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Education in Ruanda-Urundi, 1946-61.

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. He must be cured of his thoughtlessness, he must accustom himself to living in society, he must overcome his inertia." This paternalistic attitude persisted in Belgian educational policy despite the criticism it received from members of the Trusteeship Council. Haiti's representative to the council argued that Belgium's policy failed to develop a national identity or an indigenous population capable of assuming the responsibilities of self-government after independence.(4)

Instead of education, the primary concerns of the Belgian administration immediately after World War II were to improve health and hygiene and to create an infrastructure for further economic development through the building of roads and bridges and the expansion of agriculture. Education took a back seat to these objectives. Frands Sayre, the U.S. representative to the Trusteeship Council, criticized Belgium's policy by noting that education was not a luxury that could be postponed, but the essential ingredient for the growth of trusteeship territories and the eventual emergence of territorial self-government.(5)

Compounding the problem was the growth of the territory's population, which roughly doubled in the thirty years between the end of World War I and the end of World War II, and doubled again in the fifteen years before Ruanda-Urundi gained independence. In 1952 the total population of Ruanda-Urundi was almost 4.2 million; ten years later, Burundi had a population of about 3.8 million, and Rwanda had 4.7 million people. With this demographic explosion, the demand for more schools and teachers in Ruanda-Urundi soared. In 1920, after Belgium assumed responsibility for the mandate, the territory had 123 schools with 231 indigenous teachers and only 6,000 students. By 1948, the numbers had increased to 1,618 public and subsidized primary schools with 142,652 students. By 1956, there were 2,700 schools with 236,962 pupils--an approximate increase of 60 percent in both categories in eight years. Primary school teachers had increased to 5,642 by 1958, of whom 1,656 were certified. Though these gains seemed impressive, the Trusteeship Council soon discovered that the figures were deceptive, since students received limited instruction.(6)

Education slowly began to claim a larger hunk of the territory's ordinary budget. In 1947 only 7.3 percent of the territory's total budget was earmarked for education; in 1950, 9.6 percent; in 1953, 16 percent, and by 1957, four years before Ruanda-Urundi gained independence, 20 percent of the trusteeship's budget was applied to education. The government met all the costs of the official schools and a large portion of the costs of the subsidized schools. As a result, education in these institutions was free. New schools were built primarily with money from the extraordinary budget and from the native welfare fund. The number of primary schools in 1953 alone increased 18 percent, from 1,855 the previous year to 2,192. The majority of new schools, however, were not secular schools run by the administering authority, but government-subsidized missionary schools. Only 5 of the 1,855 primary schools in Ruanda-Urundi in 1952 were government-run schools. These schools had a total enrollment of only 1,237, while denominational primary schools were attended by 210,177 pupils. The Belgian government's failure to take complete control of the territory's educational structure drew the censure of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which monitored educational progress in the trusteeships as part of its campaign against illiteracy. The Belgian representative to the council dismissed UNESCO's attacks as anticlerical in spirit. But in its 1959 report to the General Assembly, the Trusteeship Council still called for Belgium to assume a larger role in the development of educational facilities.(7)

The Trusteeship Council criticized the Belgian government not only for retaining the use of subsidized missionary schools, but for relying so heavily on the chapel schools to provide primary education. The chapel schools' rudimentary curriculum consisted of one- or two-year courses in reading and writing, in addition to religious instruction. India's representative to the Trusteeship Council argued that these schools should be either regulated by the administering authority or completely taken over. The Belgians protested that the chapel schools and the government-subsidized missionary schools were essential to providing basic education to the population. Missionary teachers settled in the region and rarely returned to Belgium, while government teachers' benefits typically included an annual trip to their European homes. By relying on subsidized and chapel schools, the Belgian government could claim to provide a rudimentary education to at least six times the number of students that the government could otherwise have reached. Without the chapel schools, an even larger part of the population of Ruanda-Urundi would have been deprived of even a rudimentary education.(8)

Subsidized missionary schools were cheaper to run, yet difficult to monitor. To gain a government subsidy, mission schools were required to have proper facilities, a qualified teaching staff, and a fairly homogeneous student body. Schools also had to provide free instruction, using the syllabus approved by the administrating authority, for a minimum of 200 days a year. Classes had to be taught in either the indigenous language or one of the national languages of Belgium. Finally, time had to be set aside daily for manual training. In 1947, only 1,297 missionary schools were subsidized in Ruanda-Urundi. The 3,184 that chose not to meet the standards imposed by the Belgian government educated an estimated 75 percent of the primary students in the territory.(9)

To guarantee the standards of official and subsidized schools, the first government inspector of schools was appointed in 1947. By 1956, only two official primary school inspectors and seven missionary school inspectors carried the burden of monitoring over 2,700 schools, an impossible task for such a small group. The Belgian government never adequately addressed this problem. In its 1958-59 report the Trusteeship Council still emphasized the need for a stronger school-inspection system in Ruanda-Urundi.

With even the limited resources available for education going mainly for building new schools, indigenous teachers' salaries remained a small part of Ruanda-Urundi's budget. In 1950, the lowest rank of teachers, who attended only four years of primary school and completed a two-year teacher-training program, received a salary of 2,520 Belgian francs a year--about $4.20 a month. These teachers taught the lowest primary classes. Assistant teachers, who had completed six years of primary school and a three-year teacher-training program, taught regular lower and upper primary-school classes for a salary of between 6,600 and 9,600 Belgian francs a year. The top category of teachers, who taught upper primary-school classes as well as the sixth and seventh preparatory classes, completed both six years primary school and six years teacher training and received 14,000 Belgian francs a year. The Soviet representative to the Trusteeship Council condemned this discriminatory wage scale, noting that a European newspaper cost more than a native primary teacher made in a day. Such poor pay resulted in a shortage of qualified indigenous teachers in the territory.(10)

In 1952, only 3,478 teachers taught in official and subsidized schools, an insufficient number to meet the growing educational needs of the population. Though the number of teachers grew to 4,643 in 1953, 3,563 of this group were uncertified African teachers. Most of these indigenous teachers had received only six years of formal education, hardly enough training to provide adequate instruction to their large classes. With few incentives, most native teachers opted not to undertake six years of additional teacher training. Only 19 students trained for this highest level in 1953, 27 in 1954, and 36 (out of 2,002 teaching students) in 1956. Under mounting criticism by the United Nations, the Belgian government increased the standards required to enter the lowest level of teacher training, leading to a temporary decline in teaching trainees. Belgium also raised qualification standards for teachers in the mission schools, and gave these schools two years to bring their teaching staffs within the new guidelines.

In the rural or bush schools, classes were conducted in the indigenous languages (Kinjarwanda in Ruanda and Kirundi in Urundi). The central schools offered courses in French, expecting students to gain a rudimentary knowledge of the language by age 13 or 14. Since French was the exclusive medium of education in secondary and specialized schools, students in the rural schools, no matter how gifted, could not continue their studies unless they learned French. As a result, secondary education eluded the majority of the educated population.

Secondary and specialized education, with meager support from the government, also grew slowly in Ruanda-Urundi. In 1947, there was only one government-run general secondary school in the territory. An additional school opened in 1953, and by 1956, 365 indigenous students had registered in these two schools. The three state vocational schools had an enrollment of only 401, and thirty-one subsidized vocational and secondary schools accounted for 1,688 students. In all, 2,474 students enrolled in secondary education in 1956-a 12.5 percent increase from the 2,203 secondary students in 1952. With so few schools available for additional study, native students who wished to continue their education were required to leave home. But the rewards of continued education seemed few, since the government failed to provide incentives for continued education. Members of the Trusteeship Council increasingly criticized the slow development of secondary education and emphasized the need for more such schools.(11)

Ruanda-Urundi had no institution of higher learning, since the education provided in the trusteeship was inadequate preparation for university instruction. By 1947, not a single native had gone on to Belgium for additional studies either on the secondary or higher level. Members of the Trusteeship Council questioned the continued classroom use of vernacular, which closed higher education to all but those students who were fluent in French. Belgium finally succumbed to outside pressure and began the instruction of some classes in French in the third and fourth years of primary school.(12)

Belgium never made education compulsory during the trusteeship of Ruanda-Urundi, arguing that such a policy would be counterproductive since the territory lacked the facilities to accommodate all school-age children. By 1957, only an estimated one-third of all eligible children attended school. Moreover, most of these students did not complete more than one or two years of studies. Fewer than 3 percent completed the full six years of primary-school studies. UNESCO was concerned about what it termed "wastage": "A child who leaves school after one or two years, or who repeats classes, must be regarded as a poor investment of the Territory's limited funds. The long term result--the survival of only one-third over a three-year course period--shows that the holding power of the school is poor." The administering authority never solved this problem. Only 47.3 percent of the class that began its first year of primary education in 1952 continued to the second year. This figure remained fairly constant in the following years: 43.7 percent of 1953's first-year class continued to the second year, 48.6 percent for 1954, and 47.2 percent for 1955 (see table). Slightly less than one-third (32.8 percent) of the 1952 class made it to a third year of primary studies, with similar figures for the 1953 and 1954 classes. The number of students that continued to the final year of primary school increased 41 percent during the four-year period, but this figure remains a tiny percentage of the total number of pupils that entered the primary-school system. Fewer than 1 percent of the population between 13 and 19 years of age continued their education in secondary schools.(13)


UNESCO attributed such high wastage to the prevalence of incomplete primary schools and to the curriculum's failure to meet the needs and interests of the students. The special representative for Ruanda-Urundi, however, blamed poor school attendance on the native population. He emphasized that the scarcity of a qualified native teaching staff made it impossible to provide a quality education to the inhabitants, much less to keep the students interested in their studies. He argued that the indigenous population did not yet understand the merits of education. Without parental support, the administration could not make education compulsory.(14)

Eventually, a few students began to pursue advanced studies. In 1953, 24 students studied abroad through private means or on religious scholarships. This number dropped to 21 students in 1955 and increased only slightly in 1956, when 30 indigenous students went abroad for higher education. The government opened a Pre-University Institute in October 1955 to supplement the secondary education received in the trusteeship. A Trusteeship Council report described the school as an essential link between secondary and higher education for the inhabitants in the territory. After educating 21 students its first year, however, the institute moved to the Belgian Congo in 1956, a move that signified a major setback for higher education in Ruanda-Urundi. The slow pace of education reform in the territory indicates how much time the Belgian government assumed it would have to prepare the trusteeship for independence. In 1954 India's representative warned that it was time for Belgium to "take a substantial step toward absorbing in metropolitan higher educational institutions large numbers of students, without whom little progress could be made toward the achievement of the objectives of the Trusteeship System."(15)

The Belgian government made even fewer gains in literacy and adult education. UNESCO recognized the essential role the independent mission schools played in reducing illiteracy within the trusteeship. In 1952, an estimated 480,000 people of all ages attended chapel schools. This figure rose to almost 650,000 natives in 1956. In addition to giving religious instruction, these schools also taught converts to read and write. Such schools were the only choice available to many natives seeking an education since the Belgian government almost totally neglected adult education. In 1956, four government schools for indigenous adults and one for European adults taught only 455 students in the territory.(16)

The Trusteeship Council deplored the snail-like pace at which Belgium developed an educational system for its trusteeship. In 1957 the council noted that education for the territory was still provided almost solely by religious missions. In 1957, only 3,041 out of a total 240,032 primary students attended government-run primary schools; of these, only 36 African students attended a primary school with a European syllabus. Nearly 400,000 of the 600,000 children between 7 and 12 years of age did not even attend school. Only 4,789 pupils continued into post-primary studies, 3,705 at subsidized private schools. Only 56 indigenous students continued their education abroad that year--36 in the Belgian Congo, 14 in Belgium, 5 at Rome, and 1 in India. Finally, when the Agronomic and Animal Husbandry School opened in Astrida in October 1958, it had a first class of only 4 students.(17)

Belgium virtually ignored the Trusteeship Council's demands to accelerate the process of educating Ruanda-Urundi's population. Despite its careful scrutiny of the administering authority's annual reports and its thorough examination of the territory's educational system, the Trusteeship Council could not control the policies of the Belgian government, largely because the council members comprised an equal number of representatives from both administering and non-colonial countries. Since a majority was required to pass all resolutions, the council made few harsh criticisms. The pace of the educational process in Ruanda-Urundi thus remained firmly in the control of the Belgian government, which avoided introducing an advanced or costly educational system.

Unfortunately, the Belgian government overestimated the amount of time it would have to administer and develop its trusteeship. World War II unleashed nationalist forces in Africa with which few former colonial powers were prepared to deal. Many Africans who had served abroad during the war returned to their homelands inspired to fight for their own independence, and it was their zeal that ignited the continent. Many administrating authorities and colonial powers such as Belgium ignored these changes and continued their vintage-World War I policies.

The paternalistic Belgian system was not universally adopted by other trustee powers. The French government, for example, chose to address nationalism through assimilation--in essence, to make the indigenous people "French" by introducing French culture to the territories. France sought ultimately to promote self-administration by a French-trained native elite that looked to France for advice and support. This goal led to the implementation of a vastly different education system from that of Belgium. In its trusteeship agreements with Togoland and the Cameroons, France agreed to "continue to develop elementary, secondary and technical education for the benefit of both children and adults. To the full extent compatible with the interests of the population it shall afford to qualified students the opportunity of receiving higher general or professional education." France applied its own educational system to the trusteeships, teaching classes in French and adapting the French curriculum to local conditions. In this way the government could make the general population familiar with the French language and culture and establish an elite that could complete its higher education in France and gradually take positions of authority in the territory Yet, neither Belgium's policy nor the tactics adopted by France won the full support of the Trusteeship Council, and when independence came in the early 1960s, none of the territories left under Belgian or French care had a strong educational base or an educated leadership.(18)

By 1960--indeed, after four decades under Belgian control--Ruanda-Urundi had neither a viable education system nor an educated elite prepared to govern. Fewer than 100 natives of Ruanda-Urundi had received post-secondary education, and no literate population had emerged. The administrative authority had not invested necessary funds, opened enough public schools, maintained sufficiently high educational standards, enforced compulsory attendance, or provided a curriculum that prepared students for post-primary studies. The Belgian government had not significantly advanced its trusteeship's education system, nor had it developed an educated class capable of running its government or economy. The roots of many of this struggling nation's problems can be found in the failures of the trusteeship system to prepare it for self-rule. Although Rwanda's thirty years since independence have witnessed their own share of failures and turmoil, forty years of Belgian colonial rule, particularly Belgium's abysmal education record, contributed much to the tragedy the world witnesses in Rwanda. (1) The best historical account of how, following Germany's defeat in World War I, the former East African colonies of Germany were assigned to Belgium by the League of Nations is William Roger Louis, Ruanda-Urundi 1884-1919 (Oxford, 1963). Unfortunately, there is no English account of subsequent Belgian rule that is up to that high standard of scholarship. For a thoughtful report of events in 1994, see Robert Block, "The Tragedy of Rwanda," New York Review of Books 41 (20 October 1994): 3-8. (2) Official Records of the Second Part of the First Session of the General Assembly, Text of Agreements for Trust Territories (13 December 1946),18. (3) Damian Murphy, "Belgian Educational Policy in Ruanda-Urundi, 1921-1938" (master's thesis, Marquette University, 1974). (4) United Nations Trusteeship Council Official Records, 3d sess. (16 June-5 August 1948), 54 [hereafter cited as UNTC Off. Rec.!; Ibid., 11th sess., 421st meeting (16 June 1952),14; Ibid., 1st sess. (25 January-28 March 1955),293. (5) Ibid., 3d sess. (16 June-5 August 1948), 64. (6) Ibid., Annex, 13th sess. (28 January-25 March 1954), 8; Ibid., 21st sess. (30 January-26 March 1958), 22-4. (7) Ibid., 13th sess. (28 January-25 March 1954), 8; Report of the Trusteeship Council Covering the Period from 23 July 1955 to 14 August 1956, 11th sess., 84; UNTC Off. Rec, 9th sess. (5 June-30 July 1955),118; Report of the Trusteeship Council, 14th sess. (2 August 1958-6 August 1959), 59. (8) UNTC Off. Rec., 17th sess. (7 February-5 April 1956), 50. (9) Ibid., 256; UNTC Off. Rec., 6th sess. (19 January-4 April 1950), 191; Ibid., 11th sess., 427th meeting (24 June 1952),14. (10) Ibid., 13th sess. (28 January-25 March 1954), 16-7,282. (11) Ibid., 11th sess., 427th meeting (24 June 1952), 28; Ibid., 13th sess. (28 January-25 March 1954),8. (12) Ibid., 4th sess. (24 January-25 March 1949),430. (13) Ibid., Annex, 17th sess. (7 February-6 April 1956), 11; Ibid., 13th sess. (28 January-25 March 1954),8; UNTC Off. Rec., 21st sess. (30 January-26 March 1958),43. (14) Ibid., 15th sess. (25 January-28 March 1955), 281. (15) Report of the Trusteeship Council Covering the Work of Its Twenty-first and Twenty-second Sessions, vol. 2, 13th sess., 60; Report of the Trusteeship Council Covering the Period from 17 July 1954 to 22 July 1955, 10th sess., 106. (16) UNTC Off. Rec., 21st sess. (30 January-26 March 1958),24. (17) Report of the Trusteeship Council, 14th sess. (2 August 1958-6 August 1959), 58-9. (18) Ibid., 39, 43.

Mary T. Duarte is a doctoral candidate in history at Marquette University.
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Author:Duarte, Mary T.
Publication:The Historian
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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