In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rwanda

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Geography
  • Women and Gender
  • Economy
  • Literature

African Studies Rwanda
Noel Twagiramungu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0069


Rwanda (locally known as U Rwanda, literally “the extension” or “the extending territory”) is a small, landlocked country in the heart of Africa. Despite its legendary paucity of natural resources and absence of any obviously significant geostrategic asset, Rwanda has fascinated Western writers and policymakers over the 20th century. The accounts of the early European explorers and missionaries describe precolonial Rwanda as one of “the greatest and the most complex” kingdoms in central Africa and “one that differed from all the others” (Vansina 2004, p. 1; cited under General Overviews). A prominent scholar describes post-independence Rwanda as “one of the very rare examples of a genuine social revolution accompanying the accession of an African state to independence” and the paradigmatic “case of a large-scale, thorough-going transformation occurring under the auspices . . . of a colonial power” (Lemarchand 1970, p. 3; cited under General Overviews). In 1994 Rwanda suddenly became the focus of horrified international attention as the epicenter of genocidal violence that engulfed the whole Great Lakes region and proved wrong the post-Holocaust pledge of “never again.” Moreover, post-genocide dynamics have attracted an important body of literature in which, as was the case in the years preceding the 1994 genocide, Rwanda is once again praised as a model of development in Africa and—in a revealing phrase—a “donor darling.” This article gives an overview of the rich body of literature that has developed over a century, and especially since the 1994 genocide, to account for the myths and realities of Rwanda, past and present. The focus is on the country’s social, political, and economic critical junctures as well as on key distinctive features and areas of contention that have received varied amounts of attention from scholars across time and space.

General Overviews

The most influential figures in Rwandan studies are probably Alexis Kagame and Jan Vansina. Kagame used his distinguished and multidisciplinary scholarship along with his social prestige and the Catholic Church’s facilities to reveal, illuminate, and sometimes embellish or “Europeanize” altogether various aspects of Rwanda (Kagame 1972–1975). Vansina pioneered the study of Rwanda past—and present—as a subject of scientific inquiry (Vansina 2004). Lugan 1997 and Chrétien 2003 account for the evolution of Rwanda from prehistoric ages to modern times. Lemarchand 1970, Prunier 1998, and Guichaoua 2010 provide essential background for understanding the roots and routes of political dynamics that culminated in the 1990–1994 genocidal violence and its aftermath. Reyntjens 2017 is the most comprehensive, if critical, account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

  • Chrétien, Jean-Pierre. The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History. Translated by Scott Straus. New York: Zone, 2003.

    A massive oeuvre that excavates the historical development of Bantuphone culture from early settlement in the last millennium BCE to the waves of genocidal violence that engulfed Rwanda and its neighbors in the late 20th century. Originally published in French as L’Afrique des Grands Lacs: Deux mille ans d’histoire (Paris: Aubier-Historique, 2000).

  • Guichaoua, André. Rwanda: De la guerre au génocide: Les politiques criminelles au Rwanda, 1990–1994. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2010.

    A gigantic work that is at once an unmatched history of the 1990–1994 genocidal violence and a pathbreaking step forward in our understanding of post-independence Rwanda. A related website, Rwanda: De la guerre au génocide, contains an impressive corpus of original materials and a freely accessible translation in Kinyarwanda.

  • Kagame, Alexis. Un abrégé de l’ethno-histoire du Rwanda. 2 vols. Butare, Rwanda: Éditions Universitaires, 1972–1975.

    A rich chronological account of the main critical junctures in Rwandan history by a Rwandan scholar. Volume 1 gives a general overview of the Nyiginya kingdom. Volume 2 details the history of the country from 1853 to 1972.

  • Lemarchand, René. Rwanda and Burundi. New York: Praeger, 1970.

    A watershed study of political developments. Its rigorous political historiographical approach rooted in “the sociology of revolutionary change” (p. ix) opened up many avenues for further research on this region and elsewhere.

  • Lugan, Bernard. Histoire du Rwanda: De la préhistoire à nos jours. Paris: Bartillat, 1997.

    A massive book that is a mine of well-documented information about the evolution of Rwanda from prehistorical times to the 1990s.

  • Prunier, Gérard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. London: Hurst, 1998.

    First published in 1995 and now in its third edition with a new chapter, this book is the first thorough treatment of the multifaceted roots and components of the 1994 genocide in a more historicized and nuanced way.

  • Reyntjens, Filip. Le génocide des Tutsi au Rwanda. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2017.

    Published in the French prestigious “Collection que-sais-je,” this superb synthesis written with a luxuriant lucidity and poise gives a compelling account of the state-led murderous enterprise that threatened to wipe out the ethnic Tutsi people of Rwanda in 1994.

  • Vansina, Jan. Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

    A masterpiece of analytical thinking and history writing that synthesizes the author’s efforts over a half century to use African oral traditions as a valid source of history. Building on the author’s ethnographic sensitivity and historical rigor, the book vows “to present a starting point for thinking about Rwanda’s past in the light of the present” (p. 196). Originally published in French as Le Rwanda ancien: Le royaume nyiginya (Paris: Karthala, 2001).

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