Throughout all his childhood years, Kagame had never been able to return to Rwanda,
but soon the young Rwandan student felt a growing curiosity
to know more about the land of his birth.


The desire to know and understand soon became the desire to go and see for himself,
and so in 1977 Kagame arranged to go to Rwanda and explore the homeland,
to see the places and to know more of what had effectively become
a forbidden territory for the young exile.

To Orwell Today,

Dear Jackie,

Would you know if PAUL KAGAME had ever set his foot in Rwanda prior to the 90s? The world knows that he left Rwanda in 1961 fleeing one of the many massacres of TUTSIS.

There are a lot of talks going on among the Africans abroad and inside the continent as to know if PAUL KAGAME visited Rwanda during his time as refugee and how was his stay in his fatherland.

I came across a posting on those newsgroups telling us how at one time Paul KAGAME while visiting Kigali in those days, he will take a walk (on foot) in the city and will pass by the gate of then President HABYARIMANA and keep going on his ways to the center of the town!

We will like to know more about this episode on the life of this great man in our history.

Thanks a lot,
Sharangabo Rufagari

Greetings Sharangabo,

Yes, Paul Kagame did set foot in Rwanda between the time he fled to Uganda with his family in 1961 when he was four years old and the time he came back in October 1990, at 33 years of age, to take over command of the army of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) after the death of Fred Rwigema on the second day of the invasion to liberate Rwanda. See RWANDA'S HERO FRED RWIGEMA.

Kagame made two visits to Rwanda, one in 1977 and one in 1978 (when he was twenty years old), as the following excerpts from a book published in 2004 describe:

PAUL KAGAME AND RWANDA: Power, Genocide and the Rwandan Patriotic Front,
by Colin Waugh, pages 7-18:

"...Across the fields of Nyarutovu houses burned, cries rang out, people ran across hillsides and fled down roadways, desperately trying to escape from a mayhem of arson and pillaging that had reached their commune in Gitarama Prefecture, 40 miles west of the Rwandan capital Kigali. In 1959 Paul Kagame, born into a Tutsi family, was only three years old when his village in Ntambwe commune was attacked. Because of his family's race, they risked becoming victims of the outbreak of lawlessness that was spreading across sections of the countryside, in which Hutu gangs were targeting Tutsi civilians....

"Paul Kagame and his family were forced to abandon their home when they became threatened by the mounting tide of sectarian violence. Learning one day that a gang of looters was approaching their house, they hurriedly bundled their belongings together and left quickly, never to see their home intact again....

"From Ntambwe, the family fled their commune for nearby Nyanza, where they spent two weeks, before continuing northwards to Paul's mother's birthplace of Mutara, near the Ugandan border. Much of the countryside was still not safe, however, and the attacks were becoming more widespread as the Rwandan 'revolution' which began in 1959 continued. In the following years extremist elements from the Hutu ethnic majority rampaged more widely through the countryside, continuing and heightening their campaign of violence, looting and arson....

"In 1961, Kagame's father [Deogratius]...decided to move across the border to Uganda, the country which was to become their family home for the next three decades.

"Once inside Uganda, with the money he had been able to bring with him, Deogratius was able to rent a house in Kamwezi, immediately across the border from Rwanda. Then later the family joined with other groups of Rwandans who were streaming across the border during those years and followed them further into Uganda's Ankole Province, where refugee camps had by then been set up for the exiles. After some time, the family moved again, going further north and finally arriving at another refugee camp called Nshungerezi, in Toro District, where they settled in mid-1962 and stayed for the rest of Paul's childhood years....

"By 1964, according to the United Nations High Commissin for Refugees (UNHCR), 336,000 Rwandan Tutsis had fled their country to seek refuge in neighboring lands. The majority, around 200,000, went to Burundi, with 36,000 fleeing to Tanzania, 22,000 to Zaire and 78,000 going initially to Uganda. Actual numbers, including those not registered by the UNHCR, were almost certainly higher; others have estimated, for example, that a further 100,000 unregistered Rwandans went to resettle independently in Uganda over the following several years. In all, seven refugee settlements were founded in western Uganda between 1962 and 1966, and over time many of the refugees were able to support themselves by cultivating food and in a few cases by continuing their traditional cattle-rearing way of life.

"For the next quarter century, successive waves of persecution and conflict inside Rwanda brought the total numbers of Tutsi refugees in the region to between 400,000 and 600,000 or around half of an estimated total Rwandan population of just under one million in 1990.

"Despite the early hardships, the Rwandans exiled in 1959 and the subsequent years gradually began to integrate into Ugandan society, learning English and speaking less and less French, the language of their former colonial masters. Soon many came to see themselves as Ugandans in practical terms, and as the months of exile turned to years, then decades, much of their direct association with the motherland began to diminish. No matter how long they stayed, however, those affected by the strife in Rwanda were never granted Ugandan citizenship. At the same time, political conditions at home remained unfavourable for a safe return, leaving the exiles in Uganda, who probably numbered over 150,000 by 1966, condemned to a state of long-term limbo.

"Paul Kagame attended primary school in Toro District where he learned English in a class of refugees, before moving to a Ugandan state school in Ntare from the age of nine, where he finally began to mix with the local population. He performed well and was at the top of his class in the last year of primary in Ntare. Even at this early age, his academic achievements were already causing administrative problems for the authorities of his adoptive land. According to regulations, the top three students in the class qualified for a grant to go on to secondary school; however, since he was not Ugandan, Paul did not qualify, leaving the authorities in the difficult position of having to award the grant to a student with inferior marks or deny him access to the school.

"To avoid the issue, he was initially refused a place, until financial help could be found from elsewhere. Luckily, Paul Kagame was able to benefit from the aid of a refugee assistance network established in different countries in Europe, which provided sponsorship, through a friend of his father in Belgium named Yves Genin. In this way Paul was able to complete his secondary schooling in Uganda; Genin maintained his close relationship with Rwanda and later became the Belgian ambassador to Kigali during Kagame's term of office as president.

"Paul's academic performance was not atypical of his generation of young Tutsi refugees, who unlike their Rwandan cousins, the economic migrants to the region from an earlier era, showed both an appetite and an aptitude for learning and qualifications. After graduation, many of the new refugees in Uganda would move away from their homes and villages in the refugee districts to seek fresh advancement in the larger towns such as Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and Mbarara, while some went to Nairobi or left Africa completely, going to Europe and North America.

"Many among the early Banyarwanda and indigenous Ugandan community resented the success of the newcomers, as Paul Kagame's schoolday experiences illustrate. This bitterness extended to economic life too, as the progeny of the "'59ers," as the new arrivals were known, soon overtook their neighbors in material status. A 20-year-old refugee, Silas Mukankusi, interviewed in the late 1980s, commented: 'When we arrived, the nationals offered us jobs in their gardens. That's how we got food and made ends meet. But by 1972-1973, we were employing them. That's why we are at loggerheads. They can't understand how we passed them.'

"Although the young Rwandan Tutsis had no material advantage to start with, their parents were used to an elevated status in their homeland and this may have contributed to the drive for academic achievement which they displayed. Christine Majagari, a 25-year-old, summed it up: 'We had no land, so we had to move with our heads. Our heads were our only capital.'

"Because of the ill feelings which this above-average achievement often generated, the exiled Rwandan students like Kagame growing up in Toro in the early 1970s increasingly encountered social difficulties as well as financial hardship. Children from the local western Ugandan group, the Banyankole, harassed the young Rwandans, often reminding them of their outsider status, and these feelings of alienation were to carry on into adult life for many of the refugees.

"Another graduate of Ntare school who was to become Kagame's mentor and political inspiration was a Banyankole Ugandan called Yoweri Museveni, some twelve year's Kagame's senior, a political activist and already a determined opponent of the way the authorities were running his country. Museveni came from the Hima ethnic group, which was closely related to the Tutsis, and he sympathized with the Rwandan exiles from his home region. He soon befriended Kagame, after influencing him to join in political and military opposition to the Ugandan regime that was oppressing both their native tribes.

"By 1972, following the coup d'etat against President Milton Obote staged the previous year by his army chief, General Idi Amin, more serious changes were also occurring at the national political level. Many of the foreign teachers, who were mostly British, were being forced to leave the country, in order to be replaced by Ugandan nationals. Such measures served only to emphasize the isolation of outsiders and added to the obstacles which they faced.

"For Kagame, however, influential friends were not far away. His mother, Asteria, was a sister of the late king's wife, Rosalie Gicanda. King Mutara Rudahigwa had died in Burundi in 1959 and his successor, Kigeli V returned to Kampala in 1972 and was able to offer moral if not material support to his relations in exile. However, not all exiled Rwandans were monarchists, and as Kagame's father had somewhat distanced himself from the royal court, there was less of a link with the monarchy than during the early years in Rwanda. Furthermore, a foreign king in Uganda was not entitled to any special privileges, especially during the two regimes of the republican socialist president Milton Obote. Kigeli's stay in Uganda was cut short by the changing political situation and he soon sought exile outside the region, ultimately settling in the United States, outside Washington, DC....

"Even Rwandan refugees who joined the army of the civil service after school were never granted Ugandan passports. It was this continuing disenfranchisement, exacerbated in the early 1980s after Milton Obote returned to power and began a campaign of expulsions of the Banyarwanda, that contributed so strongly to the lingering desire of many to make a stable return to Rwanda. On the one hand, life in Uganda was hard and nothing was ever permanent for the refugees, thereby pushing them to want to return. On the other hand, and because of their chronically temporary existence, the inaccessible homeland became idealized in the minds of many, creating a pull factor attracting them towards a land which most of them had never even known.

"However, despite his position of relative advantage in early life, even Kagame would never have found a place for himself in the upper echelons of Ugandan society. He later explained: 'Professional advancement was restricted for Rwandans in Uganda. There were limitations in our progress. They would still have considered Kagame a Rwandan and have said that he cannot go beyond a certain point, because he is a Rwandan.' But, to underline the proud and deep-rooted desire for return held by many of his compatriots. Kagame went on to describe their feelings: 'Most of the Rwandan refugees would never have accepted Ugandan citizenship even if the Ugandans wanted to grant them their nationality....I wanted to be a Rwandan.

"As an unsympathetic ruler once again took the reins of power in Kampala, at home in Rwanda the exclusion of Tutsis from much of public life had all but been institutionalized. In Rwanda in 1964, nearly all the remaining Tutsi politicians had been purged from office at the same time as massacres of thousands of their fellow countrymen were being carried out. From that time on, Tutsis stayed away from politics, although many were able to continue working unharassed in the private sector, on the unwritten understanding that they would not attempt to meddle in public affairs...

"In an attempt to provide self-help following the fall of Amin and the looming threat from Obote, in 1979 the Tutsi exile community in Uganda formed the Rwandese Refugee Welfare Foundation (RWWF). Soon the humanitarian RWWF became the more politically ambitious Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU), which was formally established in 1979. As the name suggests, RANU stood not only for an improvement in the Tutsi refugees' lot in Uganda, but also for an end to the politics of division and persecution based on ethnicity. These themes were to remain central to the guiding ideology of RANU and its successor movement for the next twenty years when they ultimately led the exiled diaspora and democratic opposition back to power in Kigali from 1994 onwards.

"Throughout all his childhood years, Kagame had never been able to return to Rwanda, but soon the young Rwandan student felt a growing curiosity to know more about the land of his birth. Approaching adulthood, as the social and looming professional consequences of being a foreigner in Uganda became apparent, he began asking his parents about what it was that they had done to become refugees and why their situation continued to be as it was.

"The desire to know and understand soon became the desire to go and see for himself, and so in 1977 Kagame arranged through contacts from his school to go to Rwanda and explore the homeland, to see the places and to know more of what had effectively become a forbidden territory for the young exile. Although he knew he still had relatives in Rwanda, particularly those on his mother's side who were related to the queen, he was unsure of the feasibility of reaching them from Uganda prior to visiting. Instead, by contacting older students from his own Uganda secondary school who had families in Kigali and who had gone back to live, Kagame was able to arrange to come and stay with them, ostensibly planning just to spend a few days in Rwanda before returning to Uganda.

"Upon arrival, however, he quickly linked up with his own family, then extended his contacts and decided to stay on to go around and travel more thoroughly in the country and to deepen his newfound knowledge of the land of his birth. Walking all around Kigali, often taking taxis to outlying villages and visiting different friends, the young Kagame moved around the country during two months in 1977. In this way, he made the acquaintance of the real Rwanda and he soon knew many things about Rwandan life which his fellow exiles in Uganda could only hear about from others or guess about from distant childhood recollections.

"After returning to Uganda, in 1978 Kagame came again for another visit to Rwanda, this time not taking the chance of crossing the border directly, but first going through the southwest into Zaire and from there passing through the Rutura area to Goma then crossing into Rwanda by the road to Gisenyi. Even in the relatively stable early years of the Habyarimana regime, the risk of being arrested as the exiled son of a family with prominent relatives could have entailed danger to a lone traveler. The longing for a return to Rwanda and the desire for exploration was something even Kagame could not logically explain: 'I wasn't sure what I was doing, I wanted to know something and perhaps to build on that. . . . It wasn't too dangerous . . . not yet, maybe they didn't bother about me, as I wasn't threatening in any sense - just a student, simple, going about on my own. . . . Although if someone had found out about me, known who I was, from a refugee camp in Uganda and the family I came from, it could have been very dangerous - you had to be very careful then.'

"One of the reasons for the risk that was entailed in traveling around Rwanda during those times was the strict control by the authorities on its own citizens' movements around the country. On the national identity card in addition to the all-important ubwoko, or ethnic designation, every citizen had to state his or her address; traveling far from one's home was discouraged and moving house without the necessary permission was not allowed. Rwanda society in the early years of Habyaramina's rule was tightly controlled although the restriction on freedom was relatively benign and well intentioned at that stage....

"Despite and perhaps because of the climate in Rwandan society during those years, the underlying interest in politics and career motivations of Paul Kagame were born of those early visits. Although he maintained that his agenda at the outset had been one of innocent curiosity, had the observations and experiences of those two visits in 1977 and 1978 been formative on his political thinking and ambitions for the future? 'Absolutely,' he said, 'it was after all the origin of that mission, as it was going on I improved my political ideas.'...

"By the time of Kagame's return to Uganda in late 1978, however, a new situation was developing in his country of exile, as an armed struggle against Idi Amin was gaining momentum and a new phase of persecution for many of the Rwandans in that part of the host country was about to begin....[end quoting from 'Paul Kagame and Rwanda' by Waugh]

All the best,
Jackie Jura

PS - Pan from Rwanda sends a few corrections:

Thank you for your researched work. Just a few details that Colin Waugh got wrong, otherwise he did a superb job:

* President Paul Kagame grew up in Gahunge refugee camp, Toro.
   Nshungerezi was a different camp in Ankole, also southwestern Uganda.

* Ntare School, Mbarara, Ankole, was a secondary school, and that is where he started
   his secondary education, after his brilliant primary education in Toro.

* To go to Goma, in DR Congo (from where he crossed on foot into Gisenyi, Rwanda)
   the young Kagame passed through Rutshuru, not Rutura.


Kagame, Museveni call for stronger ties ("this country protected us, when we were still refugees here") & Kagame at Uganda school reunion (Museveni also Old Boy from Ntare). NewTimes, Sep 30, 2006


Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~