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'Great Lakes' traces the struggles, strife of an African region

The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History, By Jean-Pierre Chretien. Translated from the French by Scott Strauss. Zone, 503 pp., $36

April 1994. In Rwanda, the shorter, squatter Hutu tribespeople covered themselves with banana leaves as part of their battle dress, then slaughtered their ancient rivals, the taller Tutsi. Before the genocide was over four months later, more than 500,000 Tutsi were dead.

All this took place in the heart of the African region known as the Great Lakes, the high country around Lake Victoria discovered by Europeans in the 19th century as they searched for the headwaters of the Nile. The area was at that time called the Mountains of the Moon, from the second-century maps of the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy. Blessed with a good climate and rich with diverse soils and plants, the region today includes Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, eastern Congo, and western Tanzania.

In ``The Great Lakes of Africa,'' Jean-Pierre Chretien provides a historic and geographic survey of this area in the central part of the continent.

The Europeans were preceded by Arab traders from Zanzibar who swapped piston rifles for slaves and ivory. Europeans, however, grew more and more influential, and by the 1900s, Belgium, England, Germany, and France had carved the continent into colonies, where they exploited the natural wealth of copper, coffee, and cotton using forced African labor.

In the Great Lakes region, whites' racial prejudice presupposed that the Tutsi were orginally Caucasian, perhaps descendants of the legendary Prester John in Ethiopia. They were herders of cattle, while the Hutu were traditionally planters of crops.

In 1925, the Belgian authorities who administered the region as part of the Belgian Congo wrote: ``We have in the Tutsi youth an incomparable element for progress. ... Avid to learn, desirous of becoming acquainted with all that comes from Europe, wanting to imitate Europeans, enterprising, realizing well enough that traditional customs have lost their raison d'¬etre, but nonetheless reserving the political sense of the old-timers and their race's adroitness in the management of men, this youth is a force for the good and for the economic future of the country. If one asks the Hutu if they prefer to be ruled by commoners or by nobles, there is no doubt in their response; their preference goes to the Tutsi; and for good reason. Born chiefs, these latter have a sense of command.''

Chretien cites two factors in the disastrous conditions of many African nations since they gained independence from their colonial masters. He points in particular to the effect of the Belgians' closed-off, secluded missionary society in the colonies. ``The Belgian moral order of denominational paternalism curbed every form of mobility, urbanization, modern association, criticism and imagination.''

Second, Chretien criticizes recent experts from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. ``These two institutions have become the region's new diviners and initiates, equivalent to those who anointed the reigning monarchs.''

One of the biggest factors in the suffering of Rwanda proved to be the identity card. First issued in 1957, the mandatory cards named every carrier's tribe and thus became documents of death for the Tutsi. The thin layer of Christianity, which had previously pitted Catholics against Protestants throughout modern Africa, did nothing in the end to inhibit the brutality of the killers.

Chretien's book is clearly trustworthy, but the language is overly scholarly. Africa enthusiasts, however, will appreciate the maps of the Great Lakes and an almost complete list of tribal royal dynasties dating to the 16th century.

And what about the future of the Great Lakes? Chretien sees two possibilities. Maybe ``positive factors'' will take root, he says. To resist the tribal trend, movements are currently trying to structure civil society through human rights, mutual aid, and intellectual and religious groups. If they fail, the human, economic, and political chaos may continue to lead to the disintegration of political states and to permanent, horrific warlords.

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