One of the first things the ‘Society of Our Lady of Africa’, also called The White Fathers, upon establishing itself in Rwanda in 1900 did, was target the nation’s leaders for conversion. It was their belief, that in order to establish Christianity, one had to focus first on the leaders. These included the Chiefs, Royals and anyone who was considered important.
King (mwami) Mutara Rudahigwa
Once the church had gained sufficient power, in 1931 they conspired with the colonial powers to remove King Musinga from the throne. This they did, because he came to be considered a hindrance to the advancement of the Christian faith. His son Rudahigwa, who was in the pocket of the church, replaced him. As a result, almost instantly, many of the elites converted to Christianity. Rudahigwa remained in power until his mysterious death in 1959, while under the care of a Belgian doctor.
When the other denominations came they, coveting the privileged position of the Catholic Church, also targeted the country’s leadership. The resulting effect was, that by 1959 when the Germans left, over 60 percent of the population was Christian.
The Church’s Role In Pacifying The Population
One of the major roles that the church undertook in Rwanda, as it did in other African colonies, was the pacification of the population. The systematic indoctrination, that one must be obedient to the authorities, made it easy for the population to be controlled. This meant that the colonial authorities could exercise power without much resistance. They were thus able to keep the population pacified, even though the benefits which the nationals derived were constantly and rapidly declining.
The following is a letter written in 1913 by the German administrator Dr. Kant to the head of The White Fathers, Monseigneur Hirth. “The missions that you have founded in the north of Rwanda contribute a good deal to the pacification of that district. They facilitate substantially the task of government. The influence of your missionaries has saved us the necessity of undertaking military expeditions…” That was a part of the letter which was written, requesting of the vicar, that he open other missions in regions the colonial powers wished to bring under their control.
Writing History – Creating Division
“I went early amongst the Watusi (Tutsi); handsome people, beautiful rounded small heads, prominent large eyes, thin noses, rather compressed upper jaws; all so clean and trim…” John Hanning Speke
The pre colonial Rwanda was primarily a class based society. It comprised three major ethnic groups. The Hutu, the largest ethnic group, were the farmers. The Tutsi, who made up about 14% of the population, were the cattle owners and generally held most of the political positions. The Twas, who were the original inhabitants and comprised only 1% of the population, were the hunters/gatherers and the potters.
These groups shared the same language, religious customs and intermarried quite frequently. It was a rather fluid situation. It was a social arrangement which allowed a person, with the acquisition of a substantial amount of cattle, to easily move from being a Hutu to a Tutsi. Cattle was generally considered a symbol of wealth. In the reverse, a Tutsi whose wealth diminished would then become a Hutu.
With the intervention of the missionaries, that social structure was brought to a grinding halt. They set about, through written ‘history’, to create clearly defined ethnicities. They hypothesized that the Tutsi where not really African, but a superior people, because of their ‘European features’. As a result they were ‘divinely chosen’ to rule over the African Hutu and Twa. It was all based on the concept of white supremacy, the bible being the reference book.