Not much news here – the FNL delegation to Bujumbura (see May 9 post) has been delayed until Friday because no earlier flight was available. Instead I want to begin to discuss the topic of how Hutu-Tutsi relations came to be what they are today.

According to the Lonely Planet East Africa:

The tall, warriorlike Tutsi people are thought to have migrated to present-day Rwanda and Burundi from Ethiopia or southern Sudan between the 14th and 17th centuries. Through their ownership of cattle and advanced combat skills, they were soon able to establish economic and political control over the local Hutu, and this dominance continues to the present day. (7th ed., p.56)

Just about every word of this is first of all wrong, and secondly, ties into the mythic colonialist interpretation of “tribes” that helped fuel the current conflict. Yet it is a pervasive view that underlies not just travel guides but much of our media coverage on the conflict.

According to author Jean-Pierre Chrétien, archeological and linguistic research suggests that if the Tutsi were at one point geographically separate from Hutu, then their encounter took place at least 2,000 years ago. And if instead a cleavage developed within one unified society along the lines of agriculturalists (Hutu) and pastoralists (Tutsi), it occurred more than 1,000 years ago. So tying explanations of the current problem with this distant past would, be, as Chrétien writes, “comparable to an interpretation that treats the French Revolution as the final episode in an age-old conflict between Celts and Franks.” (p.74)

Beyond being factually wrong, this explanation is rooted in the racist views of the Europeans who colonized Burundi (first the Germans, then the Belgians after WWI). When the Europeans encountered Burundian society, they quickly got to work accounting for the origins of the people they encountered in a way that facilitated their divide-and-conquer colonial aims. The Tutsi, with their superior class position, were said to be (surprise!) racially closer to white people. They hypothesized that the Tutsi were of “Hamitic” origin, having arrived from the north, and ultimately from the Middle East, as descendents of Ham.

Now, the biblical story of Ham (Genesis 9:18-25) explains how his descendents were cursed to be slaves as a result of Ham seeing Noah naked. And although most of the descendents of Ham were actually Caucasian, this story was used as a justification for the subjugation of black people (as it was in the U.S.). But even with that, the Tutsi’s alleged “semi-Caucasian” descent made them superior to Hutu. Take the following quotation from Dr. Jules Sasserath, a Belgian doctor, in 1948:

One calls them the Batutsi. In reality, they are Hamites, probably of Semitic origin…In reality, they form a race of lords. The Hamites are 1.9 meters high. They are slender. They possess straight noses high foreheads, thin lips…The rest of the population is Bantu. They are Bahutu, Negroes who possess all the typical characteristics: flat nose, thick lips, low forehead, and brachycephalic heads. They have a childlike character, both timid and lazy…They are a class of serfs. (quoted in Chrétien, p.72)

Oh, underpaid and over-traveled writers of Lonely Planet, is this the sort of view with which you want to be entangled?