History: How Rwanda Came To Have Its Name

One Rwanda' for all | SOAS Blog

Rwanda, formerly Ruanda, officially the Republic of Rwanda, is a landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley where the African Great Lakes region and East Africa converge. One of the smallest countries on the African mainland, its capital city is Kigali.

Just six decades ago, Rwanda and Burundi were one and the same country owing to Belgian imperialism in central and eastern Africa after the so-called Scramble for Africa. But archaeological evidence suggests that the territory, which is now the country we know, has witnessed settled life since the Stone Age.

At the beginning of the first century, it was the home of the ancestors of a Bantu people — the Twa, who have stuck around to date.

It is not exactly known how other peoples came to populate the territory prior to European contact in the 1500s. There is a theory that the biggest ethnic Rwandan group, the Hutu, arrived after the first inhabitants while the Tutsi are a Nilo-Hamitic people who emigrated from northeastern Africa.


There is yet another that posits that the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi originally bordered on class and status rather than ethnicity – with the Tutsi the privileged class owing to their cultural anthropology.

Indeed, before 1935 when Belgian colonizers introduced an ethnicity-based ID scheme, rich Hutu people could identify as Tutsi if they wanted. With the coming of the colonial ID cards, the differences in the peoples became more pronounced.

This latter theory seems to have some affinity with the founding of the pre-colonial era Kingdom of Rwanda. The kingdom was founded through the aggregation of chiefdoms in about the 15th century and was known to have reached an apogee around the 19th century.

The Kingdom of Rwanda was headed by Tutsi mwami or kings. The Hutu majority were, however, peasants who mutually shared in the imperial ambitions of the Tutsi overlords.

The kingdom became synonymous with the country at the beginning of the 20th century and it was half of the twin nation of Rwanda-Urundi. But in 1961, the majority Hutu voted in a referendum to abolish the Tutsi-controlled kingdom as the Rwandan nation separated itself from the country that became Burundi.

When 1962 came and the Belgian colonizers handed over power to the Africans, what had been called Rwanda for at least 400 years, retained its name.



Written by PH

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