Rwanda is a beautiful nation in the heart of Africa within the Great Rift Valley, where the African Great Lakes region and southeast Africa converge. It takes pride in a rich literary history, with esteemed authors and poets who have dedicated their work to preserving Rwanda's history, heritage, culture, language, and future.
Rwanda has a current population exceeding 14 million, and it was a non-literate society until 1900. Fast forward to 2021, the country made significant strides, achieving a literacy rate of 76 percent, markedly higher than 38 percent in 1978 and 58 percent in 1991. This implies that significantly more than half of Rwanda's population aged 15 or older can now read and write.
Similar to many African nations, Rwanda's people have traditionally relied on oral storytelling and communication to safeguard their literary heritage. German and Belgian missionaries were the first to document its history, using information gathered from traditional informants.
In addition to the missionaries, one noteworthy figure in Rwanda's literary preservation was Alexis Kagame, a clergyman, historian, poet, and author born in 1912. In the 1950s, he started researching the oral history of Rwanda, catching the attention of Mutara III Rudahigwa with a captivating poem. Kagame, who is known to be the first and last Rwandan intellectual with direct access to the original sources of the country's history, contributed significantly to preserving oral history, culture, and the indigenous language, Kinyarwanda.
According to Chantal Gishoma on Project Muse, during the colonial era, Kinyarwanda was marginalized as a minority language despite being the primary language of social communication among Rwandans. It was excluded from administration and education, as the colonial school system favored the French language. Kagame, however, advocated for breaking down the hierarchy of languages and cultures. He achieved this by writing and translating scientific and literary texts into Kinyarwanda, enriching it with new lexicons and modern concepts. Kagame's efforts led to Kinyarwanda becoming the language of instruction at the primary level in post-colonial Rwanda. By reclaiming these cultural elements, Kagame aimed to challenge the dominant narrative imposed by the colonial system and emphasize the importance of Rwanda's unique cultural heritage.
Kagame's initial literary endeavor was “Inganji Kalinga” (Kalinga the Victorious), a work of poetry that delves into the history of Rwanda in Kinyarwanda, spanning from the mythical origins of the country to historical times. Additionally, he authored “La langue du Rwanda et du Burundi expliquée aux autochtones” (The Language of Rwanda and Burundi Explained to the Natives), also poetry, which provided 78 lessons on Kinyarwanda and Kirundi.
Kagame then crafted the three volumes of “Isoko y’amajyambere” (The Source of Progress). This epic poem drew inspiration from traditional poetry and historical narratives. The first two volumes detail the actions of mythical and historical kings, outlining their missions to enhance the monarch's glory and prioritize the well-being of the Rwandan population. The concluding volume focuses on the positive contributions of colonization in its missionary form, with Bishop Léon Classe, among others, receiving praise. Critics, however, contend that Classe reinforced ethnic categorization, contributing to the tragic 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Kagame's silence on this matter remains a subject of controversy, as none of his works critique Classe's actions.
In the same colonial era, Saverio Naigiziki emerged as the first Rwandan author of French novels. With a diverse professional background that included roles as a deputy chief, clerk, and teacher, Naigiziki's literary works, such as “Escapade rwandaise” (Diary of a Clerk in his Thirtieth Year) and the play “The Optimist,” achieved considerable success. The novel portrayed his personal story, while the play centered on the marriage between a Hutu man and a Tutsi woman.
Benjamin Sehene returned to Rwanda, a country his family had initially fled from to Uganda in 1963. He emigrated to Canada in 1984. Sehene's return aimed to conduct a comprehensive study on the factors that led to the genocide. The outcome of his research, “Le Piège ethnique,” stood as a significant contribution to understanding the complex dynamics surrounding the tragic events. In 2005, Sehene authored “Le Feu sous la soutane” (Fire under the Cassock), a historical novel that narrates the true story of Father Stanislas, a Hutu Catholic priest who, while offering refuge to Tutsi refugees in his church, disturbingly exploited the women and actively participated in the massacres.
In addition to Alexis Kagame, another esteemed linguist who has made significant contributions to preserving the Kinyarwanda language is Alexandre Kimenyi. Kimenyi was born in Rwanda but moved to the United States as a Fulbright Fellow in 1971 and later became an American citizen.
As noted in a tribute by Eyamba G. Bokamba and Juvénal Ndayiragije from the University of Illinois and the University of Toronto, respectively, Kimenyi's substantial linguistic work primarily focused on Kinyarwanda. Among his notable contributions are three books: “Studies in Kinyarwanda and Bantu Phonology” (1979), “A Relational Grammar of Kinyarwanda” (1980), and “A Tonal Grammar of Kinyarwanda: An Autosegmental and Metrical Analysis” (2002), along with 36 articles, 10 of which were in Kinyarwanda (Alexandre Kimenyi’s Website).
Kimenyi's “Relational Grammar of Kinyarwanda,” a revised version of his PhD dissertation, stands out as the first comprehensive application of relational grammar theory to a Bantu language. This work quickly gained recognition and became widely cited, inspiring further research by substantiating claims within that linguistic approach.
This list would be complete without acknowledging Scholastique Mukasonga, a recipient of numerous literary awards. Her works not only reflect her personal experiences as a Tutsi woman but also encompass the broader struggles of Rwandan women, detailing the persecution of Tutsis and her family's tragic losses.
Mukasonga's significant works, including “Cockroaches,” “The Barefoot Woman,” and “Our Lady of the Nile,” explore profound themes. In “Cockroaches,” she hauntingly recounts her personal history during the Rwandan genocide, vividly portraying the enduring impact of the conflict. The autobiography sheds light on her family's displacement in 1959, her mistreatment as a Tutsi during high school, and her heartbreaking inability to aid family members who perished.
In “The Barefoot Woman,” another memoir, Mukasonga organizes her memories around various topics, offering readers a deeper understanding of her life and the collective experiences of Rwandan women. Simultaneously, “Our Lady of the Nile,” a novel initially in French and later translated into English, unfolds a story set in a Catholic boarding school in Rwanda, exploring societal tensions and racial conflicts that foreshadowed the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The narrative captures the pre-genocide era, depicting the escalating anti-Tutsi sentiment and the societal descent into horror with an air of foreboding and urgency.
Several other notable authors, also survivors of the 1994 genocide, have shared their stories through literature. Immaculée Ilibagiza, for instance, penned “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust” (2006), an autobiography recounting her survival during the Rwandan genocide. Eugénie Musayidire contributed “Mein Stein spricht” (My Stone Speaks), a book wherein she reflects on the tragic murder of her brother's family and 22 other relatives in 1994 by a neighbor who had once been a close friend. Yolande Mukagasana's “La mort ne veut pas de moi” (Not My Time to Die) by Zoe Norridge in 2019 is another poignant work shedding light on the genocide.
While the majority of these authors produced impactful works in French and English, a select few chose to write in Kinyarwanda. It is obvious that the contributions of these few have played a vital role in preserving, enriching, and advancing the Kinyarwanda language. Once marginalized, Kinyarwanda has now ascended to the status of one of the official languages of Rwanda, thanks in large part to the efforts of these literary giants.