Abbé Alexis Kagame was a Rwandese historian, ethnologist, and philosopher, who became the intellectual leader of the Tutsi people by articulating their cosmology in contemporary terms.
Kagame was born into a family of court historians and soon became intimately familiar with the oral traditions of the Tutsi. His family converted to Catholicism after World War I, and Kagame attended both a missionary school as well as one for the sons of chiefs. He entered a seminary in 1929 and was ordained in 1941. By 1938, while still a seminarian, he was an editor of a Catholic newspaper. He also taught at the novitiate of the Brothers of St. Joseph (Bayozefiti), which he continued to do for five years after his ordination. During this time Kagame became a close friend of King MUTARA III and rose to prominence in the country. Kagame’s abilities would have been apparent under any conditions, but he had the good fortune of achieving public attention as Catholicism became a pervasive force in the country.
In 1943, Kagame published his first book, an oral history of ancient Rwanda. This book was followed by several volumes of poetry and finally by a multivolume creation epic, published in French as La divine pastorale (1952-1955). It presents a Rwandese creation myth and history of the world, revealing parallels between Tutsi traditions and Christian teaching - a favorite theme of Kagame’s. In the 1970s he added several studies of Rwandese dynastic poetry.
In 1952, Kagame wrote Le code des institutions politiques du Rwanda, a stirring defense and vindication of the Tutsi feudal system. The Belgian authorities found his nationalist work disturbing and conveniently arranged for Kagame to be sent to Rome for higher studies. He became a member of les prêtres noirs (the black priests), a loose association of young African theology students who were undertaking a nationalist reading of Christianity. Kagame’s doctoral thesis became his most noted work, The Bantu-Rwandese Philosophy of Being (1956). In it Kagame made African thought available in Western terms. It not only replied effectively to missionary interpretations of African thought but also began a dialogue on the nature of African religion and its relationship with Western Christianity.
After returning home, Kagame began teaching at the Catholic seminary and published a history of Rwanda and a study of the Kinyarwanda language. In 1959, after the death of the king, the Hutu overthrew the feudal system in a vicious bloodbath of revenge. Kagame, despite his identification with the former ruling class, was unaffected due to the general respect for his scholarship and thought. He was appointed to the National University when it was founded in 1963. He subsequently received many international honors, which included serving on the prestigious UNESCO committee for writing a general history of Africa. During this later period he also championed the Africanization of Christianity, using the documents of the Vatican Council to argue against maintaining missionary attitudes. With the importance of Catholicism in Rwandese society, this was a statement that went far beyond religious issues. Despite his eminence, Kagame was a transitional thinker, mediating African thought in Western terms but making it possible for a newer generation of intellectuals to begin a more integrally African philosophy that at the same time has a place in the contemporary world.
Norbert C. Brockman
Herdeck, Donald. African Authors. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Inscape, 1974.
Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Ewechue, Ralph (ed.). Makers of Modern Africa. 2nd edition. London: Africa Books, 1991.
Additional reading: Nsengimana, Joseph. *Alexis Kagame: L’homme *(Alexis Kagame: The man, 1987).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from *An African Biographical Dictionary, *copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Alexis Kagame