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RWANDA is a small, landlocked republic in the heart of central Africa. Its predominant feature is a central high plateau with an average eleva­tion of about 2,000 meters or 6,000 feet from which streams flow west to the River Congo and east to the River Nile.

High mountains rising to 4,507 meters or 14,786 feet dominate the north and west of the coun­try sloping downwards to Lake Kivu’s basin on the western border. East of the plateau, the land drops downwards to a region of marshes and lakes surrounding the River Kagera.

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Although lying in the tropical zone, temperatures in Rwanda are moderated by most of the country’s high altitude, making it warm rather than extremely hot. Temperatures can be cold in the mountains, especially at night, and rainfall comes mainly in two rainy seasons.

The country was once thickly forested, but much of this has now been cleared and is confined to the mountain slopes. Wildlife is varied, but it has suffered from the effects of human activity and warfare.

The soils are not fertile, and subsistence agriculture dominates the economy. Staple food crops are sweet potatoes, cassava, dry beans, sorghum, and vegetables. Soil erosion, overgrazing, and drought leading to famine make the country very dependent on foreign aid. The main cash crops are Arabic coffee, tea, and pyrethrum. There are significant natural gas reserves under Lake Kivu in the west, but these are mostly unexploited.

Rwandans comprise three ethnic tribes: the Hutu (90 percent), the Tutsi (9 percent – a ruling, élite class), and the Twa (1 percent – believed to be the original people of the country). The Hutu had settled in Rwanda by the Middle Ages, but they came to be dominated by the Tutsi, who conquered the region a short time later.

The Tutsi society was organized around an absolute monarch, supported by several subordinate chiefs, each in charge of a kingdom. It was a feudal system in which the Hutu eventually became a subclass of serfs, which also existed in Burundi. In the late 19th century, Rwanda became a German-administered territory and later passed to the Belgians after the First World War. Independence gained in 1962, but throughout much of the 20th century, there have been severe ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi and many acts of violence.

Matters came to a head once more in 1994 with the outbreak of a civil war, which caused thousands of deaths (mainly of the Hutu) in a series of massacres. Many other Rwandans fled to neighboring Zaire and Tanzania, living in refugee camps in appalling conditions that swamped the international community’s capacity to help. Although the war is now over, Rwanda faces enormous problems in restoring stability.

The UN War Crimes Tribunal is seeking to bring to trial those accused of war crimes and, in the long term, progress depends upon the Rwandan people being able to coexist peacefully together.

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The divide between two of Africa’s great watersheds, the Congo and Nile basins, extends from north to south through western Rwanda at an average elevation of almost 2,743 meters (9,000 feet). On the western slopes of this Congo-Nile ridgeline, the land slopes abruptly toward Lake Kivu in the Great Rift Valley on the country’s western border. The eastern slopes are more moderate, with rolling hills extending across the central uplands at gradually reducing altitudes to the plains, swamps, and lakes of the eastern border region. Rwanda can be divided into five regions from west to east:

1) the narrow Great Rift Valley region along or near Lake Kivu,
2) the volcanic Virunga Mountains and high lava plains of northwestern Rwanda,
3) the Congo-Nile Ridge,
4) the rolling hills and valleys of the central plateaus, which slope eastward from the Congo-Nile Ridge, and
5) the savannahs and marshlands of the eastern and southeastern border areas, which are lower, warmer, and drier than the central upland plateaus.

Rwanda is landlocked and therefore has no oceanic coast.

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