It begins when the Flood subsides. Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and falls into a stupor in his tent. Ham, Noah’s son, sees his father’s nakedness and tells his two brothers what has happened. Shem and Japheth take a cloak between them and, walking backward into the tent, cover their father’s nakedness without themselves seeing it. When Noah wakes up and learns what has happened he lays a curse not upon Ham but upon Ham’s son: “Accursed be Canaan. He shall be his brothers’ meanest slave.” And he elaborates: “Blessed be Yahweh, God of Shem. Let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth. May he live in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his slave” (Genesis 9:20-27).

Taking this story as originally told, we might believe that Ham was simply unfortunate in happening to go into his tent and see his father’s nakedness, thereby breaking a taboo. We might also suppose that the purpose of the story is to explain how, despite the single common origin of Man, some peoples of the world live together on unequal terms.

Whizzing forward to the medieval versions* we learn more about the nature of Ham’s misdeed. He mocked Noah’s nakedness, and invited his brothers to do the same (which they refused). What is more, this is not the first of Ham’s transgressions. When they had all been on the Ark together, Noah had insisted that everyone be sexually continent, but Ham, by the aid of a magic demon, slept with his wife. Next day Noah saw his footprints, and there grew up an enmity between Noah and his son. Ham was punished by being given a black skin.

When the world came to be divided up, Japheth received Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham was awarded Africa. Ham became father to all the monsters of legend—including all the monsters of classical legend, the giants, the anthropophagi, the people with heads growing beneath their shoulders, and so forth. In some versions there was nothing necessarily bad about these monsters—they were after all a part of God’s creation—it was just that their ancestry had to be accounted for. In other versions Ham was like Cain—an accursed figure. Here is a Middle Irish account of the matter:

His famous father cursed the son called Ham so that he—he excelled in perversity—is the Cain of the people after the Flood. From him with valour sprang horse-heads and giants, the line of maritime leprechauns, and every unshapely person; those of the two heads—it was a crime—and the two bodies in union, the dun-coloured one-footed folk [i.e., Ethiopians], and the merry blue-beaked people. Every person in the east without a head, going from glen to glen, and his white mouth protruding from his breast, he is of the posterity of Ham.

But not all of this colorful, Bosch-like posterity was accursed. Some were blest. The Magus Caspar, Prester John, and the Ethiopian Eunuch (the early Christian convert from the Acts of the Apostles) are all figures of extreme piety and nobility. Ethiopia is particularly associated with Ham, and the Psalmist had after all prophesied: “From Egypt nobles will come. Ethiopia will stretch out its hands to God” (Psalm 68:31).

Fast-forwarding again to the nineteenth century we find Japheth largely forgotten, the sons of Shem memorialized in the term Semitic, and the sons of Ham still associated with Ethiopia. Africa, on close examination by Europeans, turned out to contain not an undifferentiated mass of subhumans but a large number of distinct peoples, some of whom had qualities so strikingly superior that they must be, in some sense, white—even though their skins were as black as jet. These then would be the Hamitic peoples. Gobineau apparently thought they must be descendants of white excursions into Africa, who had degenerated through interbreeding. Others called them Aryans or “Europeans under a black skin.”

In Rwanda, the explorers discovered an interesting situation, not unlike the phenomenon that the story of Ham had sought to explain: three people living together on unequal terms. The Twa accounted for only one percent of the population. They were immediately perceived to be pygmies (another legendary classification that goes back to Homer). They lived either in remote forests or in the menial quarters of the Tutsi court. Where the Twa came into their own, and were not despised, was on the battlefield.

The bulk of the population was Hutu, and the obvious elite was Tutsi. The three peoples spoke the same language exactly. They observed the same religion and taboos. When they went to war, which was often enough, they went together. The king and his court were Tutsi. The Tutsi population at large were keepers of cattle. The Hutu were cultivators of land. The Hutu, as a people, were neither the slaves nor the servants of the Tutsi but rather their relationship was that of client. A Tutsi might give a cow to a Hutu, who thereby incurred an obligation to him. From this obligation others might follow.


The Europeans looked at the Tutsi and thought: These people are superior, they must have come from somewhere else, they must be Hamitic. One priest (placing his bets rather widely, you might think) believed they must come from “either Melanesia or Asia Minor” while another considered them to be descendants of the ancient Egyptians. (The ancient Egyptians would have thrown a fit to be told this.) A former French ambassador to Rwanda, Paul del Perugia, published a book as late as 1970 called Les derniers Rois Mages (“The Last Magi-Kings”) in which he sees the Tutsi as having come from Tibet (with a minor branch making it to Iceland, according to Gérard Prunier’s recent book). Del Perugia’s book also mentions Babylon, Nineveh, ancient Crete, and—of course—Noah and the Flood. It has apparently found its way into the scientific bibliographies, even though Prunier says it describes the Tutsi king as “having the power to see flying saucers which his poor Hutu subjects were unable to perceive.”

What distinguished the Tutsi from the Hutu was their greater height, their thin straight noses, their thin lips and thin fingers. The Hutu, by contrast, had Bantu features. They were, according to early reports, “short and thick-set with a big head, a jovial expression, a wide nose and enormous lips. They [were] extroverts who [liked] to laugh and lead a simple life.” One step up, in other words, from the Twa, who “with monkey-like flat face and a huge nose” was quite similar to the apes whom he chased in the forest.

The Tutsi “of good race”—an important qualification, since not every Tutsi lived up to the generic description above—had “nothing of the negro apart from his colour.” His features, said a Belgian report of 1925, “are very fine: a high brow, thin nose and fine lips framing beautiful shining teeth…. Gifted with a vivacious intelligence, the Tutsi displays a refinement of feeling which is rare among primitive people. He is a natural-born leader, capable of extreme self-control and of calculated good will.”

These compliments (together with their qualifications—a “calculated good will” being an eloquent expression of the master’s mistrust of his favorite) did not pass the Tutsi by. They learned, they were informed, that they belonged to a special race, an Ethiopian people who had come to Rwanda as conquerors in perhaps the seventeenth century. They observed also that the new imperial powers—the Germans in 1908 followed by the Belgians in 1924—were happy to rule Rwanda through the agency of the Tutsi.

So it was that during the colonial period the Tutsi king was able to extend his control (where it had been incomplete) throughout the geography of Rwanda, and was able, too, to concentrate his power within the system that colonialism set up. Whereas once there had been a complicated interlocking pattern of Hutu and Tutsi chiefdoms, this was gradually simplified in favor of the Tutsi. Whereas once there had been a certain degree of ambiguity—an upwardly mobile Hutu family might, through the possession of cattle, become Tutsified—now there were identity cards on which one’s race was set down for all to see.

And of course none of this escaped the attention of the Hutu, who learned that they were a vanquished people ruled over by Ethiopians, who saw that they were not favorites in the class, and who resented utterly the consequent humiliation and what seemed to them a progressive enslavement. But this situation did not last forever, nor did the attitudes which underpinned it.

Curiously enough, Belgium also turned out to be a composite nation. Whereas the earlier generation among the missionaries had tended to be conservative Walloons, after the Second World War there came to Rwanda a new generation of Flemish priests with greater sympathy for the Hutu underdog. It was the great era of the African independence movements, and in Rwanda the question posed was: independence for whom? Who would inherit the country? Nineteen fifty-seven saw the publication of a Hutu manifesto calling for independence from both Belgium and the Tutsi monarchy. In 1959 came a revolt. Twenty thousand Tutsis were massacred and many more went into exile. The Sons of Ham turned out to be cursed after all, just as the Bible had said.

It had taken two generations of colonialism to turn what had been an antagonism between two peoples who nevertheless lived together intimately and productively into a passionate racial hatred. What followed was that the Tutsi diaspora (widely spread in both Africa, especially Uganda, and in North America) devoted itself to the ambition to return to Rwanda. At the same time, in Rwanda itself, the state acquired a special character, which Prunier describes thus:


It is not possible to assess Rwanda in the way one would assess the Central African Republic or the Gambia. Rwanda was a country with a mystique. Keeping all due precautions in mind, one has to see it in the company of Cuba, Israel, North Korea and the Vatican, that is an ideological state where power is a means towards the implementation of a set of ideas at least as much as a de facto administrative structure for governing a given geographical territory.

The Hutu, the silent majority who had come into their own, were, in Prunier’s phrase, “ontologically democratic.” Hutu-controlled government was automatically legitimate because the Hutu were the people. And so what rapidly turned into a one-party state, a dictatorship with a highly centralized, efficient bureaucracy, became an object of great admiration among, for instance, Belgian and German Christian Democrats, and Swiss donors of public foreign aid. The Hutu now enjoyed the foreign infatuation that had once been the monopoly of the Tutsi.

This proneness to infatuation—with a people, with a regime—is typical of colonialists, missionaries, aid workers, and certain kinds of foreign correspondent. It is natural perhaps for anyone living the lonely life of the outpost, but it poses problems when the infatuation for one people is at the expense of another. It is also a faiblesse of people on the Right. Chief Buthelezi is a recent beneficiary of such adoration.

In the early 1980s, it is said that the foreign community used to “compare the nearly idyllic situation in Rwanda with the post-Idi Amin chaos in Uganda, the Tutsi apartheid in Burundi, the ‘real African socialism’ of Tanzania and Mobutu’s kleptocracy in Zaire.” There were political murders, yes, and massacres, yes; but—look!—the crime rate is as low as can be and the prostitutes are regularly arrested and the Bishop of Kigali is a member of the government. What could be more wholesome, in the context? The first president of Rwanda, Grégoire Kayibanda, dedicated the country to God. The second president, Juvénal Habyarimana, had his predecessor starved to death in jail, because he feared that if he dispatched him outright he would end up with his blood on his hands. That seems emblematic of the sinister respectability of the Hutu regime in its pre-mad phase.

In 1988 the exiled Tutsi made common cause with dissident Hutu elements and founded the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). The civil war began, and Rwanda came under foreign pressure to solve the problem of reaccommodating the Tutsi refugees. But Habyarimana had a new ally in the form of France—France which, because the RPF worked from Uganda and had a new generation of anglophone Tutsis in its ranks, detected a threat to francophone Africa. So the Tutsis, having once been identified as white under the skin, were now seen to be the wrong sort of white under the skin. They were part of the global Anglo-Saxon threat to French culture.

Prunier, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, mocks, with gusto and at length, the political mentality that caused France to back the ailing Habyarimana dictatorship, and he does so in earnest:

This blind commitment was to have catastrophic consequences because, as the situation radicalised, the Rwandese leadership kept believing that no matter what it did, French support would be forthcoming. And it had no valid reasons for believing otherwise.

When it seemed as if President Habyarimana was prepared to yield to foreign influence and to go some way toward the reintegration of the Tutsi exiles, a group of extremists close to his wife began to plot their alternative scenario: the extermination of all Tutsis, of whatever age. Here is an extract by the vice-president of the ruling party in 1992:

The fatal mistake we made in 1959 was to let them [the Tutsis] get out… They belong in Ethiopia and we are going to find them a shortcut to get there by throwing them into the Nyabarongo river [which flows northwards]. I must insist on this point. We have to act. Wipe them all out!

And the other fatal mistake, as such speeches insisted, was the failure in 1959 to kill all the children.

When one sees one of these great crimes being committed, there is often the feeling that some ancient monstrosity has come back to life. But Prunier does not consider genocide primitive: “Genocides are a modern phenomenon—they require organization—and they are likely to become more frequent in the future.” However ancient the story of the curse that was laid on Ham, however Victorian the racial categories that were projected onto the screen of Rwandan history, when it came down to the matter of deciding who was a Tutsi, the killers relied first on identity cards, which were introduced by Belgians during this century, and secondly upon knowledge of a person’s ancestry. It was after these two lines of inquiry proved insufficient that physical characteristics were used as an indicator.

What condemned the greatest number of the Tutsis to death was the efficiency of the post-colonial Hutu bureaucracy, whose préfets, sous-préfets, and bourgmestres were all in the one ruling party, and who insisted that every Hutu would take responsibility in the killing of every Tutsi. Prunier estimates that between 800,000 and 850,000 lost their lives, and only 130,000 survived. It is a story that belongs in its technology entirely to the twentieth century. Even the machetes were mass-produced in China. Only the mythology has that terrifying antiquity.

This Issue

February 15, 1996