How Rwanda got its name?
The name Rwanda, translated means, “Domain” in the native Kinyarwanda language. How it got its name is somewhat of a mystery. Rwanda previously was called “German East Africa” as well as “Ruanda.” Today it is officially known as the Republic of Rwanda. Its nickname is the “Land of a Thousand Hills.”
Where is Rwanda located?
Rwanda is a small, mountainous, landlocked country, located in Central Africa. Its neighbors are Uganda to the north, Tanzania, to the east, Burundi to the south and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west as well as Lake Kivu (the highest lake in Africa). The country is divided by large peaks, some nearly 10,000 feet, which run across the country from north to south.
Some compare the verdant landscape to a tropical Switzerland. It is home to volcanoes, in the northwest, to swampy river valleys, in the east. Rolling hills and valleys make up the low lying depression west of the Congo-Nile divide. Rwanda’s elevation accounts for its mild temperatures, which average about 70 degrees F in the capital city of Kigali.
A Brief History of Rwanda
It is believed that civilization began around the beginning of the last ice age in Rwanda. The original inhabitants of Rwanda were the Twa, a pygmy people that averaged about 5 feet in height and who today make up less than 1% of the population. The Twa are a people of mixed ancestry, probably descendants of the inhabitants of the equatorial rainforest.
By the 17th century, Tutsis had established a kingdom in present day Rwanda where Hutus, Tutsis and the Twa were living. In 1899, Rwanda became part of German East Africa. After World War I, Rwanda came under Belgian rule under a League of Nations mandate and from 1920 was known as Ruanda-Urundi. In 1933 all citizens in Ruanda-Urundi were issued identification cards identifying their ethnicity.
After World War II, an independence movement began. The ruling Tutsi elite formed a political party. The Belgian authorities encouraged the Hutu majority to also aspire to political power; they ended up forming a rival party called Parmehutu. As the 1960 local elections approached, the Parmehutu formed an uprising which resulted in the death of many Tutsis and forced the king into exile along with tens of thousands of Tutsis. Most fled into Uganda and Burundi. In 1961, the monarchy was abolished and Rwanda gained independence from Belgium on July 1, 1962.
Kayibanda became the first elected president of Rwanda in October of 1962. Shortly thereafter there was a Tutsi guerilla attack from exiled Tutsis in Burundi, an anti-Tutsi backlash resulted in thousands killed. In 1973 Kayibanda was overthrown by a military coup d’etat, when Habyarimana became the third president. American naturalist, Diane Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas, was murdered in her Rwandan cabin in 1985.
In 1990, the Tutsi led, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) made an attack from Rwanda starting a civil war. The Arusha, accords were signed between President Habyarimana and the leaders of RPF in 1993, ending the war. But then tragedy struck; the President of Burundi was traveling, along with Habyarimana, when the plane was shot down in 1994. The assassination sparked the Rwandan Genocide. To this day, no one knows who fired the missile taking down the plane. Ultimately the RPF took over all of Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established. It is estimated that in just 100 days, between April and July of 1994, at least 800,000 people were slaughtered, mostly Tutsis. The speed and scale of this horrific event left its people and world reeling in anguish.
Despite this massive tragedy, today the country is healing. The people are no longer identified by their ethnicity, but simply considered Rwandans. They still have some issues, especially with their neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where many Hutus fled. Today the government is led by the ruling RPF and Kagame has been president of the nation, since 2000. He has done some good work to get the country moving again and has high hopes of making Rwanda a middle income nation. However, his record is not a perfect one. He has been described as the “most impressive” and among the “most repressive” of African leaders. One interesting note is that women make up 64% of Rwanda’s parliament, the highest percentage of women in government in the world.
The current population of Rwanda is 12.7 million; it has a high population density of nearly 519 people per km or 1,343 per mile. Most of the population lives rurally. It is a young population, with a median age of just 19.6 years. The economy is heavily based on small agriculture production as their main resource. Men and women share the work, where men clear the land and women, plant, weed and harvest. The climate and elevation make it perfect for growing tea and coffee, which are the country’s main exports. Tourism, thanks to those amazing mountain gorillas, along with the national parks for safaris (featuring the big 5), has made a massive, positive impact on the service sector. Rwanda is just one of three countries in the world where the mountain gorillas live; the other two are Uganda and the DRC.
Rwanda has gone green, in a big way. They banned plastic bags back in 2008 and they will confiscate any brought into the country. Rwandans use only bags made out of paper, cloth, papyrus and banana leaves, all are biodegradable. Additionally, on the last Saturday of each month, Rwandans come together for Umuganda, which means, working together to achieve a common purpose. Rwandans get together to work on volunteer projects, like building and restoration, as well as environmental conservation programs and simply cleaning up. These two green initiatives have resulted in the capital city of Kigali, to be considered “the cleanest city in all of Africa.” Rwanda is also known to be one of the safest destinations in Africa, with very low crime rates.
The unified state of Rwanda is diverse and not only includes the population of Rwanda but also Kinyarwanda speaking people, in neighboring countries. Kinyarwanda is the mother tongue (a Bantu language) spoken by every Rwandan. However, many also speak French, English, Swahili, or all four. Christianity is the main religion, but a large number of people hold traditional beliefs.
Music and dance are integral parts of Rwandan ceremonies, social gatherings, festivals and storytelling. The most famous dance is called “Intore.” It consists of three components: the dance of heroes, which is performed by men, ballet, done by women and the drums, which are of immense importance and performed in a group of seven or nine. The Intore dance troupe performs all over the world, spreading Rwandan culture.
Woodcarvings, ceramics and basketry are traditional Rwandan handicrafts. The village of Nyakarimibi is famous for its cow dung paintings, made into unique geometric abstractions, dominated by black, brown and white whorls. All of these distinctive works can be bought as souvenirs in the capital city of Kigali.
The cuisine of Rwanda is based on traditional subsistence agriculture. Rwandan staples include: plantains, beans, sweet potatoes, corn and cassava. Historically the Twa and Hutus diets were high in vegetables and lacking in animal protein. The Tutsis were pastoralists and consumed a higher amount of milk and dairy products. Even today many Rwandans do not eat meat more than a few times a month.
The potato is extremely popular and was introduced by the colonists of Germany and Belgium. It is now cultivated there. Ugali is served with just about everything and is a thick paste similar to fufu in other African nations. It is made with cornmeal and is bland but used as a utensil to sop up sauces. It takes on the flavor of whatever it is paired with.
Fish, especially giant tilapia, known as “big fish” there, is popular in the regions near the lake. One fish can feed three or four people. It is a family favorite and typically prepared with stuffed onions and various spices and served alongside grilled potatoes. Another popular fish is tiny and called sambaza. These little fish are caught by fisherman in the lake at sunset using tightly woven nets. They are fried in a thick batter and typically served with mayonnaise.
Other popular dishes are Brochettes, skewers or spits often grilled with goat meat. When it is made with goat intestines it is called zingalo. Brochettes can also be made with other grilled meats or fish. Ubunyobwa is a thick and spicy peanut sauce usually served with chapati, a delicious flat bread. Akabenz is a barbecued pork dish and is usually served with beer. Matoke is another dish made from spiced plantains steamed in banana leaves.
To drink, Urwagwa is popular in all the rural areas and made from fermented banana juice and sorghum flour. It is usually home brewed. Ikiviguto is a fermented whole milk, that is also loved.
For snacks, Rwandans enjoy fruits, like pineapple, mangoes, bananas, papayas and avocadoes, along with roasted peanuts, popcorn, samosas and hard-boiled eggs.
So let’s enjoy a Rwandan meal:
We set the scene with a leopard style print, as the leopard is the national animal. A picture of the silverback gorilla was added since it is one of the few places in the world they call home, and where Diane Fossey became famous for her work and study of the mountain gorillas. Today, Ellen DeGeneres has started a non-profit in her honor and is continuing her great work. A square knot and a basket were also placed because they are symbols on the coat of arms. Tea leaves and coffee beans were included as they are the main exports of the country.
We began our meal by saying, “Muryoherwe” which means “Bon Appetite” in Kinyerwanda. I also made sure to taste the food in front of my guests so that they know it is safe to eat. This is a traditional thing to do in Rwanda.
Our first course was simply hard-boiled eggs. We each enjoyed one with a couple drops of their famous akinbanga, chili oil. It is served in a dropper bottle because one or two drops is all you need to get a nice kick. It was perfect on the egg with a touch of salt. It is common in Rwanda to see street vendors selling hard boiled eggs for about $.25 per egg. They are always served with akibanga, it is the scotch bonnet chili that makes up the fiery oil.
For the main course, we savored goat meat brochettes that were marinated in a tomato based sauce and grilled on skewers between pieces of onion. Some of the marinade was reserved to dip the brochettes. They were served alongside sweet potato fries or chips, as they are called there that were also excellent in the dip. Both of these dishes are common street foods that you will find in nearly all the markets there.
For dessert, we devoured, hot-out-of-the fryer, mandazi. These are amazing little African donuts made with coconut milk and a hint of cardamom and cinnamon. They went perfectly with a nice strong cup of Rwandan coffee; a lovely end to our Rwandan meal.
We said, “Murakoze” (which means “thank you!)
After dinner we just had to watch the poignant movie called “Hotel Rwanda.” it is difficult to watch but puts the trials the Rwandans endured in perspective. Afterwards, we watched “Gorillas in the Mist”, a film adaptation of Diane Fossey’s autobiography.
Now it’s time to book a trip to Rwanda. Seeing the gorillas in the wild is definitely on the bucket list, plus when you go there, you are supporting the cause and the people of Rwanda.
As we say goodbye to this little country of Rwanda, I leave you with a few proverbs:
“Nobody hates himself more than he who hates others.”
“You can outdistance that which is running after you, but not what is running inside you.”
“Real fraternity is not about blood, it is about sharing.”
Until next time,