- A Hill Among A Thousand: Transformation And Ruptures In Rural Rwanda
This volume on Murundi, a community of western Rwanda on the cusp of the genocide, is a magnificent and fascinating ethnography. A translation from the French of Une colline entre mille, ou le calme avant le tempête (Tervuren 1996), it marries detailed empirical observation, from three years of close contact, with cogent commentary on, and thoughtful conceptual exegesis of, the broader history and culture of Rwanda.
Three elements distinguish this work. One is its deep historiographic sensitivity, for which the author is eminently well-qualified: with Marcel [End Page 110] d'Hertefelt, she previously published the monumental two-volume Encyclopédie Bibliographique du Rwanda (Tervuren 1987)—one of the most comprehensive annotated national bibliographies of any African state. A second notable element is the range of cultural, political, and economic activities considered. The administrative "hill" in Rwanda is not a concentrated settlement, but a collection of homesteads, scattered across the landscape, yet tightly connected by multiple threads of interaction, intermarriage, administrative demands, and intersecting identities. So "the community" is not immediately apparent: it is an imagined community, socially constructed and reconstructed over time from an "almost invisible spatial fabric of social relations" (p. 145). The third element that marks this study is the presentation of an extraordinary series of detailed life histories, derived from individuals of diverse gender, class, occupational, and ethnic profiles. In short, this is three volumes in one: a rich description of a single community, a penetrating review of Rwandan historiography, and an exploration of many conceptual issues in anthropology. And all three levels—empirical, analytic, and conceptual—constantly illuminate each other.
Murundi is in fact composed of two intersecting ridges (and several distinct locales), located high on the eastern shoulders of the Congo–Nile Divide in western Rwanda—at the "end of the world," as de Lame calls it. Despite this sentiment, however, this small community—of 178 family homesteads, two churches, a medical center, a school, a marketplace, and several bars—is connected to many wider administrative, social, economic, and religious networks; indeed, outside influences pervade the description of social relations in the community. Extraneous political factors are not new. One of many trenchant points that emerge from this detailed study is how mobile Rwandan society was before colonial rule, as people sought land and pasture, fled political authority, and served political authorities (p. 155); however "remote" they may be portrayed, these people did not conform to the image of the static, sedentary peasant. Nevertheless, the late 1980s and early 1990s—the years of de Lame's study—saw notable influences from outside, in part from the presence (and then closure) of a foreign-funded development project, in part from the aggressiveness of Rwandan class accumulation, and in part from increasing land shortages, which drove out youth (men and some women) in ever larger numbers (30–40 percent in the 20–24 age bracket) to seek their fortunes elsewhere: the external ties are products of both input and outflow. Implicitly but pervasively, therefore, this study is about the relations—sometimes surreptitious, sometimes overt—between this community and the wider political economy.
The book is not centrally about politics; it is a study of the intricacies of a community's culture, illustrated through a series of life histories. Vignettes of the individuals encountered and their personal narratives—articulating the tensions of the time by commentaries on the state, the educational system, and the deepening structures of class formation within a "guided free-market system"—make this less an abstract ethnology than a study in personal testimony. De Lame's presentation of this cultural construction of [End Page 111] "living space and time" is important and elegant. "The ethnographic study of the hillside micro-culture cannot [simply] replace the ethnographic study of the rural world as it related to the city and the world" (p. 111). Instead, this study reaches out to that broader world. If not quite following the actors into other locales, it shows...