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Early Rwandan History

By Edited Jun 14, 2016 7 25

This article will only explain the part of history that preceded Rwanda being colonized by Europeans. Thus, the time period is referred to as pre-colonial.


When I started to read about Rwanda, the reading material always spelled the three main ethnic groups as Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi. Nevertheless, at rwanda.rw/article.php3?id_article=114, the web pages there spelled the three groups as Batwa, Buhutu, and Batutsi. There is no need to change the spelling to show pluralization. The same website spells the native word for king Umwami, while another one has it spelled as Mwami. The country was formerly spelled as Ruanda. Now, I have clarified the spelling of some important words in this article.

NW Rwanda, Climbing Beans

Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi

Historians generally disagree on the origins of Rwanda's three prominent ethnic groups. The pygmies that are known as Twa number less than 1 percent of the pre-colonial population. Their preference is to dwell in the forests so they can live close to their way of subsistence - hunting and gathering. The Twa moved deeper into the forests when the Hutu arrived in what is present-day Burundi and Rwanda. The origin of the Hutu is unclear, and it is estimated they migrated sometime from the 5th to the 11th century. They were farmers whose social structure was based on clans. The one ruling over limited clan groups were known as Bahinza. They were treated like a king since the Hutu thought they could cause rain, protect crops from insects, and cattle getting infected from diseases. Furthermore, the Bahinza felt righteous to derive the power and status from the holy beliefs.

In a mostly peaceful, slow process starting around the 14th century, the Tutsi migrated to Rwanda. They took advantage of owning cattle, their advanced combat skills to achieve economic, political, and social control over the Hutu. The Tutsi king, or Mwami, even took over the ownership of the land that Hutu had for themselves.

Oral Traditions

A folk tale tells the story of Gihanga, who was a ruler sometime before the 15th century. He forged a centralized Rwanda country that had similar roots to the Buganda and Bunyoro Empires in neighboring Uganda. The combination of prosperous cattle-owning nobility and a majority being agriculturist serfdom enabled the people of Rwanda to repel all of the early attempts made by Europeans to settle in the same land.

Mwami and Chiefs

The kingdom that oversaw a highly organized and centralized way to govern during pre-colonial Rwanda was mainly the Nyiginya clan - for about 20 generations - of the Tutsi subgroup. The Mwami was close to having absolute powers. He delegated some duties to his three main chiefs: First, a military chief was responsible for the army, ensuring territorial integrity, and expansion. A cattle chief was responsible for all the issues involving cattle keeping, grazing, and settling-related disputes. Lastly, a land chief was responsible for the agricultural land, its production and any related affairs. The queen secretly played an important role in the administration of the kingdom.

A Myth

The Mwami, a Tutsi king, was considered to be of divine origin. A myth explains three children that were born in heaven accidently fell to Earth. One of these kids, Kigwa, founded the most powerful clan. The Mwami trace their lineage to this divine founder. During the mid-16th century, Mwami Mibambwe l Mutabazi centralized the kingdom and reduced the power of neighboring chiefs.


The relationship formed by the Mwami and the rest of the population was highly organized into a system called "ubuhake." This Hutu-Tutsi relationship was mutually beneficial, including for Twa. It was a symbiosis type of a relationship that heavily involved the economic aspect of people's lives.

Peasants and Lords

Thanks to the Ubuhake form of a client-patron contract; the Hutu gave military and personal service to the Tutsi for using their cattle. Then it evolved into a system similar to a feudal. As the Tutsi minority had control over the cattle, land, and power, the Hutu peasants would give away agricultural products and personal service to their respective lords in exchange for cattle and utilizing land.

Determining Affluence

During pre-colonial Rwanda, cows played an eminent part in the economy. Thus, the number of cows one person owns determined one's status or family's status, and whether someone is affluent. It is studied that the word Tutsi meant a cattle keeper during the time period and Hutu meant a farmer.

Against the Twa

Twa, part of the Banyarwanda community, did most of the hunting and gathering. This ethnic group was discriminated and marginalized by both the Hutu and Tutsi. While the Twa were pygmies, the other two were much less distinct from each other. Moreover, a person could and did use accumulated wealth to move up in society and move from Hutu to Tutsi and vice versa.

Importance of Clans

Rwanda's pre-colonial society involved institutions to rely on the clan system. It is not far-fetch to think that the people would identify each other according to clan affiliation instead of ethnicity. There's a possibility of it because the terms Hutu and Tutsi were not as entrenched to recognize each individual as it is now after the country was colonized. Some people argued that this concept lasted until around the middle of the 19th century. Finally, all three ethnic groups comprised of the totaled 19 clans in Rwanda.

Other Sources

There are two other websites that may help a person's research into Rwanda's past. I didn't used them to get information for this article. The first one is hrw.org/legacy/reports/1999/rwanda/ and the second one, kulanu.org/tutsi/jews-africa.php, explains a little bit about Jewish migration in Central Africa.


Gascoigne, Bamber. History of RWANDA. 13 March 2010. 13 March 2010 http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ad24.

none. East Africa Living Encyclopedia. none. 28 7 2010 http://www.africa.upenn.edu/NEH/rwhistory.html

-. Pre-Colonial Rwanda in Rwanda - Rwanda DG 8 2 2005. 28 7 2010 http://www.rwanda.rw/article.php3?id_article=114

-. RWANDA - CULTURE. none; vertical-align: baseline;"> none. 28 7 2010 http://www.rwandatourism.com/culture.htm.

Photo Credit:

Author's Flickr's username is CIAT. Photographer is Neil Palmer.



Mar 10, 2010 10:12pm
I really learned something new by reading this article on the history of Rwanda. I honestly didn't know that Europeans had so much influence there. Very informative article, and I bet more people, like me will be surprised by the history.
Mar 11, 2010 8:25pm
Thank you for your comments. I am looking forward to write more articles regarding Rwanda.
Mar 15, 2010 2:40am
Very Informative. This is History that is very interesting but not talked about a lot so thank you for sharing!
Mar 20, 2010 4:36pm
Another great article about Rwanda. I found many things I never knew!
Mar 28, 2010 1:35pm
Got educated reading you article very well written.
Apr 9, 2010 11:16am
Thank you everyone for your pleasant comments.
Apr 23, 2010 10:19am
This is well written and provides a good history of an area in which we hear too much negative information. It is great to delve into deeper history of a country because it often helps us understand its current situation.
Apr 23, 2010 4:52pm
Thank you very much Hobartian for your comments and perspective.
Apr 24, 2010 11:30am
What one people can do to another instead of living peacefully together is truly amazing, our inhumanity. Thank you for this very informative article.
Apr 24, 2010 6:52pm
You're welcome Sharon. Thank you for your nice comment and for reading my article.
May 22, 2010 6:05pm
These are very good tips about Early Rwandan History. Thanks for sharing, 5* plus recommendation!
May 22, 2010 7:14pm
Thank you for reading and rating my article, Infowriter.
May 29, 2010 11:01pm
Informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing it with me.
Jun 12, 2010 1:15am
Thank you for reading and writing your comments, Carrie.
Aug 5, 2010 10:44am
Enjoyed reading your article so much. I use to sponsor a child near Rwanda on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda. I can't remember the name of the tribe she was from but I know that she spoke the Bantu language. All my letter from her are in storage in another state. This article brought back a pleasant memory.
Aug 5, 2010 8:21pm
Thank you for sharing your story, pwarlick. I'm glad you sponsored a child. Thank you also for reading the article.
Sep 24, 2010 5:42am
Is that a picture of the country? Such a nice and peaceful surrounding, cannot imagine the horrors that happened there.
Sep 26, 2010 12:35am
Yes, scheng, it is a picture of the country. I believe a tourist took a picture of it. I don't know any details about the reconciliation efforts for the people to consider, but if you Google "rwanda reconciliation," there could be articles that may interest you.

Thank you for reading my article and commenting on it.
Dec 13, 2010 4:37am
Very interesting that one could move from one ethnic group to the other. I always understood that they were identifiable ethnic groups but it sounds more like the conflict was between social classes.
Dec 18, 2010 3:25am
You made a great point, JadeDragon. There could be other reasons for the conflict that people won't know. Rwanda is very close to regions that are rich in different resources. Thank you for reading and commentng on my article, JadeDragon.
Jan 19, 2011 10:48am
Very interesting and well written.
Jan 24, 2011 6:08pm
Thankd for reading and commenting on my article, Lynsuz.
Jan 20, 2011 2:56pm
This is a truly fantastic article!!!!!!!!!!!
Jan 24, 2011 6:09pm
Thank you for reading and commenting on my article, Venetia. I'm glad you joined IB. Have fun.
Apr 4, 2013 4:23am
Thanks so much on this informative article on Rwandan history. I travel to Rwanda once a year and this has really put things into a historical context for me.
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