Rwanda - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

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Rwanda, republic in east central Africa, bounded on the north by Uganda, on the east by Tanzania, on the south by Burundi, and on the west by Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). Rwanda covers an area of 26,338 sq km (10,169 sq mi), and Kigali is its capital and largest city.


The central portion of Rwanda is dominated by a hilly plateau averaging about 1,700 m (about 5,600 ft) in elevation. Eastward, toward the Tanzanian border, the land slopes downward to a series of marshy lakes along the upper Kagera River. On the western side of the plateau is a mountain system averaging about 2,740 m (about 9,000 ft) in elevation, forming the watershed between the Nile and Congo river systems. The Virunga Mountains, a volcanic range that forms the northern reaches of this system, includes Volcan Karisimbi (4,507 m/14,787 ft), Rwanda’s highest peak. West of the mountains the elevation drops to about 1,460 m (about 4,800 ft) in the Lake Kivu region.

Climate in Rwanda

Rwanda has three main seasons: a short dry season in January, the major rainy season from February through May, and another dry period from May to late September. The average yearly rainfall is 790 mm (31 in) and is heaviest in the western and northwestern mountain regions. Wide temperature variations occur because of elevation differences. The average daily temperature in the Lake Kivu area is 23°C (73°F). In the mountains in the northwest, frost occurs at night.

Plants and Animals in Rwanda

Forests, once extensive, now are concentrated in the western mountains and Lake Kivu area. Predominant trees are the eucalyptus, acacia, and oil palm. Wildlife—including elephant, hippopotamus, crocodile, wild boar, leopard, antelope, and galago (bush baby)—is protected in Akagera National Park. The Virunga Mountains in northern Rwanda are the home of what is estimated to be half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. This subspecies of gorilla was made famous by the work of American zoologist Dian Fossey.

Mineral Resources in Rwanda

The principal mineral resources are cassiterite (tin ore), wolframite (tungsten ore), columbite, tantalite, beryl, and gold. Large natural gas reserves have been found near the DRC border.

Environmental Issues in Rwanda

Rwanda is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in Africa, and its land is intensively farmed. Soil exhaustion and overgrazing are leading to desertification throughout the country.

Forests cover about 18.2 percent (2005) of Rwanda. The country’s forests are threatened by Rwandans’ reliance on traditional fuels such as firewood for about 88 percent (1997) of their energy. Rwanda has designated 7.6 percent (2007) of its land as protected area.


The population of Rwanda is 78 percent rural. Most of the people live in family groups dispersed throughout mountainous regions. Three ethnic groups make up the population: the Hutu (about 85 percent); the Tutsi (14 percent), noted as cattle raisers; and the Twa (1 percent), a pygmoid people thought to be the original inhabitants of the region. The official languages are Kinyarwanda (a Bantu language), French, and English. About one-half of the population is Roman Catholic, and one-fifth is Protestant. There are smaller groups of Muslims and people who follow traditional religions.

Population Characteristics of Rwanda

The 2009 estimated population of Rwanda is 10,473,282. The population density is 420 persons per sq km (1,087 per sq mi), making Rwanda one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. The civil war that broke out in Rwanda in 1994 greatly disrupted the ethnic and geographic distribution of the population and caused massive numbers of deaths. However, the country’s density remains high.

Principal Cities of Rwanda

Rwanda’s principal city is Kigali, the capital, with a population (2003 estimate) of 656,000. Smaller urban centers include Butare, in the south; Ruhengeri, in the north; and Kibungo, in the southeast.

Education in Rwanda

Schooling is free and, in principle, compulsory for children aged 7 through 12, but only 72.7 percent of the adult population is literate. In 2002–2003 virtually all primary school-aged children were enrolled in school, but only 16 percent of the relevantly aged children attended secondary or technical schools. The National University of Rwanda (founded in 1963), in Butare, is the main institute of higher education.

Way of Life in Rwanda

Most Rwandans live in round grass huts in farms scattered over the country’s many hills. Family life is central to society. Traditionally, the principal goal in life was parenthood. Women generally dress in brightly colored wraps, men in white. However, many have adopted Western clothes. The Rwandan diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes and beans, with bananas, corn, peas, millet, and fruits added in season. Beer and milk are important beverages. Protein deficiency is a serious problem. Cattle are herded as signs of wealth and status rather than for their value as food. Most Rwandans consume meat only about once or twice a month. Fish is eaten by those living near lakes. Pastimes include poetry recitation, storytelling, and mancala, a board game common throughout Africa. Soccer is also popular.

Culture of Rwanda

The richness of Rwandan culture is apparent in the wide range of fine crafts. These include pottery, basketry, painting, jewelry, wood carving, metalwork, and the making of gourd containers. All ethnic groups cherish oral traditions of proverbs, songs, and chants. The Tutsi, in particular, are known for their epic songs and dynastic poetry chronicling the origins of the Tutsi ruling class. The verse, strongly flavored with traditional mythology, has preserved Rwandan history orally through generations of preliterate peoples. For many years, the tall, splendidly adorned all-male Tutsi intore dancers, characterized by coordinated drilling dances reflecting the warrior tradition of the Tutsi, and the tambourinaires (drummers), were attractions for travelers. Rwanda has produced a number of writers, including Alexis Kagame and J. Saverio Naigiziki, both of whom have written primarily in French. French is the main literary language in Rwanda because the educated elite of the country are educated largely in French. Kagame’s and Naigiziki’s main themes include religion and the conflict between tradition and modernity.

Social Problems in Rwanda

Ethnic division and rivalry have been the dominant features of Rwandan society since independence in 1962. These severe problems are compounded further by poverty, overcrowding, environmental stress, and one of the highest incidences of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the world.


Rwanda has essentially a subsistence economy. The gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 was only $3.3 billion, or $343 per person. The country suffers from soil erosion and occasional droughts and subsequent famines, making Rwanda heavily dependent on foreign assistance, mainly from Belgium.

Agriculture of Rwanda

Most of the people of Rwanda depend on subsistence agriculture, generally using a hoe as the main tool. The main cash crops are tea and coffee. Food crops include bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, sorghum, beans, and rice. Cattle and goats are the main livestock raised. Overgrazing and soil erosion are serious difficulties that affect the entire country. Furthermore, Rwanda’s instability has caused disruptions in trade and a decline in exports, leading even more people to revert to subsistence agriculture.

Mining in Rwanda

Minerals are Rwanda’s second most important source of foreign exchange after agricultural products. However, due to drops in world commodity prices, the mining of cassiterite was halted in 1986. The following year the country’s wolframite mines were also closed for the same reason. By 1991 some cassiterite and other mineral ores were being exported again, but mining in general was disrupted by the instability of the mid-1990s. In the early 21st century, the main exploited minerals were columbite, cassiterite, gold, and beryl.

Manufacturing in Rwanda

Industries in Rwanda mainly revolve around the processing of agricultural products, such as coffee, tea, and sugar. Other important products include beer, soft drinks, cigarettes, and cement. The 1994 civil war brought Rwanda’s manufacturing sector to a standstill, but industry began to pick up again in 1995.

Currency and Trade in Rwanda

The currency is the Rwanda franc, consisting of 100 centimes (547 Rwanda francs equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The National Bank of Rwanda (1964) is the issuing bank. The chief exports, coffee and tea, are shipped primarily to Germany and other European countries. Motor vehicles, fuels, textiles, and machinery are imported, mainly from Kenya, Belgium, the United States, Israel, and South Africa. Exports earned $177 million in 2007, while imports cost $590 million. In 2007 Rwanda became a member of the East African Community (EAC). Membership in the EAC customs union was expected to help Rwanda increase trade and revenues with the other member nations of the EAC, such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Transportation and Communications in Rwanda

Rwanda has a road network of 14,008 km (8,704 mi), only about 19 percent of which is paved. The country has no railroads but is linked by road to the Uganda-Kenya railroad system; most of Rwanda’s international trade passes through the Kenyan port of Mombasa. The main international airport is near Kigali. Two radio stations and one television station operate from the capital.


The Rwandan government collapsed in the civil war of 1994, and the country was taken over by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF banned political parties that were judged to have participated in massacres during the civil war. As part of a planned five-year transition to civilian rule, the RPF appointed a multiparty Transitional National Assembly. In 1995 the assembly adopted a new constitution based on the 1991 constitution and peace agreements that were signed at the end of the civil war.

The five-year transitional period stretched to nine years before Rwanda adopted a new constitution in 2003. The 2003 constitution establishes the rights of its citizens, prohibits political parties based on ethnic or racial groups, and resolves to fight the ideology of ethnic hatred in Rwanda.

Executive of Rwanda

The head of state of Rwanda is a president, elected by universal suffrage to a seven-year term. The president may serve only two terms. The president appoints a Cabinet to implement national policy and a prime minister to oversee the Cabinet.

Legislature of Rwanda

Legislative power is vested in a parliament, consisting of two chambers: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Of the 80 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 53 are directly elected, 24 must be women elected by provincial councils, 2 are selected by the National Youth Council, and 1 by the Federation of the Associations of the Disabled. All deputies serve five-year terms. The Senate consists of 26 members elected or appointed for an eight-year term: 12 elected by local councils, 8 appointed by the president, and 6 selected by various other groups. At least 30 percent of the senators must be women.

Judiciary in Rwanda

Rwanda’s judicial system is based on Belgian and German codes and traditional local law. The highest court is the Supreme Court, whose 14 judges are appointed for life by the Senate. The High Court of the Republic is subordinate to the Supreme Court, and a lesser court is located in each of the country’s local government units. Judges are appointed for life. The 2003 constitution also outlines the creation of a specialized branch of local courts called Gacaca Courts, which are traditional judicial bodies overseen by village elders. Gacaca Courts were created to try the tens of thousands of Rwandans who were accused of participating in the massacres of the early 1990s.

Local Government of Rwanda

For administrative purposes, Rwanda is divided into 5 provinces: North, South, East, West, and Kigali. Provinces are subdivided into districts.

Health and Welfare in Rwanda

A government-assisted program provides community centers and health services. Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), malaria, schistosomiasis, and sexually transmitted infections are all severe medical problems in Rwanda. However, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is by far the most serious health issue. In 2007, an estimated 130,000 Rwandans had AIDS.


The first known inhabitants of Rwanda were the Twa. The Hutu, probably from the Congo Basin, were well established by the 15th century, when the Tutsi came down from the north and conquered the area. The Tutsi kings, or mwamis, became the absolute monarchs of the region. Their rule was enforced by chiefs and subchiefs, who each ruled an umusozi, a fiefdom that consisted of a single hill. Political and economic relations were based on an unequal feudal relationship, known as the ubuhake system, in which the Hutu became a caste of serfs forced into subjugation and economic dependency by the Tutsi. This caste system was rigidly upheld, and intermarriage was almost nonexistent. A similar feudal system was dominant in Burundi.

Foreign Rule

In 1858 John Hanning Speke was the first European to visit the area. German explorers arrived in the 1880s, and Roman Catholic clergy established missions in the area. Later in the decade Rwanda (then called Ruanda) and Burundi (then called Urundi) were incorporated into German East Africa. The indigenous rulers maintained good relations with the Germans, and later, with the Belgians, who occupied the country during World War I (1914-1918). After the war the area was mandated to Belgium by the League of Nations and became known as the Territory of Ruanda-Urundi. Following World War II (1939-1945) it became a United Nations (UN) trust territory. The Belgians continued previous policies of supporting education by missionaries and of ruling through the Tutsi chiefs. However, they also forced the Tutsi to phase out the ubuhake system by 1958.

As political consciousness increased among Africans after World War II, the Hutu grew more vocal in protesting the political and social inequalities in Rwanda. In 1959 the antagonism between Tutsi and Hutu erupted into violence; the next year the Tutsi king fled the country, and an exodus of some 200,000 Tutsi followed. A republic was established in January 1961. In elections held the following September, the Hutu-dominated Parmehutu Party won a large majority of the seats in the National Assembly, and a 4-1 majority voted against the return of the king.


At the insistence of the United Nations trusteeship council, Belgium granted Rwanda independence on July 1, 1962, with Grégoire Kayibanda, leader of the Parmehutu (now renamed the Democratic Republican Movement; MDR), as president. The MDR won the elections in 1965 and 1969.

In 1963 some exiled Tutsi returned to Rwanda as a rebel army. Although unsuccessful, the takeover attempt prompted a large-scale massacre of Tutsi by the Hutu, followed by periodic ethnic violence. At the same time thousands of Hutu victimized in Burundi took refuge in Rwanda. In July 1973 the defense minister, General Juvénal Habyarimana, led a bloodless coup that ousted Kayibanda. Habyarimana, a Hutu from the north, charged that Kayibanda favored southern Hutu and was trying to monopolize power. Both parliament and the MDR were suspended after the coup. Political activities resumed in 1975 with the formation of a new ruling party called the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD). In 1978 a new constitution was approved, and President Habyarimana was confirmed in office for another five years. After thwarting a coup attempt in 1980, he was reelected without opposition in 1983 and again in 1988. In 1990, Belgium and several Central African nations sent troops to Rwanda to oppose an uprising by the Tutsi-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a movement of Tutsi refugees and moderate Hutu, invading from Uganda. A new constitution authorizing the establishment of a multiparty democracy became law in 1991, and a prime minister was appointed to organize a transitional government in preparation for multiparty elections in 1995.

Civil War

In April 1994, shortly after concluding peace negotiations with the RPF that called for UN peacekeeping forces to be stationed in Rwanda, President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed when their plane was shot down near Kigali. Responsibility for the attack has not been established. Habyarimana’s death provoked a wave of ethnic violence, prompting UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to accuse the Hutu-dominated Rwandan Army of genocide against the Tutsi. At the height of the violence, the UN forces, lacking a mandate to protect civilians, abandoned Kigali. Over the next few months, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were massacred. The RPF army pushed toward Kigali, and a civil war ensued. In June the French government sent 2,500 troops to Rwanda to establish a safe area in the southwestern part of the country. But attempts to mediate a cease-fire failed as the RPF mounted a successful final assault.

After capturing the capital of Kigali, RPF troops began to drive the Rwandan Army and Hutu civilians northwest, toward the border with Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Retaliatory violence by Tutsi claimed several thousand lives, including that of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Kigali. By mid-July, an estimated 1.2 million Rwandans had fled the advancing RPF army across the border and into Zaire, forming enormous refugee camps around the city of Goma. By early August, an estimated one-quarter of the prewar population of Rwanda had either died or fled the country. International relief efforts were mobilized to care for the refugees, but available supplies were inadequate and outbreaks of disease were widespread. In the midst of the squalor of the camps, more than 20,000 refugees died in a cholera epidemic.

A cease-fire was declared in July, and an RPF-backed government was established with Pasteur Bizimungu, a moderate Hutu, as president. The RPF made a point of including other groups in the government. Many Tutsi refugees began to return to Rwanda, including refugees who had fled in the 1960s, but the repatriation of Hutu refugees was slower, as many feared reprisals.

Former United States president Jimmy Carter sponsored a summit in Cairo, Egypt, in November 1995, on the issue of Rwandan refugees. The summit was attended by the presidents of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire, and a representative from Tanzania. An agreement was reached to work to return refugees to Rwanda. In the next months refugees began returning in large numbers from Burundi and Tanzania, but few returned from Zaire. The UN mission in Rwanda ended in March 1996.

Cross-Border Unrest

Throughout 1996 more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, most of them Hutu, remained in camps in Zaire. The civil war that erupted in eastern Zaire in late 1996 revealed that these camps contained small percentages of armed Hutu militias. These Hutu, likely the same who led or participated in the 1994 massacres of Tutsi, used the huge refugee camps as places of refuge while they organized raids into Rwanda with the goal of overthrowing the RPF government. The Hutu refugees remained in the camps either out of fear of Tutsi retribution in Rwanda or because they were held against their will by the militias. The militias clashed with the largely Tutsi eastern Zairian rebels around Lake Kivu, often very close to the border between Rwanda and Zaire. The Hutu militias were aided by the Zairian government, the Tutsi rebels in Zaire, by the Rwandan government. Cross-border artillery shelling was reported near Gisenyi, north of Lake Kivu.

In October and November 1996 the Tutsi rebels successfully routed Hutu militias in several huge refugee camps near the border. Some 800,000 Rwandans poured home, but several hundred thousand remained in Zaire. As the civil war spread and the rebels gained territory, the Rwandan refugees were forced west, deeper into the jungles of Zaire. Despite international outcry over their plight, the constantly moving refugees remained largely beyond the reach of aid workers. By the end of Zaire’s civil war in May, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees had been killed in the fighting, or had died of disease or starvation.

Search for Justice

The UN voted in late 1994 to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to try the organizers of the massacres (see War Crimes Trials). The tribunal opened in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1996. Trials began in early 1997, but the UN tribunal was criticized for mismanagement, poor organization, and the slow pace of the trials. The RPF government began its own trials of midlevel massacre organizers in 1996. In 2002 the tens of thousands of Rwandans accused of participating in the actual killings began to be tried in traditional local courts called Gacaca Courts.

In March 2000 Bizimungu resigned the presidency after clashing with the RPF over the composition of a new Cabinet. He accused parliament of targeting Hutu politicians in anticorruption investigations. Vice president and defense minister Paul Kagame succeeded Bizimungu. Kagame, the former head of the RPF rebels, had long been considered Rwanda’s real political leader. Kagame became the first Tutsi president since the nation’s independence. Following the adoption of a new constitution, Kagame won an August 2003 multiparty presidential election.

In the 2008 parliamentary elections the RPF won an overwhelming victory, taking 78 percent of the vote and winning 42 of the 53 directly elected seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Rwanda became the first nation to elect a female majority to its main legislative body. In addition to the 24 female legislators mandated by the 2003 constitution, another 21 women were directly elected to the 80-member chamber.

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