Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Kagamé, Alexis (B)

Catholic Church

Rwandan clergyman and philosopher. From the 1940s on, he was the intellectual leader of the Rwandan Tutsis, defending their traditions and position against colonial control.

Kagame was born on 15 May 1912 at Kiyanza, into a family of Abirus, traditional historians of the court of the Mwami (king) of Rwanda. His family, like that of the Mwami, were not only of the Tutsi people, the minority people who ruled in the Kingdom of Rwanda and Burundi with the Hutu majority kept in subjection, but also of the highest aristocracy of the kingdom. The Mwami and his aristocracy in Rwanda, as in Burundi, were kept in power by the German colonial rulers who were in control when Kagame was born.

When German rule gave way to the Belgians, under a mandate and later a trusteeship in the First World War, the Catholic missionary effort which had begun under the Germans continued with great success. Thousands of people became Catholics and the White Fathers mission became powerful in the land. The young Alexis Kagame, after attending the Nganza Nygrutoru Catholic Primary School in Ruhengeri district and then, from 1923 to 1928, the government school established for chiefs’ sons (also in Ruhengeri), decided to study for the Catholic priesthood.

In 1929 he went to the Junior Seminary at Kabgayi and on to major seminary in 1933. His studies at Kabgayi and later at Nyakibanda, where the seminary was moved in 1936, lasted for many years, before he was ordained in 1941 as a priest, one of the first in Rwanda. In 1938 he became editor of Kinyamateka, a Catholic newspaper started in 1933. Also, in 1938-39, he taught French at the Novitiate of the St. Joseph’s Brothers, a religious order which many Africans joined after the mass conversion to Catholism.

He taught for five years at the same novitiate after being ordained in July 1941. At that time he became one of the most prominent Catholic Rwandans, partly because of his friendship with Mwami Mutara III. With the conversion of the Tutsis as well as the Hutus, leading to the baptism of Mutara in 1943, the Catholic Church was predominant in Rwandan society by the 1940s. In 1948 there were 81 Rwandan diocesan clergy, 58 Rwandan religious brothers (of St. Joseph) and 155 Rwandan nuns.

Kagame became prominent among the African churchmen through his writings, in which he recorded, interpreted and, to some extent, defended the Tutsi traditions. One of his books, Le Code des Institutions Politiques au Rwanda, was a defense of the old social order as reformed along Christian lines.

In 1950-52 he was director of the Kinyamateka newspaper and for a time personal secretary to the Vicar Apostolic, Mgr. Deprimoc. Then he began to acquire widespread fame for his writings. In 1951 his book La Poésie Dynastique au Rwanda was published in Brussels by the Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (ARSOM) of which he became a member. In succeeding years, while doing higher studies in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University (1952-55), he began publication of a massive multi-volume work, La Divine Pastorale. This was a long epic on the creation and history of the world from Rwandan tradition. In writing this, Kagame revealed how much traditional thought has in common with Christian teaching. He became noted for his recording of traditional African beliefs and for highlighting their common ground with Christianity, following years in which missionaries had rather tended to stress the differences. In Rome he wrote his doctoral thesis on the “Rwandan Bantu Philosophy of Being.”

Back in Rwanda, he lectured in Rwandan Literature at the Junior Seminary (1955-57) and became a lecturer in philosophy and general history at the Astrida Groupe Scolaire. He went on writing and, besides publishing History of Rwanda in 1958, became a noted expert in his Kinyarwanda language. In 1960 his book La Langue du Rwanda et du Burundi Expliquée aux Authochotones appeared. By then Rwanda was going through serious internal turmoil. The Hutu majority, encouraged by the spread of Christianity and education, began to resent their subordinate status and followed the Parmehutu party dedicated to their advancement. Gregoire Kayibanda, who had succeeded Kagame a few years before as editor of a Catholic newspaper called L’Ami led it.

A few months after the death of Mwami Mutara III in July 1959, a great uprising of Hutus occurred in November 1959; many Tutsis were killed. Parmehutu won the 1960 election. The Hutus’ overthrow of the feudal order was completed in 1961, when a republic was proclaimed on 28 January and, on 25 September, a referendum under the auspices of the U.N. led to a massive vote to end the Tutsi monarchy. On 1 July 1962 the U.N. Trust Territories of Rwanda and Burundi became independent, with Kayibanda as president of Rwanda.

Although Alexis Kagame was not only a Tutsi but a champion to the old Tutsi ruling class closely linked with the fallen monarchy, and although many more Tutsi were murdered in 1961, he not only survived but retained his eminent role in independent Rwanda. When the National University of Rwanda was founded at Butare (formerly Astrida) in 1963, he became the professor of Rwandan Literature and History and Professor of Rwandan Language at the associated teachers training college (National Institute of Pedagogy). The murder or flight of many more Tutsi in 1963-64 did not affect his position. This was presumably because of his intellectually eminence. He was in fact well known in many countries by then. In 1964 he published Le Colonialism Face à la Doctrine Missionaire à l’Heure de Vatican II at Butare. In Butare he published Introduction aux Grands Genres Lyriques de l’Ancien Rwanda in 1969 and Un Abrégé de l’Ethno-Histoire du Rwanda (Vol. 1) in 1972.

Besides retaining his University of Rwanda chair, he also became Professor of African Cultures at the Inter-diocesan Major Seminary at Nyakibanda in 1971, and he was visiting professor of the History of East Africa at the University of Zaïre (Lubumbashi Campus) in December 1972. He was a member of the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer in Brussels and in Paris, and a member of the International Institute in London, and other learned bodies. At Butare he was an Associate Researcher at the Institute for Scientific Research and a member of UNESCO’s International Committee for the writing of a General History of Africa. He had his writings published under UNESCO auspices; a contribution to Les Cultures et Tepts [sic] (1975), and his own La Philosophie Bantu Comparée (1976) which was his crowning contribution to scholarship in a field in which he had become an expert. He also produced Catholic Church missals in Kinyarwanda in 1975 and 1976.

Reverend Alex Kagame died on 2 December 1981.


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