twa at the bottom. Each group had a specific socially proscribed public role, symbolized by distinct functions in public rituals.

The association between ethnic identity and class has broken down since independence. Since Hutu took control of the government, those Hutu with access to power were able to use their positions to enrich themselves and accumulate cattle and land, traditional signs of wealth. While most Hutu remained poor, a small Hutu elite was able to flourish. Without access to political power, Tutsi lost most opportunities for enrichment. With the change in government in 1994, Tutsi once again gained access to economic opportunities. Many Tutsi returning from Uganda or elsewhere were able to bring capital with them, and they have been able to use their international connections to engage in trade and other economic activities.

Despite the changing position of Hutu and Tutsi, the Twa have remained fixed at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Twa have almost no political power and remain the poorest segment of society. Twa are generally despised by Hutu and Tutsi alike, who regard them as dirty and dishonest. Whereas intermarriage between Hutu and Tutsi is common, it is extremely rare between Twa and other groups.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Historically, social status was symbolized through the possession of cattle, the primary sign of wealth in Rwanda. In fact, Hutu families that acquired sufficient cattle and were able to take clients in the cattle vassalage system would eventually have their status changed and come to be known as Tutsi, whereas Tutsi who lost their cattle and clients would eventually be considered Hutu. Although ownership of cattle is no longer associated with ethnic identity, it remains an important symbol of status. Other historic symbols of high social status, such as elaborate hair styles and distinctive dress, are no longer in practice. Social status in contemporary Rwanda is reflected in the knowledge of French or English, which demonstrates a degree of education, and in the possession of consumer goods such as vehicles and televisions. Twa are identified in part by their distinctive patterns of speech; while Kinyarwanda is generally spoken using three tones, Twa speak Kinyarwanda with two.

Political Life

Government. Rwanda has a powerful president, assisted by a multiparty cabinet and a prime minister. The national assembly and the judiciary have little independent power in practice. The country is divided into twelve regions, known as prefectures, each led by a prefect named by the president. The prefectures are divided into communes, led by burgomasters, and the communes into sectors. In 1999, local elections were held throughout Rwanda for the first time in a decade, but the level of competition was constrained by continuing political repression. The government promised presidential and legislative elections within five years.

The current political system evolved from the single-party state implemented by President Habyarimana in 1975. Under pressure from a prodemocracy movement and from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), multiparty politics was legalized in 1991, the office of prime minister implemented, and a multiparty "government of national unity," including ministers from all the major political parties, installed. The August 1993 Arusha Peace Accords between the RPF and the government stipulated a continuation of the system of coalition government. The Arusha Accords are the basis for the current government structure, though the current government excludes Habyarimana's political party because of its involvement in the 1994 genocide.

Leadership and Political Officials. With its long history of royal rule and social status divisions, Rwanda has strong hierarchical political traditions. Relations with politicians, like other social relations, are highly regulated by status roles. Common Rwandans are expected to show deference to their politicians, whose positions give them social status. In exchange for deference and loyalty, politicians are expected to provide their constituents with services and opportunities. Political officials must in turn show deference and loyalty to their political superiors and help to create popular support for the government or risk losing their positions.

While public political relations are formal and deferential, behind the scenes Rwandan politics has long been an arena of clandestine plotting and intrigue. Various clans competed for power in the royal court as alliances shifted and groups sought to increase their power through spying and assassination. These traditions of political intrigue have continued under the republican regimes, with rivals for power secretly plotting the demise of rulers and coup attempts common. Such duality can be seen at the grassroots level, where public deference by citizens may mask private resistance and disobedience.

Social Problems and Control. Traditionally in Rwanda, the local community played the primary role in maintaining social order. When crimes were committed or disputes arose, a council of elders would convene to reach a fair settlement in a process known as agacaca .


A member of the RFP loads a mortar as crowds watch the frontline. The Rwandan political system is dominated by the military.


The colonial rulers suppressed this system, while implementing a Western legal system. Nevertheless, informal local controls on behavior remained important, in part because the use of the legal system for political purposes undermined public confidence in it. Political authorities have frequently used informal means of repression against opponents, such as civilian militia, to maintain their power. In the early 1990s, for example, as the Habyarimana regime lost public support, soldiers, police, and civilian groups targeted opposition groups for arrest, torture, and assassination. The regime promoted anti-Tutsi rhetoric in the hopes of attracting support from Hutu. The regime arrested Tutsi and began to organize anti-Tutsi violence, which ultimately culminated in the genocide that took place from April to July 1994.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front took power through force in July 1994, leaving problematic legacies of the ethnic violence and war. As a mostly Tutsi movement, the RPF had difficulty gaining the support of the mostly Hutu population and thus used extensive force to maintain order. Immediately after taking power, the RPF began to arrest people suspected of involvement in the genocide and within a few years placed over 100,000 people in prison. Many critics claimed that many of those in prison were innocent and that the regime was more interested in establishing control than in honestly seeking justice. The RPF, like its predecessor in power, also used force against the civilian population. The government recently initiated a program to renew the agacaca system, but the program did not receive substantial local support.

Military Activity. At least since the 1973 coup by army chief Juvénal Habyarimana, the military has been a dominant force in Rwandan political life. The prominence of the military increased markedly after the 1990 RPF invasion. Since the victory of the RPF rebel movement in the war in 1994, the military has dominated the political system, even though it remains officially a civilian regime.

Many RPF military officials hold positions in government ministries, and most observers consider them the real power in government offices. (Paul Kagame, who served simultaneously as head of the army and vice president, became president in 2000.) Officials who disagree with the RPF leadership, particularly the core of Tutsi officers around Kagame, are removed from office.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Social assistance in Rwanda has traditionally been provided by family members and neighbors,

Rwandan mothers and their children in Kigali. Children are a symbol of wealth.

though Christian churches have gradually taken on an increasing role in providing welfare assistance. Beginning in the 1970s, Rwanda began to receive substantial bilateral and multilateral development assistance. Since the 1994 war, hundreds of international nongovernmental organizations have also become involved in relief and development efforts. Despite these programs, Rwanda remains among the ten poorest countries in the world.


Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Many of Rwanda's historic social organizations were eliminated either by the colonial regime or the collapse of the monarchy. Today, religious groups are the most important nongovernmental organizations in Rwanda. Christian churches sponsor not only many religious associations but also other social groups, such as women's groups, youth organizations, and farmers' cooperatives. Numerous economic groups, such as rotating credit societies, have been founded in the past two decades to help people cope with the serious poverty in the country. Since the 1994 genocide, a number of organizations for widows and orphans also have been created. While nongovernmental organizations have become increasingly important in recent years, the level of group membership and activity in Rwanda remains relatively low.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Agricultural work is divided between women and men. Men clear the land and assist women in breaking the soil, while women engage in most of the day-to-day farming activities, such as planting, weeding, and harvesting. Men bear the primary responsibility for overseeing livestock, assisted by youths who act as shepherds. Men also do heavy jobs around the house, such as construction, while women are responsible for maintaining the household, raising children, and preparing food. Formal nonfarm employment in Rwanda is dominated by men, while women often participate in informal nonfarm economic activities, such as market trading.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. In precolonial Rwanda—even as most positions of public authority were reserved for men—women enjoyed a modicum of political and economic power, as exemplified by the powerful position of queen mother. The relative position of women eroded during the colonial period and never fully recovered. Women in contemporary Rwanda hold few political positions and have limited economic power, as seen in the difficulties women have in inheriting land and property. Many women's associations have attempted to increase the status of women in recent years, with little apparent success.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Marriage is considered the most basic social institution in Rwanda, and the pressure to marry and have children is quite heavy. Unlike in the past, most couples today select their own mates, though approval of the family is expected. Marriage across ethnic lines between Hutu and Tutsi is relatively common.

Polygamy, once extensively practiced, has become uncommon except in some rural areas, such as the northwest. The decline in polygamy has been accompanied with a sharp increase in levels of divorce and remarriage.

Women bearing children out of wedlock were once punished by banishment or death. Illegitimacy remains strongly stigmatized, though it is also relatively common.


Produce for sale at the Cyangnu Market. Potatoes, beans, bananas, and sorghum are the most common Rwandan foods.


Domestic Unit. Rwandans consider children a sign of wealth, and bearing children is an important social duty. As a result, Rwanda has the highest rate of fecundity in the world, and Rwandan families are generally quite large. Rwandan families typically live in single-family compounds consisting of several buildings surrounded by a hedge or fence. Each wife (if there is more than one) typically has her own house in the compound, as do elderly parents. The husband's extended family typically lives in close proximity on the same hill or on a nearby hill. The wife's family may also live nearby or may be from further away, but both the husband's and wife's kin have important socially defined relations with the family.

Inheritance. Upon a father's death or retirement from active labor, his land and property are traditionally divided between his sons. The eldest surviving son is expected to take care of his mother and any unmarried sisters after his father's death. While wives and daughters have not formally been forbidden from inheriting, in practice inheritance by women has been difficult. In recent years, inheritance law has been revised to allow women to inherit more easily.

Kin Groups. Clan groupings historically have been important social relationships in Rwanda, but their significance has declined over the past century. Clan affiliations were passed down from father to children and cut across ethnic lines, with each clan including Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. Competition between clans for political power was a major source of conflict in pre-colonial Rwanda. Today, clans serve little purpose beyond helping to define marriage partners, since people continue to be expected to marry outside their clans.


Infant Care. The mother plays the primary part in caring for infants, but she is assisted by other female relatives and by her older female children. Women generally carry their children on their backs for at least the first year, or until they bear another child.

Child Rearing and Education. The mother has the primary responsibility for child rearing and education. Her eldest brother, the maternal uncle, also plays an important part in overseeing the moral development and socialization of the children, ensuring that they learn social traditions. The state has assumed the responsibility for providing formal education for children, though only about 60 percent of children ever attend school. Even the small required fees are too much for many families to afford.

Children continue to be named in a public ceremony eight days after their births, but many other initiation rites are now rare. Tutsi children were once sent to the royal court for training and initiation, but this practice was abolished along with the monarchy. Few children are now initiated into the Lyangombe and Nyabingi sects.

Higher Education. Rwanda puts little emphasis on higher education. Less than 10 percent of Rwandans attend high school, and another small portion attends technical training schools. A very small percentage of the population continues on to university. Rwanda has one national university based in Butare, with branches in Kigali and Ruhengeri. In the past decade, several small private colleges have also been established.


With its long history of hierarchical social relations, Rwandan culture puts great emphasis on practices of etiquette that demonstrate respect and emphasize social rank both inside and outside the family. Within the family, chairs are traditionally reserved for men, while other family members sit on mats on the floor. Men eat first, with women and children eating after. Visitors are given the best chairs and the first choice of food and drink.

Rwandans have an elaborate system of salutation that varies depending on the relative social rank and familiarity of the greeters. Rwandans almost always shake hands upon encountering someone. When greeting someone of higher rank, a person extends his or her right hand while placing the left hand on the right arm in a sign of deference. Close friends and others of equal rank may embrace, holding one another by the shoulders and brushing their heads together first on one side then on the other.


Religious Beliefs. Christianity has become a central part of Rwandan culture. More than 60 percent of the population are Catholics, and another 30 percent are Protestants, with the largest Protestant churches including Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Methodists, and Baptists. Many Rwandans credit the Catholic Church with having supported the Hutu rise to power in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the church has thus gained great influence and public support among Hutu. With the demise of the monarchy, most of the associated religious rituals ended, and Christian rituals have come to take their places.

At the same time, most Rwandan Christians continue to participate in certain indigenous religious practices as well. Veneration of ancestors remains widespread, with most Rwandans continuing to have traditional funerals and other traditional rites for the dead. Indigenous healers remain common as well. Two secret societies that worship ancestral heroes, known as Kubandwa sects, are less common today than in the past but are nevertheless widespread. The Nyabingi sect is found in the north of the country near the Ugandan border, while the Lyangombe sect is found in other parts of the country.

Religious Practitioners. Both Nyabingi and Lyangombe have priests associated with their worship, but these figures have little public importance today. Instead, the main religious leaders of Rwanda are Christian clerics. The Catholic bishops and leaders of Protestant churches are prominent national figures with considerable political influence, and pastors and priests are important local figures.

Rituals and Holy Places. The Kubandwa sects of Nyabingi and Lyangombe are secret societies that induct new members through initiation. Families experiencing difficulties of some sort will often choose to have a child initiated into the sect. The Lyangombe ceremonies are conducted outdoors in a clearing around a type of tree whose red flowers, tradition holds, represent Lyangombe's blood. Nyabingi ceremonies are also practiced outdoors. The level of secrecy of both sects has been increased because of the hostility they have faced first from colonial authorities and subsequently from Christian officials. Many Christian churches penalize members they find to have participated in one of the Kubandwa ceremonies.

Death and the Afterlife. Rwandans believe that the spirit continues after death, and they see their families as including not only the living, but those who have come before and those who will come in the future. Showing respect to dead family members is considered extremely important. Failing to appease the spirits of dead ancestors through appropriate rituals and offerings can lead the ancestors to neglect their families and allow evil spirits to inflict harm.

Medicine and Health Care

Rwandans practice both Western and indigenous forms of health care. Christian churches have built numerous hospitals and health centers, but many Rwandans continue to visit indigenous healers, who combine herbal medicines with spiritual cures.

Rwandan refugees cross the Kagera River from Tanzania. In 1999 about 700,000 Tutsi refugees returned to Rwanda from abroad.

Rwandan indigenous medicine emphasizes the flow of bodily fluids. In Rwandan culture, no conceptual distinction is made between physical poisoning and enchantment, and poisoning is regarded as a major cause of illness.


Secular Celebrations

Prior to the 1994 genocide, Rwanda had holidays celebrating the 1959 revolution and the 1973 coup that brought President Habyarimana to power. These celebrations involved public gatherings and military parades. Since the rise of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, these holidays have been discontinued and new holidays have been created to commemorate the genocide and honor those killed. The most important holiday for Rwandan families is New Year's Day. Families traditionally gather for a meal and exchange of gifts on New Year's Day.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. The Rwandan government provides very little support for the arts. The government supports a national dance troop based in Nyanza, but there are few other nationally funded artistic groups.

Literature. Rwanda has little literary tradition. The royal court had a tradition of oral history, but this tradition has not been continued.

Graphic Arts. Rwanda has few graphic arts. The main ones are decorative arts, primarily baskets and pottery. There are no traditions of carving or painting.

Performance Arts. Music and dance have been the most important artistic expressions in Rwanda. Both instrumental and vocal music have strong traditions in Rwanda. While traveling instrumentalists are no longer common as they once were, recorded music and public performances in clubs have become common.

The tradition of dance in Rwanda is particularly rich. The training of young Tutsi men at the royal court included training in a form of martial dance that involved drumming and demonstrations of prowess by individual dancers. This intore dancing has been preserved since the demise of the monarchy through a national dance troupe, and the tradition is widely taught in schools. Other types of dances were important in public ceremonies and continue to be performed at weddings and other celebrations.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The physical and social sciences were weak in Rwanda even before the genocide, but they were completely decimated by the violence. Rwanda is heavily dependent upon foreign scholars and researchers for scientific advances and social analysis.


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