“The Belgians took My Picture”: The Politics of Identity in the Construction of Ethno-History (Africa’s Great Lakes Region, 1862-2001)
Sarah Maria Weingarten
Thesis DT 3.5 2001 W456
xi, 310 leaves: ill. (some col.), map; 29 cm.
Rwanda, called affectionately by its people imisozi igihmbi-"land of one thousand hills", once claimed a highly advanced social system and an expansive historical memory. Due to their remote location in the heart of Central African rain forests, Rwanda and neighboring Burundi were two of the last places to fall to European economic exploitation during the colonial period. Despite cultural richness in the Great Lakes Region, the area has been fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented by the outside world.
Early colonizers, unwilling to understand the socio-political culture already in place, transformed societal memory by creating a mythical history, in an attempt to describe a culture that they failed to comprehend. The mythology that they invented (based on Eurocentric ideologies) has had permanent and lasting effects on the psyche of the people. Since the colonial period, the fluid identity groups of the Great Lakes Region have evolved into divided "ethnic" groups, each group viewing the Other as an uncompromising and impermeable reality.
Myth and stereotype continue to play fundamental roles in the creation of history. Today, various international actors implement policy on the basis of misinformed notions, thinking of Africa as the "Dark Continent" and dismissing conflict as "ancient tribalism". In 1994, the Rwandan Genocide claimed the lives of over 500,000 Rwandese people. While the world watched from the sidelines, international media and outside representations blamed the horrific massacres on "ethnic tensions". This assumption supports a belief that, due to 'ancient hatreds' between 'old enemies', conflict was inevitable. The word "ethnic" presupposes the construction of identity. The use of the mythology of the past justified looking the other way during Genocide-a phenomenon to which the world has once uttered "Never Again".
Ideologically defining a conflict requires identifying the historical and mythological beliefs that divide people. Identity becomes a political affiliation when material needs or social power necessitates group action. Identity, then, is created by a multiplicity of factors, constructed through historical and mythological motives. Understanding the construction itself is necessary in order to articulate factors relevant towards the creation of a peaceful future.