Uganda Travel News

Geography helped certain group resist Tutsi domination. In southwestern Rwanda, the rugged Mountains of the Congo,-Nile divide and the dense Nyungwe forest limited contact with the central kingdom and allowed for a certain degree of local autonomy for those living on the western side of the divide. In the Northwest, the same chain of mountains rose to meet the Virunga volcanoes, providing a double barrier to Tutsi penetration. There thick forests afforded safety, shelter and sustenance in times of trouble. A break way band of Tutsi, known as the Bagogwe, evolved a unique form of pastoralist within the Gishwati forest. But the vast majority of those who inhabited this mountain refuge were the ancestors of today’s northern Hutu. And they fiercely defended their independence from Tutsi domination until the abazungu appeared.

THE GERMANS ARRIVED in Rwanda in 1894.They found a landscape that had already been radically transformed by its inhabitants. One of the first travelers through central Rwanda described “a vast area with neither tree nor bush” only banana trees…..it is incredibly populated….and very cultivated” .Over a period of less than two thousand years, Hutu farmers had cleared more than 57percent of the country’s montane rain forest. Traditional shifting cultivation had long since given way in most areas to more permanent and intensive forms of agriculture. Only the practice of naming places after local tree species provided a record of where the forest had once grown. Thus the settlement of Miyove stands to this day in mute memory of the umuyove – a giant hardwood of the entandophragma genus – which once grew in a rain forst that extended almost forty miles South East of the Virunga forest. So, too, the hill called Kiyumba, just west of Kigali, recalls the stand of prunus Africana, or umwumba, that once covered its crown,, but from which endless farmlands now stretch in all directions. It is a long way from Rwanda to the American suburbs, but the cultural practice of naming places after that which we destroy is not so different in Cherry Hill, pinesdale, Buffalo springs or Redwood City.

Hutu farmers were not the only agents of conversion .In Rwanda’s drier regions, Tutsi cattle and fires had also converted much of the natural wooded savanna to low diversity grasslands. But in the Tutsi kingdom, the Germans found a political structure through which they could rule their new colony. One early envoy described the Tutsi as “graceful” people with “noble traits” who compared favorably with European aristocracy. The existing Tutsi monarchy would provide the mechanism for indirect rule by a small, but powerful clique of resident Europeans, or abazungu, as the white foreigners were known in the local Kinyarwanda language.

One of the first uses of German power was strong bring the mountain kingdoms of the Northern Hutu under the authority of their new masters. Western weaponry accomplished in a few years what the Tutsi kingdom had failed to accomplish in centuries. Pockets of resistance were quickly eradicated when Hutu rebels led by Ndungutse and Bassebya killed the first catholic priests sent to establish a mission in the Virunga region, a combined force of German and Tutsi military was dispatched to the North. Ndungutse was killed and Bassebya was summarily hanged with several accomplices at the site of Ruhengeri’s current outdoor market. More fundamental change soon followed, as ancient Hutu land tenure and land use practices were supplanted by the increasingly despised Tutsi system that favored the cow over the farmer’s traditional Hutu leaders were replaced by Tutsi chiefs approved by the Germans, but with no local standing.

The Germans took direct control of very little land in Rwanda. Unlike in Kenya, where most of the productive highlands were transferred to British ownership under the process known as alienation, the vast majority of land in Rwanda remained in native hands. The Germans did intervene, however to declare almost all of the remaining montane forests as knonland, to be managed under control of the crown. The first area acquired under this policy was the Virunga forest, soon after von Bernie’s “discovery” of the mountain gorilla. By 1911 most of the remaining natural areas along the Congo-Nile divide were declared forest reserves. These were not parks but were instead managed to assure that the benefits of commercial forestry would accrue to colonial business interest. Maintaining tree cover in the mountainous reserves also protected downstream water sheds a concern of German foresters who were ahead of their time in this regard.

The chief administrator for Rwanda was the remarkable Dr. Richard Kandt. A medical doctor by training, Kandt was also a poet and avoid naturalist. He travelled widely across the country making observations and collecting new species, several of which like the golden monkey, or cercopithecus mitis kandti – still bear his name. Kandt also recognized that the limited German presence could not stop Hutu farmers who continued to clear the forest at a steady rate despite official proclamations. He approached the reigning wmami, Musinga, to present the problem as one worthy of royal intervention. Musinga listened to his arguments, then advised Kandt that “the forest was there already when we were born, and it will still be there when we both die.” It was an accurate prediction, based on understandable perceptions. But Kandt was thinking beyond his life time and remained an active advocate for forest conservation thought his tenure.

Richard Kandt was also quite farsighted in his analyses and prescriptions for Rwandan agriculture. He called for the development of export crops to defray colonial costs and correctly identified the highland farming zone as an idea environment for growing Arabica coffee. To meet the subsistence needs of an expanding population, he called for increased production of the recently introduced white potato. World war 1 would see the Germans retreat from Rwanda, surrendering their combined colony of Ruanda –Urundi to the Belgians. Many of Kandt’s ideas and initiatives however would be implemented under Belgian rule.

The awarding of Ruanda-Urundi to the Belgians was a contentious decision by the young and ill fated League of Nations. Belgium’s king Leopold had ruled the neighboring Congo as a personal freedom in which the most basic human rights were violated and perverted in the cause of un checked economic exploitation. Critical press accounts and the publication of Conrad’s thinly fictions heart of darkness, stirred popular revulsion at Leopold’s abuses .Under public pressure, the Belgian legislature voted to expropriate management of the Congo prior to world war 1.Many in the league of nations still distrusted Belgium’s record of harsh exploitation. Yet mindful of the need to throw a bone to the Belgians for their role in the war while England and France feasted on the richer parts of the German colonial carcass in Tanzania and Cameroon the league awarded its mandate over Ruanda Urindi to Belgium.

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