The Hutu People: Beyond the Genocide in Rwanda

Last Updated: 31 Mar 2023
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Hutu The mention of the word “Hutu” immediately conjures up images of mass murder from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The recent film Hotel Rwanda brought the horrible atrocities of that genocide to the public eye. However, it is not only in Rwanda that the Hutu have been involved in ethnic war. The country of Burundi, a neighbor to Rwanda, was the site of the first violence between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Hutu people of Burundi have a rich culture and history that has been largely overshadowed by ethnic conflict. The Hutu are a Bantu tribe numbering about thirteen million (Newbury 2001).

Traditionally the Hutu organized themselves in clans and family groups through patrilineal decent (Ndarishikanye 1998). Within these groups they practiced polygyny and bridewealth as part of the institution of marriage (McDonald et. al 1969). Like many African tribes the Hutu’s religious beliefs include the spirit world. The supreme God Imana is seen as the giver of all good while there are lesser spirits who do evil (book). The Hutu inhabit the high plateau of the central African Rift Valley and inhabited 85% of Rwanda and Burundi before the ethnic wars in those countries (CIA World Factbook).

The Hutu inhabit diverse geographies. In the southeast region of the Rwanda and Burundi territory there are open grasslands which are ideal for pastoral people. In the western region of the countries there are mountains. The west is good land for agriculture because it reliably receives rainfall. In the northeast there are lowlands that are along Lake Tanganyika (Newbury, 2001). This vast array of ecologies provides different possibilities for food production or procurement.

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The Hutu are traditionally agriculturalist but they did get involved in herding cattle because of the closely related Tutsi tribe. The Hutu wanted cattle and the Tutsi wanted laborers. To appease both groups, agreements called ubuhake were made. These agreements exchanged the Tutsi cattle for the Hutu labor. In other words when a Hutu entered this agreement he received cattle but in return became submissive to a Tutsi owner (Louis 1963). This is one reason that the minority Tutsi rose to control economics and rule over the majority Hutu, this would later lead to ethnic conflict.

The ethnic conflict between the Tutsi and the Hutu is most famous in Rwanda but the Hutu of Burundi have also been severely affected by ethnic tension throughout the years. Understanding the causes and effects of the violence is a part of understanding the history of the Hutu people. The causes of the ethnic tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi are not simply explained. In fact, in 1931 Bernard Zuure, a missionary with seventeen years of work in Burundi, noted that it was pointless to distinguish between the Hutu and Tutsi because their cultures were so similar (Zuure 1931).

What then caused the separation between the two ethnicities? According to Alphonse Rugambarara the separation of identities came when there was a specific political agenda to create separate Tutsi and Hutu ideologies. These terms created animosity and dichotomist identities where there was actually little difference (Rugambarara 1990). The identities of Hutu and Tutsi were so significant that other ethnicities or social segregations became less important. The role of the Hutu as submissive to the Tutsi was engrained in society.

An example of this is that in the Kirundi language (spoken by the Hutu) there is not a word equivalent to the English equality or liberty so Hutu’s could not even verbalize a desire for freedom (Lermarchand 1995). Given the strong identity associated with ethnicity in Burundi the complications behind the explanation of the 1972 genocide are understandable. To get to the root of the problem or causes of the genocide is difficult because the perceptions of the Hutu and Tutsi about the conflict are very different (Lermachand 1995). Liisa Malkki studied Hutu refugees in Tanzania who had fled from the genocide.

She discovered that in the refugee camps “mythico-histories” were created. These were stories or parables that the Hutu told which constructed their history and moral truths (Milkka, 1989). These stories were not necessarily untrue or true but they served to construct the identity of the Hutu and the cause of the genocide. The Hutu were not the only tribe developing “mythico-histories. ” The truth is very hard to discern among many “histories” (Lermarchand 1995). Beyond the “why’s” of the conflict we can conclude the “what’s. ” What actually took place in Burundi in 1972?

In the spring of 1972 on April 29th the Hutu attempted a rebellion against the ruling Tutsi. In response the Tutsi retaliated with warfare. Within several weeks roughly 100,000 people were killed in the ethnic conflict. Of the total population of Burundi 3. 5 percent were wiped out (Mikksa 1989). This was not the last of ethnic violence in Burundi. In 1993 the country saw more violence when its first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated (Lemarchand 2001). The Hutu reacted to the Tutsi murder of their president by killing an estimated 20,000 Tutsi in the two months following the assassination (Lemarchand 2001).

Blame for the violence between the two ethnicities cannot be placed on one group or the other, they are both responsible. The history between the Tutsi and the Hutu is full of attack and reaction sequences. Both the Tutsi and the Hutu wanted to have, “the last word. ” With a long history of violence between Tutsi and Hutu in Burundi there have been severe repercussions. The largest affect of the genocide has been the diaspora of Burundi. The conflict in Burundi created both Tutsi and Hutu refugees in search of safety.

The UN Refugee Agency (UN Refugee Agency 2007) estimated in June 2007 that a total of 464,026 Burundians had been displaced from their homes. Of that group 48,144 had returned to Burundi and 396,541 were still in refugee status (UN Refugee Agency 2007) Of the refugees still in refugee status, not including internally displaced persons (IDP) the UNHCR is assisting 164,191 (UN Refugee Agency 2007). What exactly do all these terms and numbers mean? Put simply they mean that there are hundreds of thousands of people who were forced or chased away from their homes and livelihoods.

The UNHCR defines a refugee as “a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution” (UN Refugee Agency 2007) Under such conditions it is expected that any people group will undergo significant changes. Liisa Milkka has written a book about the refugee status of the Hutu’s in Tanzania.

She spent one year in Tanzania studying two groups of refugees. Many refugees fled to Tanzania after the genocide of 1972 in Burundi. The first group lived in an isolated refugee camp and the other settled near the town of Kigoma. The town refugees tended to be dispersed amongst non-refugees while the camp refugees were concentrated all in one place (Milkka 1989). Because of these arrangements the town refugees assimilated into the town culture. They took on many identities and did not solely live as “Hutu” or as “refugees” (Milkka 1992). Naturally it was more ifficult for the camp people to do the same because they had isolated themselves from the Tanzanians. The camp culture glorified the Hutu identity as the original inhabitants of Burundi who would one day return there to reestablish their kingdom (Milkka 1989). The status of refugee for these camp people was a great thing. It made them become “a purer and more powerful Hutu” (Milkka, 1992). These differences between refugee definitions of “Hutu” complicate the Hutu ethnicity further. Instead of creating more confusion and uncertainty for the Hutu there should be a movement toward unity.

This is exactly the approach that the Burundi government has taken to appease the violence between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Instead of stressing differences the government wants to stress unity. By focusing on national unity, democracy, and individual rights the Burundi government has tried to dissolve ethnic tensions (Ndarishikany, 1998). Some discussion has been made about the benefit that could come from reinstating the Burundian abashingatahe (Herisse 2002), which in traditional Burundian society was a judge, moral interpreter and well respected man (Newbury, 2001).

The abashingatahe served to reconcile families with communities, certify marriages, settle litigations, maintain peace, and in general speak in favor of human rights (Herisse 2002). It is argued that bringing this social force back into practice will begin to reconstruct social unity in Burundi. This may be just what the Hutu people need to come together and rebuild. The troubles of the genocides between the Tutsi and Hutu have strained both cultures. Many refugees created by the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi have integrated themselves into foreign cultures.

Just an hour to the north of us there are Burundi refugees in the city of Buffalo. These refugees come to the US speaking little if any English. They eventually get jobs and become functioning civilians. As Burundians assimilate into American culture they will eventually lose some of their “distinct” cultural features. Understanding some of the history of Burundian Hutu’s and the reasons behind the ethnic conflict with the Tutsi can increase the effectiveness with which we help refugees integrate into American society. Works Citied CIA World Factbook. (Nov. 1 2007). Burundi.

Retrieved Nov. 13, 2007. https://www. cia. gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/by. html#People Lemarchand, Rene. (1998). Genocide in the Greak Lakes: Which Genocide? Whose genocide? African Studies Review, 41, 3-16. Retrieved November 7, 2001, from JSTOR. Malkki, Liisa. (1992). National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees. Cultural Anthropology, 7, 24-44. from JSTOR. Malkka, Liisa. (1989). Purity and Exile : Transformations in Historical-National Consciousness among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania.

Ann Arbor: University Microfilsm. Malkki, Liisa H. (1996). Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization. Cultural Anthropology, 11, 377-404. Retrieved November 11, 2007, from JSTOR. McDonald, Gordon C. Brenneman, Lyle E. , Hibbs, Roy V. , James Charlene, A. , Vincenti, Violeta. (1969). Area handbook for Burundi. Ndarishikanye, Barnabe. (1998). The Question of the Protection of Minorities in Burundi. Issue: A Journal of Opinion, 26, 5-9, Retrieved November 8, 2007, from JSTOR. Newbury, David. 2001) Precolonial Burundi and Rwanda: Local Loyalties, Regional Royalties. The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 34,. 255-314. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from JSTOR. Rockfeler, Herisse, P. (2002). Democracy, Governance and Conflict in Burundi. Peace Studies Journal. 1-10. Rugambarara, Alphonse. (1990). Conscience ethnique. Le Reveil, July-August, 35-40. The UN Refugee Agency. (daily updated). 2006 Refugee Statistics. Retrieved Nov. 11, 2007. http://www. unhcr. org/statistics/STATISTICS/4676a71d4. pdf. Zuure, Bernard. (1931). L’ame du Murundi. Paris: Beauchesne.

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The Hutu People: Beyond the Genocide in Rwanda. (2018, Aug 19). Retrieved from

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