Education in Ruanda-Urundi, 1946-61

By Duarte, Mary T. | The Historian, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Education in Ruanda-Urundi, 1946-61

Duarte, Mary T., The Historian

The U.S. media in 1994 covered the horrible suffering that sprang from Rwanda's civil war and from the unexpectedly massive exodus of refugees into Zaire. Pictures and reports indicated little about the historical origins of the tragedy beyond mentioning that, until the early 1960s, Belgium had ruled this region of southeastern central Africa, including the huge Belgian Congo and its tiny eastern neighbors, Ruanda-Urundi, which on their independence became known as Rwanda and Burundi. Some journalists observed that decades of Belgian rule had deepened the differences between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples, since Belgian missionaries and colonial rulers favored the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority. Yet the history of Rwanda, the most densely populated country in sub-Saharan Africa, was usually lost amid the grisly details of how the officials of the French and U.S. armies--as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and such non-governmental organizations as Doctors Without Frontiers--coped with another tragedy in Africa.(1)

After World War II, the United Nations (UN) established a trusteeship system to provide international supervision of the former mandate protectorates of the League of Nations. Once the UN had drawn up a formal agreement between the administering state and its trusteeship territory, the Trusteeship Council monitored the territory's progress toward independence. The territory of Ruanda-Urundi was placed within this system. Belgium, which had acquired the territory from the defeated Germans after World War I, pledged in the UN agreement to develop a system of elementary education in Ruanda-Urundi that would reduce illiteracy, train inhabitants in manual skills, and improve the education of the population. Belgium also promised to provide elementary education, primarily through government-sponsored private schools, and to provide qualified students with the necessary facilities for higher education, especially in the professional fields. However, the Belgian government would pay little attention to developing an educated class capable of political or economic leadership. Guided by a paternalistic attitude toward Ruanda-Urundi, and expecting to retain control over the trusteeship throughout the twentieth century, the government only slowly introduced educational reforms. As a result, the African nations of Rwanda and Burundi were unprepared for the independence they won in 1961, with tragic consequences for hundreds of thousands throughout the rest of the century.(2)

The Belgian government's original educational plan under the League of Nations mandate had offered primary education to as many children as possible through both governmental and government-subsidized missionary and chapel schools. The missionary schools were religious schools that adhered to the government's educational program and underwent government inspection. These had constituted the majority of educational institutions in the mandate territory, along with Catholic and Protestant chapel schools. The latter, which remained independent of government control and received no financial aid, provided religious instruction while teaching rudimentary subjects. Classes were taught in the vernacular and focused on reading, writing, arithmetic, basic sciences, and agriculture. Secondary education was limited to the training of the sons of the African elite for minor administrative civil service, commerce, or the priesthood.(3)

After World War II, the Belgian government continued this old approach under the trusteeship system. It attempted to create a broad class of literate people through elementary education while ignoring the special requirements of secondary and higher education. The government saw a great danger in creating a volatile native intellectual elite that might dominate the majority, and it hoped to guide the people's gradual intellectual development, not rush them into self-government. Belgium's special representative for Ruanda-Urundi to the Trusteeship Council summed up his country's policy succinctly: "The real work is to change the African in his essence, to transform his soul, [and] to do that one must love him and enjoy having daily contact with him. …

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