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Evil, conceived of as the opposite of good, is defined by a moral system and thus cannot be abstracted as a portable theoretical concept to be applied cross-culturally. David Parkin solved this problem by assuming a “common awareness of evil acts” and then raising “the question of how and to what extent certain kinds of behavior and phenomenon come to be identified by this or a comparable term” (Parkin: 1985, p. 224). Following this same methodology, this chapter explores the ways Rwandans made sense of their experiences of violence during the civil war (1990-1994) and genocide (April – June 1994) by mobilizing the concept of “evil.” Based on several years of ethnographic research in urban and rural Rwanda, I found that Rwandans mobilize three competing conceptions of evil to understand genocidal violence: the personified presence of Satan who inspired humans to perpetrate evil acts, genocide perpetrators as evil by nature, and genocide perpetrators as possessed by Satan or evil spirits. These understandings emerge from the layered systems of religious belief (competing indigenous systems of religious belief and practice, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and abarokore (born-again Christian) movements) that form the cosmological system that frames good and evil for Rwandans. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, counters these understandings of evil and assert that the evil acts of the genocide were a result of humans’ free will, greed, and their rejection of Christian values.


Final manuscript version of a chapter published in

Burnet, Jennie E. Genocide, Evil and Human Agency: the Concept of Evil in Rwandan Explanations of the 1994 Genocide. In William Olsen (Ed.) Evil in Africa. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

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