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Life Reflections

How colonialism begot self-denigrating Rwandans

By February 24, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

The other day, the reminiscence of a colleague about the lack of literature in English on the history of Rwanda reminded me of the brutality of colonialism by Belgians.

Africa has forcibly hosted a wide variety of colonialists but I think those from Belgium were straight from hell. And their Lucifer was King Leopold II, who used Stanley to help him lay claim to the Congo (D.R. Congo). After taking over the country as his personal property, he went on to ravage it in favour of his pockets, using a mercenary force that brutally executed all Congolese who did not instantly obey the forced labour imposed on them or otherwise pander to their order.

By the time his embarrassed colonialist-colleagues forced him to relinquish its control to the Belgian government, millions of Congolese had been turned into corpses and many more into amputees.

Not that his nationals proved any better. The looting and the forced labour continued unabated and, even if the massacres and amputations stopped, the punishments imposed in their place were almost equally vicious. It is this vicious colonialism that was mandated by the League of Nations to rule over Ruanda-Urundi (Rwanda and Burundi) following the defeat of Germany in World War II.

Any little oversight over, or negligence of, duty in the forced labour by natives was met with ruthless exaction.

In Rwanda, these punishments took many forms. First, there were fines for small mistakes where the offender was forced to pay money, if they had it. Those who didn’t have it paid with part of their property (livestock/harvest) and others offered their labour, in addition to that forced upon them.

The process was arbitrary, however, as there was no specific amount for specific mistakes and the amount demanded depended on individual mood swings. Through their indirect rule, colonialists delegated the locals to carry out these punishments: local chiefs, sub-chiefs or what would be called town criers (abamotsi), though there was hardly any town! Since these local leaders were chosen from one section of Rwandans, this was also seized upon as a chance to drive a wedge between them and their countrymen (colonialists picked no women).

Then there were prisons. In a country that had had no imprisonment culture, prisons were introduced to punish different crimes, most of which involved failure to pay head-tax. Prison sentences could be for days, weeks, months or years, depending on the gravity of the crime. The sadistic thing about it was that a group of prisoners were tied on a chain, a reason why a chain is Kinyarwanda for a prison/er (umunyururu). In fact, it was not rare to find a corpse being dragged around on a chain, if a prisoner died when the colonial prison guard was away.

If you think that was heartless, though, imagine the Congo where prisoners were not tied on the chain but, rather, a chain was passed through the leg, between the tendon and the lower part of the tibia, to connect all the prisoners in a group. For such a group, working the fields while pulling along that corpse was not for the faint-hearted.

The third punishment was dispossession, where the property of any local leader was confiscated if he did not toe the line to the satisfaction of the colonialist. It was the same if a Catholic priest felt that the chief was not facilitating his work of converting locals to the Catholic Church.

The chiefs only got relief when in July 1952 a law was passed that gave the king (Rwanda being a colony-cum-monarchy) limited authority to propose names for appointment as chiefs or for dispossession.

There was also banishment. Rwandans who were banished included mainly prominent local leaders like King Musinga, who was first banished to Kamembe, inside Rwanda, and then to Moba in Belgian Congo. But the case where colonialists planted tsetse flies to kill off cattle in Bugesera resulted in the flight of a whole community of cattle-keepers and can be termed mass-banishment.

Even then, among all these the worst form of punishment may have been the infamous ‘ikiboko’, so humiliating and divisive was it.

While ‘kiboko’ is Kiswahili for hippopotamus, Belgians had adopted ‘ikiboko’ as the name for a strip of hippo hide that was used as a lash for practically any offence. Lashes exacted on Rwandans were necessarily eight. For example, whoever did not exercise the agronomical practice of mulching, or did not plant the required amount of pyrethrum, received eight lashes.

The humiliating part came with having to bare the bottom, while lying on the ground, face down, which was calculated to inflict maximum pain. As for the divisive part, the colonialist administered those eight lashes on the chief, out of sight of his citizens, and then directed the chief to do the same on the offenders, who were those citizens. That way, the citizens blamed their chief, not the colonial master. And in that way and many others, division was planted and nurtured.

When Rwandans say their recent fractured history has its roots in colonialism, they have a point. A number of them have succumbed to its self-vilipending effect and are unable to live in their changed country, with their many compatriots who have conquered it and regained their dignity.


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