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African Studies / History / Anthropology / Politics


Defeat Is the Only Bad News
Rwanda under Musinga, 1896–1931
Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges
Foreword by Roger V. Des Forges
Edited by David Newbury

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Thomas Spear, David Henige, and Michael Schatzberg, Series Editor

“A brilliant, lively, and daring interpretation of Musinga’s governance of Rwanda under foreign control. Documenting the colonial situation that gave rise to a precarious future, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the tragedy of Rwanda’s recent history.”
—Jan Vansina, author of Oral Tradition as History and Antecedents to Modern Rwanda

A Rwandan proverb says “Defeat is the only bad news.” For Rwandans living under colonial rule, winning called not only for armed confrontation, but also for a battle of wits—and not only with foreigners, but also with each other. In Defeat Is the Only Bad News, Alison Des Forges recounts the ambitions, strategies, and intrigues of an African royal court under Yuhi Musinga, the Rwandan ruler from 1896 to 1931. These were turbulent years for Rwanda, when first Germany and then Belgium pursued an aggressive plan of colonization there. At the time of the Europeans’ arrival, Rwanda was also engaged in a succession dispute after the death of one of its most famous kings. Against this backdrop, the Rwandan court became the stage for a drama of Shakespearean proportions, filled with deceit, shrewd calculation, ruthless betrayal, and sometimes murder.

Historians who study European expansion typically focus on interactions between colonizers and colonized; they rarely attend to relations among the different factions inhabiting occupied lands. Des Forges, drawing on oral histories and extensive archival research, reveals how divisions among different groups in Rwanda shaped their responses to colonial governments, missionaries, and traders. Rwandans, she shows, used European resources to extend their power, even as they sought to preserve the autonomy of the royal court. Europeans, for their part, seized on internal divisions to advance their own goals. Des Forges’s vividly narrated history, meticulously edited and introduced by David Newbury, provides a deep context for understanding the Rwandan civil war a century later.

“The richness of the tale, and the divisions that enliven the narrative, are evidence of Des Forges’s skills as a narrator. In the end, this Shakespearean drama (complete with deceit and murder) is made all the more tragic because of the implications of these events on Rwanda’s recent history are made painfully clear. This is a fantastic work and the loss of such a skilled historian and author Alison Des Forges just compounds the tragedy for this reader even further.”—Kevin Dunn, The International Journal of African Historical Studies Volume 44, Number 2 (2011)

Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges (1942–2009) was a Yale-trained historian, a leading activist with Human Rights Watch, and the author of Leave None to Tell the Story.

David Newbury
is the Gwendolen Carter Professor of African Studies at Smith College and author of Kings and Clans: A Social History of the Lake Kivu Rift Valley.

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The cover of this book is a colorized photo of a group of Rwandans clustered around the extremely tall Musinga.

April 2011
LC: 2010038905 DT
304 pp.   6 x 9
4 illus., 7 maps

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Paper $26.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-28144-1
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"This carefully researched, highly readable, and detailed exploration of a critical period in Rwanda’s history stands as a major contribution to our understanding of court politics before and after the advent of colonial rule. There is nothing in print in French or in English comparable to this painstaking investigation.”
—René Lemarchand, University of Florida




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Updated December 8, 2011

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