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Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

Beyond Tribalism: The Hutu-Tutsi Question and

Catholic Rhetoric in Colonial Rwanda
J.J. Carney

Department of Theology, Creighton University, Omaha, NE, USA

Post genocide commentaries on colonial Rwandan history have emphasized the centrality of the
Hamitic Hypothesis in shaping Catholic leaders sociopolitical imagination concerning Hutu
and Tutsi identities. For most scholars, the resulting racialist interpretation of Hutu and Tutsi
categories poisoned Rwandan society and laid the groundwork for postcolonial ethnic violence.
This paper challenges the simplicity of this standard narrative. Not only did colonial Catholic
leaders possess a complex understanding of the terms Hutu and Tutsi, but the Hutu-Tutsi
question was not the exclusive or even dominant paradigm of late colonial Catholic discourse.
Even after the eruption of Hutu-Tutsi tensions in the late 1950s, Catholic bishops and lay elites
continued to interpret the Hutu-Tutsi distinction in a wide variety of ways. Catholic attitudes
and the escalation of Hutu-Tutsi tensions stemmed more from contextual political factors than
immutable anthropological theories, however flawed.
Rwanda, Catholic, Hutu, Tutsi, colonial, genocide

In a country in which nearly three-quarters of the population claimed the

Roman Catholic faith, the Rwandan government and Hutu extremists killed
upward of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu over the course of one hundred
days between April and July of 1994.1 In light of Rwandas status as one of the
most Catholic countries in Africa, the Tutsi Genocide of 1994 forced a serious and ongoing reassessment of the legacies of twentieth-century Catholic
mission efforts in Rwanda. In particular, scholars have criticized colonial
Catholic leaders for racializing Hutu and Tutsi categories, hardening previously fluid lines and introducing a zero-sum tribal discourse that reaped a
terrible harvest in the postcolonial period. Mgr. Lon Classe, the Vicar Apostolic of Rwanda between 1922 and 1945, has emerged as a particular target
for his racialist rhetoric and staunch support of both Belgian colonial policy
and the Tutsi royal court.2 His later successor, Mgr. Andr Perraudin, has
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2012

DOI: 10.1163/157006612X646178

J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202


become a symbol of the missionary clergys Machiavellian decision to switch

their loyalties from the Tutsi to the Hutu in the late 1950s.3
These critiques have coalesced into a stock narrative. First, Europeans created Hutu-Tutsi tensions if not the categories themselves. The ideological
roots of Rwandas postcolonial ethnic bloodletting stemmed not from primordial ethnic hatreds but from colonial manipulations between 1900 and 1960.
Second, the key factor in this colonial manipulation was the Catholic missionaries racializing of the Hutu-Tutsi distinction. In turning flexible social
categories into immutable racial identities, Rwandas Catholic leaders ensured
the long-term division of Banyarwanda society along a Hutu-Tutsi tribal axis.
Missionaries, colonial officials, and Rwandan elites all became locked in a
dualistic political imagination of Hutu and Tutsi. In the words of the influential postgenocide commentator Philip Gouretich, To be sure, no one in
Rwanda in the late 1950s had offered an alternative to a tribal construction of
politics (Gourevitch 1998, 61).
While this narrative offers appealing simplicity, its very simplicity occludes
as much as it reveals. First, while Hutu-Tutsi tensions increased under German and Belgian colonial rule, Hutu-Tutsi relations were already declining
under the reign of Mwami (King) Rwabugiri in the late nineteenth century.
Second, although European commentators introduced an inappropriate racial
dimension to Hutu and Tutsi identities, missionaries and Rwandan elites continued to recognize the complexity and fluidity of these identities. Third,
tribalismthe framing of politics in exclusively Hutu-Tutsi termsdid not
emerge as a coherent political vision until the final years of the 1950s. And
even at this late colonial stage, so-called tribal constructions of Rwandan
society remained highly controversial.
My goal in this essay is not to exonerate Catholic leaders from their contributions to Rwandas poisoned twentieth-century politics. Nor do I deny that
European missionaries hardened Hutu and Tutsi identities by introducing
racialist dimensions to these terms. Rather, I show that colonial Catholic leaders possessed a surprisingly complex and flexible understanding of Hutu and
Tutsi, and they were not conceptually imprisoned within an ethnicist or tribalist political imagination. In addition, the colonial racialization of Hutu and
Tutsi identities is not the most important hermeneutical key for understanding the political tensions that subsumed Rwandan society at the end of the
colonial era.
I begin this essay by presenting the post-1994 scholarly consensus concerning the precolonial meanings of the categories of Hutu and Tutsi. In brief,
Hutu and Tutsi identities existed in precolonial Rwanda, but they could best
be described as social categories rather than ethnic groups. The Banyarwanda


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

people continued to share a single language, similar religious traditions, and

integrated political structures, and flexible Hutu and Tutsi identities shifted
over time and varied by region. However, Hutu and Tutsi labels also possessed
ideological overtones that grew more pronounced in the final years of Mwami
Rwabugiris reign. This stratification only increased with the introduction of
the European Hamitic Hypothesis. In particular, the Hamitic thesis hardened Hutu and Tutsi identities by introducing a Western racial component to
the distinction. Catholic missionaries helped propagate this Hamitic vision of
Rwandan society during the first decades of the twentieth century.
What standard historiographical narratives on Rwanda have failed to demonstrate, however, is the continuing complexity of Catholic colonial rhetoric
concerning the categories of Hutu and Tutsi. Here I focus on the controversial
figure of Lon Classe, the most important Catholic leader of his generation
who served as Vicar Apostolic of Rwanda between 1922 and 1945. Scholars
are right to note that Classe followed White Father founder Charles Lavigeries
top-down vision of evangelization and established the church as a close ally of
the colonial state and the Tutsi-dominated royal court. However, I challenge
the stereotype that Classe was uniquely obsessed with the Hamitic thesis or
failed to understand the flexibility of Hutu and Tutsi categories. In fact,
Classes writings demonstrate that he possessed a surprisingly nuanced understanding of Hutu and Tutsi. This in turn calls for a reassessment of the underlying purpose of his more Hamitic statements on Hutu and Tutsi identities.
Rather than a racialist ideologue, Classe emerges here as a consummate ecclesial politician looking to position the Catholic Church for future growth.
Moving to the post-World War II period, I then demonstrate how latecolonial Catholic political discourse transcended a simple Hutu-Tutsi narrative. Here I show how geopolitical issues like anticommunism, democratization,
and Christian civilization shaped Catholic commentaries in Rwanda in the
early 1950s. In particular, Catholic leaders seemed most concerned with
ensuring the loyalty of both Hutu and Tutsi political elites, elites that were collectively described by the French term volu. Surprisingly, this discourse rarely
reflects the Hutu and Tutsi terms thought to dominate the consciousness of all
colonial Catholic leaders.
If strikingly absent from early 1950s political commentaries, the HutuTutsi question did emerge as a dominant public discourse after 1956. Yet even
in the late 1950s Rwandan Catholic elites continued to describe Hutu and
Tutsi identities in a multitude of ways. Here I highlight the little-known transcripts of the Hutu-Tutsi Study Commission, a committee tasked in 1958
with studying and resolving the alleged Hutu-Tutsi social problem. In addition, public writings of Rwandas late-colonial Catholic leaders, Mgr. Andr

J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202


Perraudin and Mgr. Aloys Bigirumwami, demonstrate how the racialist interpretation of Hutu and Tutsi categories remained a contested point on the eve of
Rwandas independence. I conclude by reiterating my central premise that politics matters more than ethnicity for understanding Rwandas recent conflicts.4

What Were Hutu and Tutsi? Precolonial Complexities and the Hamitic
Despite their central importance in Rwandas tragic postcolonial history, the
categories of Hutu and Tutsi are not easily defined (cf. Kalibwami 1991,
47-60; Reyntjens 1985, 25-30; Mamdani 2001, 41-75; and Rudakemwa
2005, 23-30). Variously described as distinctions of race, ethnicity, caste,
socioeconomic status, or political power, the terms used to explain Hutu
and Tutsi themselves reflect deep ideological presuppositions.5 To be sure, traditional Rwandan myths never described Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa as ubwoko, the
Kinyarwanda term closest to the Western notion of race or ethnicity. Nor
should one read Hutu and Tutsi categories through a strict economic or classist lens where Tutsi describes the upper class and Hutu refers to the lower
class (Codere 1973; Lemarchand 1970; DHertefelt 1971). Thousands of
wealthy Hutu were never reclassified as Tutsi, and thousands of lower-class
Tutsi struggled to eke out a living far from the luxuries of the royal court
(Vidal 1973, 32-47). Neither does the term caste fit the Hutu-Tutsi distinction; there were no connotations of purity or pollution as in South Asia (Todd
1977, 398-412). Rather, the precolonial terms Hutu and Tutsi typically
referred to social or professional categories of farmers and herders, respectively.
Significantly, the categories also contained hierarchical overtones. As Jan Vansina has argued, in the nineteenth century Hutu was a demeaning term that
alluded to rural boorishness or loutish behavior (Vansina 2003, 134). Royal
Tutsi elites applied this term to servants and foreigners as well as farmers.6
Although Hutu and Tutsi categories existed in traditional Banyarwanda
society, the Hutu-Tutsi line remained comparatively fluid, and significant
factors of integration remained (Gatwa 2005, 5). Intermarriage continued,
wealthy Hutu were at times reclassified as Tutsi, and Hutu and Tutsi co-existed
in socially formative institutions like the military. While the mwami (king)
had theoretically unlimited power, three chiefs divided responsibility for
agricultural, pastoral, and tax issues on each of Rwandas hills. Significantly,
one of these chiefs was always Hutu. Furthermore, a Munyarwanda was
not merely Hutu or Tutsi. Family, clan, and lineage ties were often more
determinative, whether on the local hill or in the often-vicious succession


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struggles at court. Royal narratives included more discussion of clan alliances,

religious power, and warrior conquests than the Hutu-Tutsi distinction
(Chrtien 2003, 115).
While historical evidence does not point to a primordial Hutu-Tutsi struggle in Rwanda, social stratification increased during the late nineteenth century (Des Forges 1972, 8-16; Mamdani 2001, 69-72; C. Newbury 1988,
207-209; Reyntjens 1985, 23-30). Significantly, this stratification was increasingly framed in Hutu-Tutsi terms. Under the 1860-1895 reign of Mwami
Rwabugiri, the Kinyarwanda term abahutu became more commonly used as a
socially derogatory term implying political marginalization and social submissiveness (De Lame 2005, 48). Traditional institutions like the cattle-based
ubuhake became more oppressive; new institutions like uburetwa land corves
were imposed on Hutu farmers but not Tutsi herders.7 In addition, Rwabugiris
military conquests extended his authority from central Rwanda to previously
independent Hutu areas in the north and west, provoking strong resistance
from powerful Hutu lineages in these regions (Vansina 2003, 135-138). And
if large numbers of poor Tutsi peasants continued to live alongside their Hutu
neighbors, royal ideology increasingly equated Tutsi with political and economic power and Hutu with political, economic, and social marginalization
(Linden 1977, 16-20; Vansina 2003, 134-139). One thinks here of a
Kinyarwanda phrase like Sindi umuhutu wawe, literally I am not his servant.
In the words of Johann Pottier, one should see through the smokescreen of
sameness (same territory, same clans, same political institutions, same language) and must appreciate the divisive institutions and practices which preceded European rule (Pottier 2002, 116).8
Whatever its earlier antecedents, however, the arrival of European colonial
officials and Catholic missionaries exacerbated this Hutu-Tutsi stratification.
In the early 1900s many European missionaries and scholars presented the
Hutu-Tutsi distinction as a racial or biological division, distinguishing Tutsi
from Hutu according to the Hamitic Hypothesis (cf. Sanders 1969, 521-532;
Rutayisire 1996, 42-55; Katongole 2005, 98-99; Speke 2007; Czekanowski
1960, 1-17). Propagated by John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley, Jan
Czekanowski, Richard Kandt, and other colonial explorers and anthropologists, the Hamitic Hypothesis posited that a so-called Hamitic race of North
African and Ethiopian pastoralists was culturally and biologically superior to
the Bantu populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Any signs of advanced African
civilization were then traced to this Hamitic influence. For European theorists
in Rwanda, the Tutsi fit the role of Hamitic civilizer who had invaded and
conquered the indigenous Bantu Hutu. Significantly, Hamitic peoples were
thought to share closer genetic ties to white Europeans than Bantu Africans.

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In the words of Louis de Lacger, one of Rwandas early missionary historians,

the Tutsi were brothers of the Nubians, the Galla, the Danakil. They have the
Caucasian type and have come from Semitic roots in Asia . . . before being in
this way blackened they were bronze (De Lacger and Nothomb 1959, 56).
For Lon Classe, the influential Catholic vicar apostolic of Rwanda between
1922 and 1945, the Tutsi are not Bantu, they are, if one wants, Negroids
they are an African people which possesses the strongest Hamitic indices
(Classe 1922, 680). Described by one missionary as Caucasians under a black
skin, Tutsi were seen as culturally and racially superior to their Bantu
Hutu neighbors; their supposedly foreign origins also lent the Tutsi an air of
the exotic that would come back to haunt them in the postcolonial period
(Mamdani 2001, 82; Rutayasire 1996, 42-49). Such racialist language underlay the ethnic identity cards that Belgium introduced in the 1930s. Based on
cattle ownership, church records, and physical measurements, these cards
classified 85 percent of Rwandas population as Hutu, 14 percent as Tutsi, and
1 percent as Twa (Mamdani 2001, 99). These numbers would continue to
circulate until the 1990s.
In the post-1994 debates over what precipitated Rwandas recent history of
Hutu-Tutsi violence, the Hamitic Hypothesis has loomed large. For most
commentators the zero-sum ethnic discourse of the postcolonial period can be
traced to flawed anthropological theories like the Hamitic Hypothesis that
divided Banyarwanda society and crystallized collective Hutu and Tutsi identities (Chrtien 1999, 129-165; Mamdani 2001; Gourevitch 1998; Longman
2010; Katongole 2005; Gahama and Mvuyekure 2003, 303-313). Since
Catholic missionaries and lay elites propagated the Hamitic thesis in colonial
Rwandan society, the Catholic Church has come under withering critique for
sowing the seeds of genocidal discourse in colonial Rwanda. According to
Augustin Mvuyekure, missionary discourse ossified Hutu and Tutsi socioprofessional categories into fixed categories of race and ethnicity, thereby laying the foundation for future ethnic violence (Mvuyekure 1989, 321).
Without doubt, the Hamitic thesis introduced a racial innovation that considerably hardened Hutu-Tutsi lines. However, a closer reading of missionary
sources reveals a more complex narrative. In particular, Classe possessed a
more nuanced understanding of Hutu and Tutsi categories than is implied by
an exclusive focus on his Hamitic statements. Nor can one dismiss his ecclesial
or social policies as a simple story of promoting Tutsi over Hutu on the grounds
of alleged racial superiority. In the following section I argue that Classes
patronage of young Tutsi elites in the late 1920s and 1930s reflected first and
foremost his desire to protect and promote the institutional interests of the
Catholic Church.


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

Mgr. Lon Classe and Hutu-Tutsi Discourse in Colonial Rwanda

Before turning to Classes ethnic rhetoric, however, one must understand why
he and other Catholic missionaries were in Rwanda in the first place (Lugan
1978, 69-70; Vidal 1973, 32-33; DHertefelt 1960, 119; Minnaert 2006;
Linden 1977, 29-45). Recognizing past missionary successes in pacifying and
civilizing local African populations, in 1899 the Germans acquiesced to the
requests of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) to establish Catholic
missions in Rwanda. Arriving at the royal capital of Nyanza in February 1900,
the White Fathers established five mission stations in outlying areas of Rwanda
between 1900 and 1903. In this way Rwandas young mwami, Musinga, aimed
to keep the missionaries at a distance while using them strategically to extend
court influence over recently conquered populations. Like the Germans before
them, the White Fathers were greeted as political liberators in some areas. In
contrast to their late-nineteenth-century missions in neighboring Buganda,
the White Fathers struggled to attract elites to their missions. However, the
church successfully recruited among more marginalized populations, drawing
women, children, and poor Hutu and Tutsi men looking for economic patronage and political protection.
Working out of the new Kabgayi mission station in central Rwanda, Mgr.
Lon Classe became vicar general of the Rwandan missions in 1907. Classes
superior, the regional Vicar Apostolic Jean-Joseph Hirth, gave him considerable freedom in shaping mission policy in Rwanda. In contrast to Hirths more
measured approach, Classe unequivocally embraced White Father founder
Charles Lavigeries goal of spreading Christianity through top-down conversion.9 Specifically, Classe feared that supporting the poor masses would lead to
the churchs social and political marginalization. As Classe wrote in 1905,
Our dear mission . . . can look forward to some dark days if we take no interest
in the apostolate to the ruling class, if, by our acts, we give ground for the
opinion that the Catholic faith is that of the poor (Classe 1905, 185-186;
Rutayasire 1987). Positing that in this country, as in Uganda, the King is the
soul of the country, Classe argued in 1911 that failing to cultivate chiefs
would give Catholicism a situation of inferiority and slavery, condemning it
to be forever taken with the difficulties of oppression (Classe 1911). He also
feared that the White Father missions would lose ground to rival Lutheran
missionaries who had arrived in Rwanda in 1907.
Not surprisingly, Classes vociferous support for Rwandas Tutsi-dominated
royal elites took an ethnic cast. Shortly after arriving in Rwanda in 1902,
Classe described the Tutsi as an Aryan or Semite type (Rutayasire 1996, 49).
Following Hirth, Classe also made a broad association between Tutsi and

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nobility, writing in 1922 that when we speak of the Batutsi, we think very
uniquely of the great Tutsi chiefs, who constitute a very restrained aristocracy
(Classe 1922, 681). After Belgium replaced Germany as Rwandas colonial
overlords in 1916, Classe vociferously supported Belgiums and the royal
courts pacification campaigns across the northern and western regions of
Rwanda. This process often entailed replacing local Hutu lineage heads with
imported Tutsi notables (Rutayisire 1987, 112; Kalibwami 1991, 194). When
Great Britain briefly annexed the eastern region of Gisaka in 1923-24, Classes
voice proved critical in shoring up Belgian support for Musingas claims to the
territory. And when Belgian officials wavered in their commitment to an allTutsi ruling class, it was Classe who insisted that reinstituting Hutu chiefs
would lead the country to anti-European communism and anarchy
(Rudakemwa 2005, 202; Mbonimana 1978, 153). In addition, even as he
turned against Musinga after 1927, Classe continued to favor a Tutsi monopoly of the chefferies and sous-chefferies, the colonial administrative units that
Belgian authorities established in the 1920s. Generally speaking, we have no
chiefs who are better qualified, more intelligent, more active, more capable of
appreciating progress and more fully accepted by the people than the Tutsi
(Reyntjens 1985, 105; Longman 2010, 63; Lemarchand 1970, 73).
In addition, Hutu-Tutsi stratification grew inside the Catholic Church
under Classes watch. This was most evident in the area of schooling, a pastoral
priority that Classe saw as essential to determining whether the leadership
elite will be for us or against us (Classe 1940, 31). Whereas Hutu and Tutsi
had been educated together in the early years of Catholic missions, Classe
introduced a two-tiered educational system in the 1920s. Students were segregated by ethnic group, and Tutsi received a far more rigorous course than their
Hutu colleagues. This helped ensure that only Tutsi qualified for the most
influential positions in the colonial administration. In Classes view, Hutu
children should receive an education, but it should be an education suited to
those who would have places to take in mines and farming (Classe 1940, 40).
In addition, Classe patronized the Tutsi-dominated Josephite priests and
Benebikira sisters.
In summary, Classe contributed to the hardening of Hutu-Tutsi categories
in colonial Rwandan society and within the emerging Rwandan church. His
rhetoric could reflect the Hamitic imagination that European colonial officials
mapped onto Rwandan society. But to stop here is to say too little. For example, Classe did not categorically oppose Hutu advancement in the church.
Classe ordained multiple Hutu to the priesthood, appointed Hutu priests
and catechists to lead mission stations, and named the Hutu Gallican Bushishi
as professor of the major seminary in Kabgayi. Catholic schools educated


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Hutu throughout the 1910s and 1920s, and the Catholic seminary remained
one of the only avenues for Hutu advancement in colonial Rwanda (Rutayisire
1987, 178).
In turn, Classes writings in the 1920s and 1930s demonstrate the complexity of his understanding of Hutu and Tutsi categories. Even as he supported a
Tutsi monopoly on political power, Classe undermined the notion of inherent
Tutsi intellectual superiority and hinted at a more socioeconomic understanding of the Hutu-Tutsi distinction: I would say that the Tutsi are not, in general, more intelligent than the Hutu . . . Tutsi refers not to origin but social
condition, a state of fortune . . . whoever is a chief, or is rich, will often be
called Tutsi (Classe 1922, 681). Classe also recognized that Hutu and Tutsi
shared the same culture and intermixed through marriage, particularly in
Rwandas central regions: The Tutsi and the Hutu speak the same language,
they have the same religion and the same customs . . . the Hutu are Bantu but,
in the center of the country, with a certain proportion of Tutsi blood (Classe
1922: 680).10 Even as he described Tutsi in 1935 as Negroids and the African
people which displays the strongest Hamitic indications, Classe recognized
that Rwandas Tutsi population was not a pure race, and for those which fortune does not favor, alliances with female Hutu are not rare (Classe 1935,
138). Classe also continued to emphasize the political horizon that underlay
the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, noting that when he used the term Tutsi he was
speaking of the great Tutsi chiefs rather than the broader Tutsi population.
Yet even here he recognized that the ranks of Rwandas great chiefs included
Hutu and Twa alike (Classe 1935, 139). Nor was ethnic identity the sole
determining factor in Classes political views. For example, Classe encouraged
Belgium to reject older Tutsi nobles who did not embrace Belgiums and the
Catholic Churchs modernizing project. He cast his lot instead with a rising
cadre of young Tutsi elites who had been trained in Catholic schools. In the
views of Rwandas preeminent Catholic leader, political advancement depended
on openness to European modernization and Christianity as much as ethnic
heritage (Classe 1940, 40-43).
More than a racist ideologue convinced of the biological superiority of
Tutsi over Hutu, Classe was a pragmatic churchman protecting what he perceived to be the political interests of the Catholic Church. His much-quoted
1930 essay calling for Mwami Musingas removal from power advocated an
exclusively Tutsi ruling caste. Often overlooked, however, were his subsequent
statements proscribing any sort of permanent ban on Hutu political leadership and rejecting Tutsi favoritism in employment or secondary schools (Classe
1930; Mbonimana 1978, 64; Reyntjens 1985, 105). In other words, Classes
insistence on a temporary Tutsi monopolization of Rwandas chefferies was a

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tactical move to ensure that the Catholic Churchand not its Lutheran or
Anglican rivalsshaped the next generation of Tutsi political leaders. As
Classe said in 1927, The question is whether the ruling elite will be for us or
against us, whether the important places in native society will be in Catholic
or in non-Catholic hands; whether the Church will have through education
and its formation of youth the preponderant influence in Rwanda (Classe
1940, 31). This does not lessen Classes responsibility for his divisive rhetoric,
nor does it deny that Catholic institutions exacerbated Hutu-Tutsi tensions in
colonial Rwanda. But as would be evident in the 1950s, political and institutional interests were as important as racialist stereotypes in determining the
actions of Catholic leaders. In turn, developments in the 1950s demonstrated
the surprisingly malleable and intrinsically political nature of Hutu-Tutsi
identities in late colonial Rwanda.

Alternative Ecclesial and Political Visions in Early 1950s Rwanda

Not only have recent commentators tended to oversimplify the complexity
of Catholic colonial discourse on the Hutu-Tutsi question, but they have
often overestimated the importance of these categories for Catholic political
and social visions. Even scholars who doubt the importance of precolonial
Hutu-Tutsi tensions have not questioned the overriding centrality of this
division during the colonial period.11 Nor have many examined whether the
Hutu-Tutsi question did in fact dominate Catholic discourse in the latecolonial period. When one examines early 1950s church documents and
Catholic newspapers, however, one discovers that Hutu and Tutsi were not
the primary lenses for the Catholic sociopolitical vision in the decade following World War II. Instead, Catholic literature betrays anxieties over three
major sociopolitical issues. First, church leaders looked to counter the influences of international communism and modern secularism in Rwandan society. Second, they connected the Christian civilizing mission with emerging
ideas of democracy and social justice. Finally, they worried about how to keep
indigenous Catholic elites in line with clerical teaching. Significantly, none of
these concerns were framed in Hutu-Tutsi terms during the first half of the
In terms of numbers and public influence, Rwanda in 1950 had become
one of the most Catholic countries in Africa (cf. Nothomb 1962, 121;
Adriaenssens 1956, 22; Rapport Annuel 1951, 412-415; Souvenirs du Sacre
1951; Ntezimana 1952; Rapport Annuel 1956; Le Jubile du Ruanda 1951).
Reflecting both political opportunism and religious fervor, Rwandan elites


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converted en masse to Catholicism during a late 1920s and 1930s movement famously described as la tornade. This public embrace of Catholicism
culminated with Mwami Mutara Rudahigwas 1946 dedication of the nation
to Christ the King. By 1950 Rwanda counted nearly 600,000 baptized Catholics and catechumensone-third of a total population of 1.8 million. While
adherents to traditional religion still comprised a majority of the population,
Catholics outnumbered Protestants by fifteen to one and Muslims by one
hundred to one. Significantly, Catholicism dominated Rwandas elite class
even more than its peasantry; 647 of Rwandas 674 chiefs and subchiefs had
converted to Catholicism by 1950. Nearly all educated Hutu had been trained
in Catholic schools and seminaries. The Catholic Church had become the
central agent of intellectual and political formation in colonial Rwanda.
However, such rapid success bred restlessness. Specifically, Catholic commentators in Rwanda feared that the rising clamor for decolonization would
open Africas doors to international communism, secularization, and religious
indifference. The division of Berlin in 1948, communist triumph in China,
cold war stalemate in Korea, and ongoing struggle in Vietnam appeared to
confirm this pessimism. These fears colored missionary views of African
nationalism, especially the movements most vociferous pan-Africanist and
anticolonial streams. Writing in the journal LAmi, the White Fathers attempted
to steel Rwandan Catholic elites against what they described as an approaching red menace.12 Inflammatory articles concerned the errors of Marxist
ideology, the anticlerical abuses of communist China, and a supposed Soviet
plot to pose communist agitators as African Catholic priests (Savez-vous,
1950; Des Noirs Communistes 1954). Even the missionaries growing emphasis on social justice and land reform stemmed in part from their fears that
peasant resentment would open Rwanda to the subversive ideas of communism (Cattin 1952; Actualit sociales 1954).13 According to Fr. Andr
Perraudin, the rector of Rwandas Catholic seminary and future bishop of
Rwandas largest diocese, the red monster will turn its eyes towards Africa.
The future [of communism] is not perhaps that far off (Perraudin 1955).
Along with their apprehensions concerning international communism,
missionaries feared that the secularizing trend of modern European history
would soon develop in Rwanda. A bellwether in this regard was the lay schools
debate of 1954-55. Supported by Augustin Buisseret, Belgiums minister for
colonies, Mwami Mutara and a coterie of other Tutsi chiefs advocated for
Belgium to develop an independent state school system and curtail missionary
influence in Rwandas Catholic schools. The argument reflected a broader
debate on whether a future independent Rwanda should reduce the social
influence of the Catholic Church, particularly as represented by the White

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Fathers and other missionary clergy. The White Fathers interpreted such critiques as part of a larger secularist conspiracy to eliminate Catholic influence
from society. In the words of one disgruntled White Father, anticlerical politicians were trying to keep Catholic politics in the sacristy (La Franc-maonnerie 1955). As the noted Rwandan historian Paul Rutayisire has argued,
Catholic leaders of the early 1950s were more concerned with perceived religious indifference and resurgent paganism than the Hutu-Tutsi question
per se (Rutayasire 2004, 42).
Second, Catholic leaders saw the upbuilding of Christian civilization as a
central component of their evangelical mission. Catholic missions had long
emphasized the importance of the European civilizing mission in Africa. In
the words of one Belgian cardinal, European missionaries had served for decades as messengers of Christian civilization in black Africa (Van Roey 1952,
104).14 While these sentiments would change after independence, latecolonial Rwandan elites noted their approval of the Westernizing influences
of Catholic missions. According to Alexis Kagame, the famous Rwandan
theologian and royal advisor, White Father missionaries had developed the
Kinyarwanda language and offered the religious formation that was an irreplaceable element in the initiation of Black Africa to Western civilization
(Kagame 1951, 223; Kagame 1950, 137-140; Gatwa 1954, 284). Similarly,
the Hutu journalist and future Rwandan president Gregoire Kayibanda associated the churchs civilizing mission with the Catholic obligation to protect
the common good and defend Rwandas status as a bulwark of African Christianity (Kayibanda 1953, 169; Kayibanda 1954e, 7). For Kayibanda the
Christian social task of the mid-1950s entailed Rwandans baptizing the structures and institutions of Rwanda. While this would not require a theocracy,
only an entente between church and state could provide a healthy basis for the
further evolution of Rwandan society (Kayibanda 1954b, 173-74; Kayibanda
1954d, 344; Nzamwita 1953, 236-237).
If such a church-state partnership had helped propagate a neotraditional,
hierarchical vision of Rwandan society during the first decades of the twentieth century, new winds of democratization and modernization were blowing
in the early 1950s. After World War II the United Nations appointed an international trusteeship to oversee Rwanda and Burundi, exhorting Belgium to
devolve further power to local elites. In response, Belgium announced a tenyear development and devolution plan in 1952, opening prospects for democratic elections. In turn, Mwami Mutara announced the abolition of uburetwa
(forced labor) and ubuhake (patron-client relationships), two vestiges of
Rwandas precolonial society. In this sense Mutara embraced the political
modernization of Rwanda, describing the 1953 decree establishing Rwandas


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

Superior Council as introducing democratic principles in the functioning of

our institutions . . . posing the foundations for the transformation of a feudal
Rwanda into a modern state (Dejemeppe 1954).
Reacting to Belgiums and Mutaras decisions, missionaries and indigenous
Catholic journalists exhorted Catholics to join and shape Rwandas evolving
march for progress (Rapport du Vicariat 1951; Volker 1952; Dejemeppe
1954). In practical terms this meant replacing Rwandas ancestral customs
with Western economic, political, and human rights standards, closely associating the building of the Christian kingdom with the furthering of democracy
and the resolution of Rwandas social problems (Pour le progrs 1952, 524537). In this vein, Kayibanda argued that the Rwandan Christians task in the
1950s was to challenge barbarous mentalities which cloaked themselves in
the language of the sacred custom of the country (Kayibanda 1954d, 343).
The Hutu journalist and former Catholic seminarian Aloys Munyangaju
agreed, calling his readers to the ballot boxes and celebrating the suppression
of ubuhake as the beginning of democracy (Munyangaju 1954, 155-156).
Even the White Fathers began rewriting the history of Belgian occupation
through the lens of elevating the common masses out of feudal oppression.
Here Christianity emerged as an ethical faith that encouraged fraternity
between all men, respected the rights of each human person, and supported
social justice for the peasantry (Le Manifeste de la J.O.C. 1951; Contrat
et Travail 1950; Leons de Morale Sociale, 1951; Le Ruanda-Urundi, 1954).
To withstand the threats of communism and secularism and propagate a
more egalitarian vision of Christian civilization, the Catholic Church looked
to a new generation of political and social elites to lead Rwandan society as the
nation moved toward political autonomy and democracy. Conversant in
French, serving in the Belgian colonial administration, and working within
Rwandas emerging monetary economy, these elites were known as volus
(Gilles 1950; Derson 1951; Gasabwoya 1955). Comprised of both Tutsi and
Hutu, the volus owed their social status to European commerce and Catholic
schools rather than Rwandas ancestral institutions. At the same time, Catholic
leaders feared that volus would fall under the influences of communism,
secularism, and nationalism or join the Catholic Churchs Adventist and
Anglican religious rivals. In brief, their long-term Catholic commitments
could not be assumed. According to the Tutsi priest Louis Gasore, certain
volus, working in the manner of Renan, Voltaire and Diderot, will in a
century render void the land of missions (Gasore 1956, 54). For the aforementioned Perraudin, the primary pastoral challenge of the 1950s was to
strengthen the converts of yesterday and form Christian elites capable of
training the masses (Perraudin 1955b). The nineteenth and early twentiethcentury history of Europenamely the Catholic Churchs declining influence

J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202


among intellectual elites and urban workersplayed no small role in ratcheting up the anxieties of the White Fathers (Conway 1996; Gerard 2004; Aubert
In light of Rwandas postcolonial history, what seems most surprising in this
literature is the absence of Hutu-Tutsi discourse. The Hutu volu Kayibanda
offers a telling example. As coauthor of the 1957 Bahutu Manifesto, founder
of the Mouvement Social Muhutu, leader of the Parmehutu political party, and
president of the First Republic between 1962 and 1973, Kayibanda served as
the intellectual godfather of the Hutu nationalism that dominated Rwanda
between 1959 and 1994. Yet as lay editor of LAmi between 1953 and 1955,
Kayibanda did not write on the Hutu-Tutsi question. When he spoke of the
feudal mentality infecting the wealthier classes, he did not label this mentality Tutsi (Kayibanda 1954). His famous 1954 manifesto, Marching towards
Progress, reads like a paean for interracial and intraclass collaboration on the
pressing social issues of the day. Significantly, such social issues were never
framed in Hutu-Tutsi terms (Kayibanda 1954d). And even after taking over
the editorship of Kinyamateka, the popular Kinyarwanda-language Catholic
newspaper, Kayibandas social critiques did not incorporate Hutu-Tutsi language until well into 1957 (Rutayasire 2009, 16-17).
Similarly, Hutu-Tutsi language does not dominate the White Fathers political commentaries in the early 1950s. Brief anthropological studies in Catholic newspapers focused on the categories of clan and family; interracial analysis
centered not on Hutu and Tutsi categories but rather on white-black divisions
in Belgian Congo and apartheid South Africa (Nkongori 1951; Pauwels 1953;
Problmes sociaux 1952). Nor did the Hutu-Tutsi distinction dominate the
White Fathers more classified political reflections. For example, an anonymous October 1952 study of Rwandan politics described the Rwandan mentality as characterized by duplicity, xenophobia, and a lack of scruples in
choosing means to an end (Pro Memoria 1952). One should note that the
labels here are national rather than ethnic.
Even a later advocate of Hutu emancipation like Andr Perraudin rarely
alluded to an explicit Hutu-Tutsi problem in the early 1950s. To be sure,
Perraudin wrote in his 1952 seminary report of wanting to foster a more
forthright fusion between subjects of the different races and vicariates, attributing Nyakibanda Major Seminarys recent tensions to the human tendency
of people of the same ethnic group to come together (Rapport Annuel 1952).
Yet subsequent language implies that Perraudin was referring to tensions
between Rwandans, Burundians, and Congolese rather than between Hutu
and Tutsi. For example, he noted that the White Fathers chose to begin a new
seminary for Burundian and Congolese seminarians due to a desire to suppress at its root certain difficulties stemming from ethnic differences (Rapport


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

Annuel 1952). Later in 1953 Perraudin traced intraecclesial divisions to political agitation, the promise of independence, and fights between blacks and
whites, but he never mentioned Hutu-Tutsi divisions as a precipitating cause
(Perraudin 1953). Likewise, White Father superiors praised Perraudin in 1954
for maintaining perfect union between the two clerical factions in Rwanda
(Volker 1954). The language of two rather than three should be noted. The
division here was black-white, not Hutu-Tutsi-European. Even in his 2003
autobiography Perraudin admitted that there were no visible ethnic problems
during my sojourn at the major seminary of Nyakibanda, claiming that he
only realized the extent of Tutsi clerical domination after being named Vicar
Apostolic of Kabgayi in 1956 (Perraudin 2003, 19, 134).
Rather than Hutu and Tutsi, the category of volu emerged as the dominant sociopolitical category of the early 1950s. Integrating the best aspects of
European and Rwandan traditions, volus were the elites of Africa: a category
of men who by their intellectual, moral and religious formation, and often
through their social situation and material assistance, find themselves in the
forefront of progress (Tribune Libre 1954). For both the Hutu journalist
Kayibanda and the Tutsi priest Gasore, the evolved men of Rwanda were
now entrusted with leading the lower classes to a higher level of civilization
(Kayibanda 1954d; Gasore 1956, 7). Likewise, the Tutsi priest Innocent
Gasabwoya argued that Rwandas key social division was not Hutu-Tutsi
but the cleavage between the class of volus at the head of the country which
have in their hands [the nations] destiny . . . and the class of the peasants
(Gasabwoya 1955).
This may also explain why the nascent political movements of the early
1950s coalesced not around Hutu and Tutsi labels but rather around more
generic calls for political reform. Launched in 1951 to support the moral,
intellectual and material progress of Rwanda, the Association of BelgianRwandan Friendship boasted a diverse membership, including European missionaries, the aforementioned Kayibanda, the Tutsi priest Alexis Kagame, and
Lazare Ndazaro, a moderate Tutsi chief and political rival to Mwami Mutara
(Les Amitis 1951). The Mouvement Politique Progressiste (MPP) succeeded this
association in 1955. Like its predecessor, the MPP avoided either overtly
nationalist or ethnicist language, striving to improve relations between Rwandans and Europeans while avoiding both anti-European nationalism and what
it termed social discrimination based on race. Its signatories included forty
Tutsi chiefs, Hutu intellectuals like Kayibanda and Munyangaju, and the
Burundian prince Pierre Baranyanika. Baranyanika would later emerge as a
symbol of the proclerical, pan-ethnic and anticolonial Burundian nationalist
movement (Un parti politique 1955).

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Surveying the Rwandan scene in 1955, one would have been hard-pressed
to name Hutu-Tutsi tensions as a central component of Catholic elite discourse. Nor did the Hutu-Tutsi question emerge strongly in broader public
discourse, in part because the Catholic Church maintained a near monopoly
of news media. Clerical tensions were evident between Europeans and Africans, as were growing divisions between Tutsi political elites like the reforming
chief Prosper Bwanakweri and Mwami Mutara. After 1956, however, the
panethnic volu identity that marked the early years of the decade gave way
to increasingly ethnicist Hutu-Tutsi discourse. In the face of democratizing
currents, elitist identities proved no match to ethnicism and nationalism in
mobilizing the Rwandan masses. Yet even as ethnopolitical tensions accelerated, Rwandan lay elites and Catholic bishops continued to display a remarkably malleable understanding of these contested terms.

Contesting the Hutu-Tutsi Question in Late-1950s Rwanda

In explaining the sudden surfacing of Hutu-Tutsi language in Rwandas
ecclesial and public discourse, Rwandas U.N.-mandated 1956 legislative elections emerge as a retrospective turning point. Although Hutu candidates won
two-thirds of the elected seats on Rwandas local subcouncils, very few were
chosen to serve on the appointed higher councils. In fact, Tutsi elites continued to fill 81 percent of Rwandas territorial council seats, 57 percent of positions in the colonial administration, and thirty-one of the thirty-two seats on
Rwandas national Superior Council. In particular, Tutsi members of Rwandas
Abanyiginya and Abega clansthe two clans that had traditionally dominated
Rwandas nobilitycontrolled 50 percent of Rwandas subchiefdoms and 80
percent of its chiefdoms (Rutayasire 2004, 47). Looking to accelerate the
timetable for independence, Rwandas Tutsi-dominated Superior Council
issued a postelection Mise au point (statement of views) in February 1957 that
called for continued devolution of political power and denied the existence
of political or social discrepancies between Hutu and Tutsi (Murego 1975,
In response, nine Hutu intellectuals released the Bahutu Manifesto in March
1957 (Nkundabagenzi 1961, 20-29; Kalibwami 1991, 375-384; Lemarchand
1970, 149-151; Mamdani 2001, 116-117). The Bahutu Manifestos social
analysis was the polar opposite of the Mise au point. Where the Superior
Council had argued that black-white colonial tension was the primary political cleavage in Rwanda, the Bahutu Manifesto highlighted the indigenous
racial problem between what it termed Hamitic Tutsi and the Hutu


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

peasantry. The authors of the Manifesto advocated what could be termed a

Hutu affirmative action plan, calling for an integral and collective promotion
of the Muhutu that would include balancing Hutu-Tutsi ratios at the level of
chief, subchief, and judge, expanding rural development to benefit Hutu cultivators, and raising the percentage of Hutu in secondary schools (Nkundabagenzi 1961, 28). The Bahutu Manifesto thus delineated the key principles of
Hutu nationalism in the late 1950sthe primacy of the ethnic question, the
positive view of Europeans, the strident critiques of Tutsi rulers, and the prioritizing of democratization and economic redistribution over immediate
decolonization and independence. The overt usage of Hutu language seemed
designed to solidify the long-term electoral potential of Hutu democracy. If
Hutu politicians could convince the 85 percent of Rwandans labeled as Hutu
to vote on the basis of their Hutu identity, Hutu politicians could acquire the
political mandate necessary to challenge Rwandas traditional authorities. It is
no wonder that the authors of the Bahutu Manifesto strongly opposed the
elimination of ethnic identity cards.
After publicly ignoring the Bahutu Manifesto for nearly a year, in March
1958 Mwami Mutara agreed to establish a special commission to study the
Hutu-Tutsi question (Les Bahutu au Conseil 1958; Mutwarasibo 2009, 157180). The ten-man commission included figures across the ethnic and ideological spectrum, including writers of the Hutu Manifesto, conservative allies
of Mwami Mutara, and more reformist Tutsi chiefs opposed to both royal
intransigence and Hutu divisionism. The commission met three times between
April and June 1958, reaching a surprising consensus on several key issues
(Deuxime Sance 1958, 5-9; Perraudin 2003, 127-128). First, the commission agreed on the existence of an ethnic imbalance in secondary and higher
education, as Tutsi comprised over 60 percent of secondary students and
over two-thirds of the student populations at elite colonial schools like the
Groupe Scolaire dAstrida. Second, the commission concluded that Hutu were
underrepresented in administrative and judicial positions and that Hutu had
suffered disproportionately under traditional institutions like uburetwa and
ubuhake. Third, the commission envisioned an independent Rwanda free
from Belgian tutelage, recommending an admixture of constitutional monarchy and representative democracy.
Although commission members agreed on the necessity of political reform
and the empirical reality of Hutu-Tutsi inequality, they differed on how to
resolve the dearth of Hutu representatives at the highest levels of government.
Dismissing the current Belgian and Tutsi-dominated system as a feudal system of courtesan culture and favoritism, Hutu commission members advocated the appointment of special Hutu representatives on the Superior

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Council (Comit de ltude 1958, 5). In contrast, Tutsi elites thought that
Rwandas ethnic stratification would decline as Rwanda improved its educational system and established its independence from the Belgian colonial system. These Tutsi elites opposed any kind of Hutu affirmative action plan,
fearing that introducing Hutu quotas or Hutu representatives would only
strengthen Hutu-Tutsi identities and further exacerbate social tensions. Many
also took issue with Hutu commission members predilection for speaking in
collectivist ethnic terms. Here a reformist Tutsi chief and devout Catholic like
Prosper Bwanakweri reminded his Hutu interlocutors that the majority of
Tutsi were poor and that the Tutsi class did not conspire to discriminate against
Hutu (Deuxime Sance 1958).15
Even as the political debate became increasingly contentious, the HutuTutsi Study Commissions rhetoric concerning the nature of the Hutu-Tutsi
distinction remained remarkably ambiguous. The Hutu Catholic Balthazar
Bicamumpaka offered a socioeconomic analysis, arguing that our sense of
Bahutu encompasses all the poor people, so that a poor Mututsi is at the same
time Muhutu, that is Hutu in a social sense (Deuxime Sance 1958, 13).
Another Hutu representative provided a more biological definition. I understand a Muhutu in the genealogical sense, a Muhutu by race (Deuxime Sance
1958, 13).16 Known for his strident, populist rhetoric, the former Hutu seminarian and emerging Hutu political leader Joseph Gitera emphasized the solidarity of all poor Rwandans.
A Muhutu in our sense then is the poor and simple man, excluding at the same time
the racial Hutu who becomes socially Hamitic. The Mututsi for us is the superhuman . . . who socially is higher and mistrusts the Hutu, so that the Tutsi who sympathizes [with us] . . . is not a Tutsi in our sense (Deuxime Sance 1958, 13).

Even after the hardening of ethnic discourse in 1957 and early 1958, three
prominent Hutu Catholic leaders could still differ on how to understand the
term Tutsi. As with the language of black in apartheid South Africa, Hutu
and Tutsi reflected a far more complex political reality than essentialist ethnicist analysis would make it appear.17
Called by Mwami Mutara in a special night session on 12 June 1958,
Rwandas Superior Council gathered to consider the recommendations of the
Hutu-Tutsi Study Commission. On the Mwamis recommendation, the Superior Council rejected all of the Commissions conclusions. Mutara issued an
accompanying statement denying the existence of any Hutu-Tutsi problem in
Rwanda, claiming that such polemics had originated from the foreign influence of some whites on blacks, from communist ideas whose intention is to


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divide the country (Le dernier Conseil 1958). The Superior Council then
passed a decree banning any further usage of the terms Hutu, Tutsi, and
Twa on official documents (Nkundabagenzi 1962, 37). The Hutu delegation
to the CSP immediately protested. We want the term Muhutu strongly and
frequently utilized in view of its REHABILITATION, a term whose original
sense has been associated with slavery (Le dernier conseil 1958).
Hutu elites then took their argument to the hills. Kayibanda had already
convinced the UN tutelle that oversaw Rwanda to approve the statutes of his
Mouvement Social Muhutu (the future political party Parmehutu). This lent
public legitimacy to the MSMs demands for democratization and the promotion of what it termed the Bahutu race-class in social, familial, economic,
cultural, and political areas. For his part, Joseph Giteras Aprosoma (LAssociation
pour la promotion sociale de la masse) movement released The Voice of the
Peasants in late June 1958 (Murego 1975, 880-882). This publication further
radicalized ethnonationalist rhetoric, positing that the only enemies of Rwanda
were Tutsi who sucked the blood of their brothers, hated foreigners, opposed
the reign of Christ, and suppressed all voices of progress. For Aprosoma, the
Christian spirit of Hutu brotherhood stood in sharp contrast to the Hamitic
spirit of exploitation and extermination (Murego 1975, 880). Aprosomas concluding exhortation could have been mistaken for a Jacobin rally in revolutionary France: Young men and young women of the Hutu movement:
Liberty! Lets liberate ourselves from Tutsi slavery. We have had enough. Justice! (Murego 1975, 882). Political rhetoric had undergone a radical shift
from the panethnic moderation of the Mouvement Politique Progressiste.
In the midst of this political turmoil, Rwandas Catholic bishops intervened,
revealing both the lingering complexity and growing divisiveness of HutuTutsi discourse. After years of avoiding public commentary on the Hutu-Tutsi
question, Aloys Bigirumwami, Rwandas first indigenous Catholic bishop,
penned an article titled The Problem of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa in a September
1958 issue of the Belgian Catholic weekly Tmoignage chrtien (Bigirumwami
1958; Nkundabagenzi 1962, 38-42). While admitting a growing crisis between
what he termed the social or racial groups of Batutsi, Bahutu and Batwa,
Bigirumwami questioned whether one could clearly demarcate between Hutu
and Tutsi. Pointing to the discrepancy between his seeming Tutsi appearance
and mixed ethnic background, Bigirumwami lambasted the inanity of physical criteria in determining Hutu and Tutsi identities. He also downplayed
the importance of ethnic discrepancies in secondary schools, arguing that the
real division in Rwandan society pitted Hutu and Tutsi elites against the
impoverished masses of Hutu cultivators and petit Tutsi. Bigirumwami also
criticized the writers of the Bahutu Manifesto for addressing their petition to

J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202


an imagined Tutsi collectivity rather than the actual leaders of the country
namely the Belgian government and Rwandas Superior Council. He concluded by reiterating Catholic demands for panethnic social justice along with
a plea for Rwandans to avoid discord, tension, and hate: The very rapid evolution that passes through our country should not and cannot blind us to the
point of misunderstanding realities, such as social and economic differences
(Nkundabagenzi 1962, 42; Kalibwami 1991, 422-433; Linden 1977, 256).
In contrast to Bigirumwamis socioeconomic understanding, Mgr. Andr
Perraudin offered a more explicitly racialist vision of the Hutu-Tutsi distinction in Super Omnia Caritas, his controversial February 1959 Lenten pastoral
letter (Perraudin 1959; Perraudin 2003, 187-196). For Perraudin, Rwandas
social divisions broke down along a clear Hutu-Tutsi axis, since in our Rwanda
social differences and inequalities are for a large part linked to racial differences. Reminding his readers of Gods universal love, Perraudin exhorted
Christians to love everyone regardless of their racial identity; racial differences
between Hutu and Tutsi should not divide Christians who find themselves in
the higher unity of the Communion of Saints. In adopting racialist rhetoric,
framing social problems in Hutu-Tutsi terms, and supporting the Hutu right
to association, Perraudins Super Omnia Caritas shared the political imagination of emerging Hutu nationalism. The letter that Perraudin later described
as the charter of my episcopate (Perraudin 2003, 187) established Perraudins
reputation as a pro-Hutu partisan, earning him lasting scorn among Tutsi
nationalists to the present day.18 It also marked an analytical divergence
between Bigirumwami and Perraudin that compromised the churchs ability
to speak with a united voice.
At the same time, this analytical discrepancy between Bigirumwami and
Perraudin undermines the notion that late colonial Catholic leaders were
locked in an inexorably tribal or Hamitic imagination. As we see above,
Bigirumwami fundamentally challenged the very tenets of the Hamitic worldview, contradicting Gourevitchs assertion that there were no alternatives to
a tribal construction of politics in the late 1950s. On the other hand,
Perraudins racial description of Hutu and Tutsi reflected lingering Hamitic
rhetoricrhetoric, one should add, that he himself did not utilize earlier in
the decade.19 However, Perraudins growing opposition to the Union National
Rwandaise (UNAR), the main Tutsi political party that emerged later in 1959,
stemmed more from what he perceived to be UNARs anticlericalism and
procommunist sympathies than any kind of racialist bias. In fact, Perraudin
and other Catholic missionaries would retain close ties with UNARs Tutsi
rivals in the Rassemblement Dmocratique Rwandais (RADER) party in late
1959 and 1960.20 Like Classe, Perraudin did not follow a strict ethnicist logic


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

in determining internal church promotions. For example, Perraudin appointed

the Tutsi Innocent Gasore as his vicar general while also advocating for the
Vatican to appoint the Hutu priest Bernard Manyurane as a bishop. In October 1959 Perraudin sacked Kayibanda as editor of Kinyamateka, replacing him
with a Tutsi cleric. Politically, Perraudin was a committed social democrat who
regretted the Catholic Churchs past compromises with European fascism.
Ecclesially, he obsessed over maintaining clerical unity while worrying about
the postcolonial future of the Catholic Church in Rwanda. Perraudin deserves
ample critique for his failure to distance the Catholic Church from Rwandas
emerging Hutu political leaders, but this does not mean that the Hamitic
thesis and tribalism predetermined his views.
Regardless, Rwandas political climate continued to decline in the months
and years following Perraudins publication of Super omnia caritas (Reyntjens
1985, 232-316; Carney 2011, 203-348). After Mutara died suspiciously in
the care of Belgian physicians in July 1959, political parties mobilized on ethnicist and nationalist grounds. A series of violent incidents culminated with
the Hutu jacquerie of November 1959 that left hundreds of Tutsi dead and
forced thousands more into exile. Belgian colonial officials intervened to
restore order, unilaterally appointing hundreds of new Hutu chiefs to replace
the Tutsi chiefs who had fled to Uganda, Congo, and Burundi. Riding a wave
of egalitarian rhetoric in favor of Hutu democracy and an effective if brutal
campaign of political intimidation, Kayibanda and his Parmehutu party won
huge majorities in legislative elections in 1960 and 1961. The intertwining of
democratic rhetoric, national defense, Hutu empowerment, and collective
blame established a lasting paradigm for postcolonial Rwandan politics, leading to further anti-Tutsi massacres in 1964, 1973, and most infamously the
genocide of 1994.

Past as Prologue: Why Politics Matters More than Ethnicity

I have made four primary arguments in this essay. First, the precolonial categories of Hutu and Tutsi were fluid political and social identities whose
meanings shifted in the late nineteenth century and under the influence of
twentieth-century European colonization. To borrow David Newburys
description of precolonial identity formation on the Congo-Rwanda border,
ethnic identities were not primordial; they were contextually created, they
altered over time, and they evolved differently in different places and contexts
(Newbury 2009, 298). Second, although the Hamitic Hypothesis represented
an inaccurate European racialization of Hutu-Tutsi categories, it did not exert

J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202


the hegemonic influence on Catholic imagination with which it is often credited. Here I have highlighted Mgr. Lon Classes multifaceted descriptions
of Hutu and Tutsi during the early decades of the twentieth century. At
times Classe utilized Hamitic language, but he was far more concerned with
protecting Catholic institutional interests than instituting a racialist apartheid
system within the church or society. Third, Hutu-Tutsi language was markedly
absent in early 1950s Catholic periodicals and missionary correspondence.
Instead, Catholic social analysis was dominated by themes of anticommunism,
democratization, secularization, Christian civilization, and the uncertain
future of Rwandas elite volus. This challenges the recent scholarly tendency
to read Rwandas late-colonial history exclusively through a Hutu-Tutsi lens.
Finally, I have argued that even after the public eruption of Hutu-Tutsi divisions in the late 1950s, Rwandan lay elites and Catholic bishops possessed a
diversity of views on how to interpret these categories. In particular, I have
highlighted the discourse of the 1958 Hutu-Tutsi Study Commission and the
commentaries of Mgr. Perraudin and Mgr. Bigirumwami as examples of both
the complexity and politicization of ethnic discourse.
Looking back on colonial Catholic history in Rwanda, I would argue that
contextual politics were far more determinative than overarching Hamitic or
tribalist ideologies. To be sure, missionaries and Rwandan Catholic leaders
invoked Hamitic or tribalist language in describing Hutu and Tutsi identities,
but such language co-existed with other, more flexible socioeconomic descriptions. To put it simply, Catholic missionaries and Rwandan elites were not
brainwashed by the Hamitic thesis. If the Hamitic thesis is a classic example
of flawed missionary anthropology, it does not singlehandedly explain either
the actions of Catholic leaders or Rwandas later history of Hutu-Tutsi conflict. Classe favored young Tutsi leaders because he thought they would facilitate the growth of the Catholic Church and favor the churchs institutional
privileges. Perraudin supported emerging Hutu elites because they shared his
vision of Christian civilization, church-state partnership, and social democracy. Likewise, Hutu-Tutsi conflicts in the late 1950s emerged out of a specific
struggle for political power between rival Rwandan elites and Belgian colonial
officials. Tutsi elites resisted incorporating Hutu elites into Rwandas traditional political structures and propagated an anticolonial, monarchist nationalism. In contrast, Hutu elites recognized the populist potential of mobilizing
a democratic electorate through the usage of collective ethnic rhetoric. Belgium played both sides of the fence before coming out in favor of the Hutu
parties in 1959 and 1960.
In summary, then, I have argued that politics matters more than ethnicity.
There is still a tendency in much journalistic commentary on Africa to assume


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

that ethnic groups are locked into primordial and even ontological struggles.
Seemingly tribal warfare emerges in places as diverse as Kenya, the Democratic
Republic of Congo, South Africa, Cote dIvoire, and Sudan. But not only
should these so-called tribal categories be subjected to further analytical scrutiny, but ethnic groupsand for that matter racial, class, religious, or gendered groupsare not destined to fight.21 Rather, political contexts determine
whether certain identities emerge as flashpoints. In this regard Rwanda might
have been spared the polemics of the late 1950s if Belgium had not propagated a Tutsi-dominated elite for decades. Likewise, the nation could have
averted its late colonial tensions if Tutsi elites had voluntarily shared power
with Hutu elites in the mid-1950s. Rwandas postcolonial history could have
turned out very differently if Hutu elites had not conflated ethnic, social, and
political identity in a cynical strategy to ensure the triumph of Hutu political
parties in a democratic, majority-rule system. Nor does the current Rwandan
governments recent ban on Hutu and Tutsi discourse ensure a conflict-free
future, especially if the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front does not loosen its
monopoly on power.22
In addition, political bias often explains the deeper motivations behind
seemingly ethnic partisanship. In studying how Catholic missionaries and
indigenous church leaders shaped and reacted to the political disputes that
gripped Rwanda in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I have uncovered many
flawed anthropological assumptions concerning the origins of the categories
Hutu and Tutsi. What I have not discovered is a racialist conspiracy against
the Tutsi qua Tutsi. Rather, missionaries opposed Tutsi-dominated political
parties like UNAR because they feared that UNAR would eliminate Catholic
schools, create alliances with communist countries, and legalize divorce. On
the other hand, Catholic missionaries did not sympathize with Hutu elites
simply because they wanted to help a benighted race of Bantu cultivators.
They favored them because Hutu elites praised the church, supported liberal
democracy, and proclaimed their commitment to maintaining a close partnership between Rwanda and Belgium. Catholic missionaries downplayed antiTutsi violence in the early 1960s not because they hated Tutsi; many of these
same missionaries in fact welcomed thousands of Tutsi refugees to the grounds
of their missions. Rather, missionaries feared that the Catholic Church would
lose institutional privileges if it critiqued the emerging Hutu governments
complicity in the violence. In summary, politicswhether colonial, nationalist, ecclesial or otherwiseoffers far more explanatory value for understanding Rwandas past ethnic conflicts than the oft-invoked term of tribalism.

J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202


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1. The literature on the 1994 Rwanda genocide is voluminous, but see Des Forges 1999;
Prunier 1995; Gourevitch 1998; African Rights 1994; Mamdani 2001; Straus 2006. On
the religious dimensions of the genocide, see Longman 2010; Rittner, Roth and Whitworth
2004; Gatwa 2005; Katongole 2005; Katongole and Wilson-Hartgrove 2009.
2. For a strong recent critique of Classe on these grounds, see Longman 2010, 51-66.
The most thorough study of Classes ecclesial and social vision remains Rutayisire 1987.
3. While Justin Kalibwamis influential pregenocide church history offers a sympathetic
portrayal of Perraudin (cf. Kalibwami 1991), many postgenocide Rwandan commentators


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

have disparaged Perraudin for lending theological sanction to the late-colonial Hutu political movements that came to dominate postcolonial Rwanda (cf. Byanafashe 2000; Bizimana 2004). Perraudin is not a central figure in most English-language commentaries on
Rwanda, and he generally comes off in a more favorable light than Classe (cf. Longman
2010, 66-76, who closely follows Linden 1977, 249-273).
4. This essay developed from research in the General Archives of the Missionaries of
Africa in Rome. I am grateful to former archivist Fr. Stefaan Minnaert, M.Afr., for his support and especially for granting access to new sources from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I have also drawn on correspondence, pastoral statements, and Catholic newspapers located
in the archives of the Diocese of Kabgayi, Rwanda, and the Centre Missionnaire Lavigerie
in Kigali, Rwanda. I thank both Bishop Smaragde Mbonyitege of Kabgayi and Fr. Marc
Franois, M.Afr., for granting access to these sources.
5. This essay focuses on Hutu and Tutsi categories. Rwanda also has a third social or
ethnic group, the Batwa. The Twa have lived in Rwanda for thousands of years, residing in
the northwestern mountains, the western forests, and around the royal court of Nyanza.
They have remained the most endogamous ethnic community in Rwanda, numbering
around 1 percent of Rwandas total population. During Rwandas independence struggles,
Twa leaders generally sided more with Tutsi than Hutu factions.
6. Jean-Pierre Chrtiena scholar who tends to downplay Hutu-Tutsi distinctions
concurs: The term Hutu meant, in the clientage relationship, the subordinate position of
the recipient: even if the recipient was Tutsi, the donor spoke of him as my Hutu. In
Rwanda, the term Tutsi little by little was perceived as an identity closely related to
power (Chretien 2003, 190).
7. Maquet described ubuhake as a patron-client relationship in which the client (garagu)
offered his services in exchange for the patrons (shebuja) protection and usage of land and
cattle. The client retained full ownership rights over milk, new male calves, and the meat
and skin of deceased cows. The patron also provided for the clients family after death. Client service included accompanying the patron on trips, working the fields, and keeping
watch at night. The patron could also choose to extend the ubuhake relationship to a
deceased clients heirs. The clientage system existed among Tutsi, although it was rare for a
Tutsi garagu to enter into relationship with a Hutu shebuja (cf. Maquet 1961, 129-131. On
the prevalence of intra-Tutsi clientage, see D.S. Newbury 2009, 329). First instituted under
Mwami Rwabugiri, uburetwa required the Hutu client to devote two of every five days to
working his Tutsi patrons land. During the 1920s the Belgians reduced this rate to two days
per week and made further exceptions for government and mission workers. While clientbased ubuhake applied to both Tutsi and Hutu, only Hutu were required to perform uburetwa service. For more on uburetwa see Reyntjens 1985, 134-142, 206-208; Rutayisire
1987, 140-147; Linden 1977, 228.
8. For similar perspectives see Kalibwami 1991; Rudakemwa 2005; Lemarchand 1994
and Lemarchand 2009. Even a strident critic of colonial anthropology like Bernard Muzungu implies the hierarchical and political nature of the traditional Hutu-Tutsi distinction.
While emphasizing the fluidity of kwihutura (changing social status), Muzungu admits that
this setback [becoming Hutu] could be the result of simple misfortune, dispossession or
even confiscation of cows by ones patron (kunyagwa) or by foreign aggressors in war, or
even as a result of famine or cattle epidemics like rinderpest (Muzungu 2009, 54).
9. In directives to his first 1879 caravan of missionaries traveling to Central Africa,
Lavigerie instructed the White Fathers to focus on elite conversion: Once the chiefs convert, all the rest will follow after them. (cf. Premires instructions aux Pres Blancs de
lAfrique quatoriale (1878), in Lavigerie and Hamman 1966, 154).

J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202


10. Louis de Lacgerthe historian that Classse commissioned to write the first official
history of the Rwandan church in the late 1930salso emphasized Rwandan national
unity over ethnic disunity, writing that there are few peoples in Europe in which one finds
together the three factors of national cohesion: the same language, the same religion, and
the same customs (De Lacger and Nothomb 1959, 37).
11. In the words of Emmanuel Katongole, it is this Hamitic story . . . that became the
unquestioning canon governing the decisions of German and later Belgian colonialists in
the administration of Rwanda (Katongole 2005, 99). To quote Timothy Longman,
Despite the highly consequential shift in missionary support from Tutsi to Hutu, the principles of church-state engagement in Rwanda remained substantially unchanged. The
churches continued to engage actively in ethnic politics without challenging the central
principles at the root of Rwandas ethnic conflict (Longman 2010, 66).
12. LAmi: La Revue des Elites de lEst de la Colonie was launched in 1950 as a weekly
newspaper for Catholic intellectual elites in Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern Congo. Its
international pages included frequent reflections on the fates of Indochina, China, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and other nations buckling under communist pressure. See here LAmi 71
(1950), 206; LAmi 93 (1952), 179-180; LAmi 98 (1953), 22-23; LAmi 104 (1953), 164165; LAmi 113 (1954), 176; LAmi 116 (1954), 304-305. Its successor Temps Nouveaux
dAfrique also carried forward the anticommunist theme. See here Le communism 1956.
13. The 1954 electoral successes of the socialists in Guatemala loomed in the background of this latter article.
14. For similar sentiments see the comments of Laurent Dprimoz, Rwandas Vicar
Apostolic between 1945 and 1955, in Le Jubil du Ruanda Catholique 1950, 165.
15. Reinforcing this point, a Belgian study group concluded in 1959 that only 6,000 to
10,000 of Rwandas 150,000 Tutsi should be classified as elites (cf. Rapport du Groupe de
Travail 1959).
16. Writing seven months later, the Hutu propagandist Gaspar Cyimana admitted that
ethnic intermixing in central Rwanda had largely eliminated clear racial distinctions
between Hutu and Tutsi. For Cyimana, such physical distinctions could still be made in
other regions of Rwanda (Cyimana 1958, 3).
17. For a fascinating recent analysis of the intersection of theology and black identity
under South African apartheid, see Magaziner 2010.
18. In his autobiography Perraudin defended Super Omnia Caritas against its critics,
describing this statement as an appropriate application of Catholic social teaching to a
regime of servitude and humiliation for the large proportion of the population (Perraudin
2003, 194). Of course, the controversy lies in Perraudins very assessment of traditional
Rwandan society.
19. In the late 1950s there did not appear to be a clear consensus on whether to describe
Hutu and Tutsi as social or racial groups. For example, the White Fathers newspaper
Temps Nouveaux dAfrique still referred to Hutu and Tutsi as social groups in April 1958
(Pendant quinze jours 1958). At the same time, even as he was undermining some of the
traditional Hamitic assumptions of colonial historiography on Rwanda, the influential Belgian anthropologist Marcel dHertefelt continued to describe Tutsi as an Ethiopian race
(DHertefelt 1962, 18).
20. RADERs panethnic, reformist, pro-Catholic vision emerges in their Manifeste du
RADER, 1 Oct. 1959, which can be consulted in Nkundabagenzi 1962, 129. In contrast,
UNAR adopted a much stronger anticolonial line in their early statements and called for
the reduction of missionary influence in Rwanda. Cf. Charte de fondation du Parti
UNAR, 15 August 1959, and Manifeste du Parti Politique Abashyirahamwe BUrwanda


J. J. Carney / Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012) 172-202

(UNAR), 13 September 1959, in Nkundabagenzi 1962, 92-98. Perraudin and Bigirumwami issued a confidential condemnation of UNAR to their priests in late September
1959, although news of this condemnation quickly spread (Bigirumwami and Perraudin
21. As Leroy Vail has argued, the postcolonial tendency to attribute ethnic conflict
solely to European manipulations fails to grapple with the question of why ethnic consciousness developed among some peoples and not others. It also tends to eliminate African
agency, portraying Africans as little more than either collaborating dupes or nave and gullible people, beguiled by clever colonial administrators and untrustworthy anthropologists
(Vail 1989, 3-4).
22. As Ren Lemarchand noted in an earlier Burundian context, by abolishing ethnic
otherness as a socially relevant term of reference, Tutsi regimes [in Burundi] removed the
critical issue of ethnic hegemony and discrimination from the realm of legitimate debate
(Lemarchand 1994, 32).