New Internationalist


May 1985

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Map of Rwanda

Leader: Major General Juvenal Habyarimana (President).

Economy: GNP per capita $260 (1982) Monetary Unit: Rwandan Franc

Main export: Coffee
Main import: Petroleum

People: 5.5 million (1982)

Culture: Religion: Roman Catholic, with residual traditional religions in which the witchdoctor still plays a part.

Language: Kinyarwanda. French and a little Swahili

Ethnic Groups: Bahutu (82 per cent), Batutsi (15 per cent), Batwa (pygmy - three per cent).

Health: Infant mortality: 110 per thousand live births.

Percentage of population with access to drinking water:
48 (urban) 55 (rural)

Source: State of the World’s Children 1985.

At first sight, Rwanda seems a bountiful country. Known as the land of a thousand hills, its high altitude and cool climate have largely spared it from disease. Rainfall is reliable and crops from potatoes, cassava and beans to bananas (most of which are turned into beer) grow in patchwork abundance almost everywhere. The luscious scenery varies dramatically from the volcanic habitat of the mountain gorilla in the north to the Western lakes and golden plains of the Akagera game reserve in the east. The people are warm and friendly - whether you are walking in the countryside or bartering for bananas in the market, brightly dressed women with babies on their backs and children by their sides will extend a hand and ask ‘Muraho - how are you?’

But there is tension below the surface. The influx of escapees from Uganda has increased the pressure on land in this country which is already the most densely populated in Africa. Rwanda’s population is set to double in twenty years and with the exception of two gameparks and one forest reserve there is no uninhabited land left.

Successive Five Year Plans have emphasised the goal of self-sufficiency in food production. But rises in agricultural output have resulted not from intensification but from cultivating more land. Marshes have been reclaimed and woodlands cleared for farmland. But deforestation is leading to a severe shortage of fuelwood and the overworked soil is yielding less and less.

The pastoralist Tutsi tribe used to wield the power before the advent of colonial masters Germany (until 1916) followed by Belgium. Then in 1959 the majority tribe, the Hutu, rose against their rulers. The Mwami (kings) fled and by 1962 Rwanda was independent, governed by Hutu. But bloody conflict has repeated itself through recent years, and relations between the two major ethnic groups (the pygmies being dismissed with contempt) remain delicate.

President Habyarimana, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1973, has made repeated calls for unity. He has tried to coax foreign investors, wary of the country’s volatility, with generous terms. Returned unopposed in elections in 1979 and 1980, he has helped develop an export market for coffee, now grown by almost half the peasants. And in the domestic arena he has backed the setting up of health and nutrition centres all over the country to improve the general standard of living.

But whether the benefits of aid will reach the poorest people is of course uncertain. Grass roots development workers are wary of the large projects which bring perks to officials and middlemen but which squeeze out the smaller initiatives and which do not involve Rwanda’s peasants. President Habyarimana has now been in power for 11 years, but the period ahead looks stormy.

Sue Surkes

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Smallholder peasants but landless numbers increasing

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Almost self-sufficient, but dependent on foreign and for all other imports

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Women do most of field and house work. Fewer girls than boys attend school.

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Pro-Western regime with progressive domestic policies

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61 per cent for men, 39 per cent for women (1980)

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Dissidents and plotters harshly treated

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Very low at only 49 years

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This feature was published in the May 1985 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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