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Essay: Colonization and Reification of Nations: How Rwandas 1994 Genocide Was Sparked

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Nations and Nationalities Paper Two

Megan Herrup



Within the case study of Rwanda, the 1994 genocide began as a result of the projection of internalized self-hatred that existed within the Hutu community, leading to group reification of the Tutsi as a result of Belgian colonization. This projection manifests itself into three key concepts. The first concept is the western fabrication of nativism and its effect on localized religions and primordial traditions. The second concept is colonization as a catalyst for self-reification, which limits both state and nation building. The final concept is dehumanization, endorsed by government-endorsed propaganda as justification for murder. As a consequence of these main points, Rwanda post-genocide and Rwanda post-colonialism have intertwining stories. The rationale and objective of the genocide coincide with post-colonial pathologies such as clientism and mimetic dysfunctionalism.

The colonization of Rwanda began with the Germans in 1884, but the impacts of colonialism did not truly set in for the Hutu and the Tutsis until the Belgian takeover after World War One.

In order to elevate the status of Tutsis above Hutus among Rwandans during the post-World War One colonial period, the Belgians relied heavily on perpetuating what is known in modern terms as the “Hamitic Myth.” Edith Sander writes the following about the Hamitic Myth, citing “…By and large, however, the Negro was seen as a descendant of Ham, bearing the stigma of Noah’s curse. This view was compatible with the various interests extant at that time. On the one hand, it allowed exploitation of the Negro for economic gain to remain undisturbed by any Christian doubts as to the moral issues involved. ‘A servant of servants shall he be’ clearly meant that the Negro was preordained for slavery. Neither individual nor collective guilt was to be borne for a state of the world created by the Almighty. On the other hand, Christian cosmology could remain at peace, because identifying the Negro as a Hamite—thus as a brother—kept him in the family of man in accordance with the biblical story of the creation of mankind” (523). The Hamitic Myth was used to remove primordial traditions and replace it with a western, Christian viewpoint. The removal of these primordial traditions stripped away and changed the oral history that was essential in tying together the past, present, and future within the primordial communities. Without this oral history, native groups became increasingly reliant upon the class and status groupings assigned by the European colonialists. Hence, the groups increasingly rely on western ideas of the ideal human, which manifests itself among the natives in who looks most similar to the colonialists. This remained true in the case of the Tutsis in Rwanda. They were determined to be the most “European” by the Belgians because they were deemed “a lost tribe of Israel.” The Belgians and the Tutsis were not equal, the Belgians were above them, but it provided the colonizers with what is perceived as “common ground.” Both groups were God fearing Christians.

Humans are conditioned to separate themselves from those who they consider to be “inferior” or the “other.” It is what allows sovereign states to foster nationalism, a necessary component of government legitimacy. However too much emphasis on both nationalism and avoidance of becoming the “other” can lead to stronger feelings of nativism, and typically separate groups along ethnic lines. This was the case in Rwanda with the separation of the Hutu and the Tutsi.

Nativism, and its return to “normalcy” is a western fabrication. Within primordial communities there is no need for separation based on arbitrary physical features, the entire group is working together to ensure the survival of many. Separation in this sense is foolish when one is simply trying to stay alive long enough to procreate. There is no “normal” to return to, there is merely survival. Jean Hatzfeld unknowingly touches on this in his book “Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak.” Hatzfeld quotes the following from an eyewitness to the genocide, citing the following, “‘I saw papas teaching their boys how to cut. They made them imitate the machete blows. They displayed their skill on dead people, or on living people they had captured during the day. The boys usually tried it out on children, because of their similar sizes. But most people did not want to involve the children directly in these bloody doings, except for watching, of course’” (40). Within kinship communities, traditions and rites of passage are passed down through families, but as shown within this passage, the ways that the traditions are utilized by the general population can be shifted to adjust to the changing situations in which people live. The concept of nativism is not normalized within primordial societies, leading normal traditions that are passed down to be perverted into the unthinkable, such as ritual killing.

Countries that have been colonized are permanently unable to return to their previous primordial lifestyle. The power structures that European settlers bring into the country remain even after the west “gifts” democracy to the country that they colonized and used for economic advantage. The ethnic group that was determined the most “modern” by the colonizing country will forever attempt to mimic the sense of belonging provided by the colonial power. The constant attempts of the colonized to become the colonizers is called mimetic dysfunctionalism.

Another limit to the return to primordial communities is the concept of clientism. This happens when the ethnic group that was favored by the colonial power continues to subordinate other ethnic groups within the boundaries of the state, and eventually hold the majority of power within the government itself. They come to dominate the state, leading to the ostracization of those who are outside the dominant group.

In addition to the disruptions that colonialism brings to primordial communities, colonization also acts as a catalyst for reification, especially reification of the self. This is defined as “thingifying” what one hates most about oneself, and then projecting it onto others as well as oneself. In Hatzfeld’s book, he quotes the following, “There are people like me who bad-mouthed the Tutsis easily. We repeated what we had been hearing for a long time. We called them arrogant, fussy, even spiteful. But we saw no such arrogance or haughty manner when we were together in the choir or at the market” (220). The ability that the Hutu have to “bad-mouth” the Tutsi comes naturally, as it is merely a reflection of what they were told while the Tutsi were in power, before the revolt in 1959. What is said to the “lower class” group remains the same, even if the structures of power shift.

This is an essential ingredient of the catalyst for reification. Without the flip flopping of the power structures, each group would continue separately, in parallel lines along the path of life. Reification allows oneself to become aware not only of one’s own personal struggles but acknowledge and accept that others are going through similar issues as well. The human condition is not one of lonesomeness, rather, one of togetherness.

Self-Reification is the process that one takes to forgive oneself for things one oftentimes cannot change about oneself. Hatzfeld quotes the following from a survivor of the genocide, citing, “‘I know that all the Hutus who killed so calmly cannot be sincere when they beg pardon, even of the Lord. But me, I am ready to forgive. It is not denial of the harm they did, not a betrayal of the Tutsis, not an easy way out. It is so that I will not suffer my whole life long asking myself why they tried to cut me…If I do not forgive them, it is I alone who suffers and frets and cannot sleep…I yearn for peace in my body’” (197). When one forgives one’s greatest enemy, a person can forgive someone who caused an immeasurable amount of pain to not only you, but also to the group you most identify with. One’s ability to reify allows a person to forgive when situations are out of their control. When people forgive those who have hurt them, it creates a shift in the human condition. Rather than continuing to seek out “an eye for an eye” mentality, reification of what has happened, and eventual forgiveness allows the human condition to progress.

Without this reification, our condition would forever be bloody. There would be no treaties, there would be no rule of law, there would simply be a cyclic killing until there are no groups left to alienate. When one reifies, the ability to understand “the other” is gained and allows those who have committed faults to be forgiven.

Dehumanization occurs when the dominant group changes certain aspects of civil society (such as education, healthcare, voting etc.) to limit the growth and power of minorities. The ramifications of dehumanization are oftentimes violent, and in the case of Rwanda, eventually lead to the genocide of the Tutsis.

However, without the reification of the Hutus that occurs as a result of the Belgian colonization, there would be limited capacity for dehumanization. One cannot grow to hate others without first hating themselves. Hatzfeld quotes an active participant in the genocide saying, “We no longer saw a human being when we turned up a Tutsi in the swamps. I mean a person like us, sharing similar thoughts and feelings. The hunt was savage, the hunter was savage, the prey was savage—savagery took over their mind. Not only had we became criminals, we had become a ferocious species in a barbarous world” (47-48). The Hutus inability to see a Tutsi as a person but rather as a savage, is an example of the Hutus projection of their internalized self-hatred onto others. While they were killing the Tutsi “cockroaches” they were killing the parts of themselves that they hated most, parts of themselves that they also saw within the Tutsis. This projection of the taught self-hate at the result of the Belgian colonization is why normal, everyday Hutus were driven to kill.

Government propaganda against the Tutsi is another tactic that emphasizes the dehumanization of the “other.” The ability for fringe Hutu power groups to persuade the government into sponsorship of genocide, and to somehow convince entire populations of people to tune into a program that sponsored hatred, is an impressive feat of conditioning and convincing. The rationale and objective for killing was nothing other than elimination for the sake of eliminating. There was no higher goal, no political motive. It was merely a projection of hatred.

Oftentimes in war-like situations, the outside population is able to hear heart-wrenching stories of humanity, however, Hatzfeld writes the following in the case of the genocide, stating, “All wars generate savage. Temptation that are more or less murderous. The bloodthirsty madness of combatants, the craving for vengeance, the distress, fear, paranoia, and feelings of abandonment, the euphoria of victories and anguish of defeats, and above all a sense of damnation after crimes have been committed—these things provoke genocidal behavior and actions” (105). In war-like situations, it is easy for those who would never be perceived as a threat in their everyday life to become swept up in the lust for glory. Being placed in war-like situations allows people to cross boundaries that one would never think they had the ability to cross.

The dehumanization continues even after the killing ceases. While it is a criminal offense under the constitution of Rwanda to deny or revise the history of the genocide, there are undertones of denial within the country itself. An example of this is the way that the memorials are handled. The memorials merely display the clothes and piles of skeletons that belonged to victims without any method of preservation for future generations. This shows not only an appalling lack of respect for the victims, but also helps create a potential future where the genocide is forgotten, since all the clothes and remains have rotted away. Remembrance is a constant task and is essential to ensure that similar tragedies do not happen again.

The Rwandan genocide was not one of “ancient hatred” rather, it was one of created hatred at the hands of colonialism. Without colonialism and the subordination of the Hutu by the Belgian, and consequently, the Tutsi, there would have been no Rwandan genocide. The existence of the genocide directly coincides with the existence of colonialism, without one there is no other. The way that the stories intertwine is essential to understanding the consequences of colonialism. Western domination through colonialism, creates the western fabrication of nativism and its effect on localized religions and primordial traditions. Colonization is a catalyst for self-reification, therefore limiting both state and nation building, and dehumanization as emphasized by government-endorsed propaganda as justification for murder. Our ability to understand tragedies is only as deep as we immerse ourselves into understanding the situational causes and the outside influences on countries that appear different than our own.


Hatzfeld, J. (2003). Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak. New York: Picador

McMillan, N. (2010). REGRET, REMORSE AND THE WORK OF REMEMBRANCE: OFFICIAL RESPONSES TO THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE. Social & Legal Studies, 19(1), 85-105. doi:10.1177/0964663909346199

Sanders, E. (1969). The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective. The Journal of African History,10(4), 521-532. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/179896

Totten, S. (2009). Life in the Aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Social Education, 73(6), 282-286.

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