Having dispensed with the Lonely Planet understanding of the differences between Hutu and Tutsi, I thought I might explore a little further the past of these two groups.

In explaining the genocides in Burundi or Rwanda the media sometimes refer to the violence as the result of “ancient tribal hatreds” or “irrational atavistic hatreds.” I earlier challenged this idea, but what exactly was the historical relationship between Hutu and Tusti?

First, a caveat – the nature of this history has itself been a point of contention. The political scientist René Lemarchand points to how both sides have used a mythologized version of history to support their political claims. To simplify, when the (minority) Tutsi ruled the country, then wanted to say, “Look, this whole ethnic problem was just a product of colonialism. Now that the Belgians are gone, Hutu-Tutsi relationships are best forgotten and not discussed (and therefore you won’t mind ongoing Tutsi rule).” Meanwhile the Hutu wanted to say, “the current injustice of Tutsi rule is merely a continuation of what has been going on for many centuries (so the only way to solve it is to have Hutu instead rule the country.)”

The simple answer is, of course, that the truth lies somewhere in between. Relationships between Hutu and Tutsi before the arrival of the colonial powers were not that of perfect equality, but neither were they as problematic as they later became. While differences did exist, the Hutu-Tutsi distinction was not a central dichotomy through which Burundians viewed their lives. Consider the context that is thought to have existed in Burundi in pre-colonial times (See Lemarchand):

  1. There was intermarriage between Hutu and Tutsi, and it was also possible to change between being one or the other. In another sense, one could actually be both, since “Hutu” referred not just to a social group but also to a social subordinate.
  2. There was not simply rule by Tutsi. First of all, there was a separate ruling class, the ganwa, who were considered neither Hutu nor Tutsi, and into which people were elevated from both groups. Furthermore, while Tutsi controlled more of the local chiefdoms than Hutu, there were a nontrivial number of Hutu chiefs.
  3. Unlike in Rwanda, there was a struggle among princes in Burundi (between the “Batari” and “Bezi” clans) that caused them to compete for the allegiance of both Hutu and Tutsi.
  4. Within the royal court, there were ceremonial roles for Hutu, Tutsi and Twa (another minority group that today makes up ~1% of the population).
  5. There was a notion of status that was independent of Hutu/Tutsi. While there was a positive correlation between being Tutsi and being higher status, there were still Hutu that were higher in status than the average Tutsi.
  6. There were kinship identities that were stronger than the Hutu/Tutsi division and which had nothing to do with ethnic membership.
  7. A much-contested issue is that of the patron-client ties that existed between Tutsi and Hutu. These should not, however, be simply understood in the framework of a feudal class-structure. As Lemarchand writes, “To argue, with some Hutu intellectuals, that the patron-client relationship served the Tutsi as a social mechanism for placing the Hutu masses into bondage is arrant nonsense; yet it would be just as naïve and uncritical to assume that patron-client interactions were invariably marked by undiluted social harmony.”

This complexity of relationships and identities suggests that to attribute recent violence in Burundi to ancient hatreds is to falsely read into the past a set of social relationships that developed over time. The current conflict was not ordained by the region’s history; rather it took colonialism and post-independence struggles to forge this distinction into the highly polarizing and contentious issue that it has become, a process which I hope to explore in future posts.