From Clan and Class to Ethnicity in Rwanda

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 387-420, 431-40:

Ethnic-based violence, the most extreme form of which was the genocide, is so often associated with the Congolese and Rwandan wars that it is worth trying to understand its causes. We tend to see the history of Rwanda as the history of a struggle between two ethnic groups, the agriculturist Hutu and the cattleherding Tutsi. An honest interrogation of the past, however, would require us to throw most of these crude concepts out the window, or at least to deconstruct them. The Rwandan state in its current geographical and political form did not come into existence until the twentieth century, after centuries of fighting between competing kingdoms and princely states.

Ethnic identities behind the rift between Hutu and Tutsi are being constantly contested and redefined with the changing political, cultural, and economic landscape. Until the eighteenth century, for example, ethnicity was less important than class and clan-based identities, which themselves coexisted alongside several layers of regional and social identities. Thus, each of the twenty major clans in Rwanda includes both Hutu and Tutsi, and among each ethnic group one can find poor, landless peasants as well as wealthier princes. To label someone a Hutu and leave it at that neglects that she may, depending on the social context, see herself more as a southerner, a member of the Abega clan, or a follower of the Pentecostal church. This is not just hair-splitting; much of contemporary Rwandan politics has been shaped by these competing and overlapping identities.

The polarization of Rwandan society into Hutu and Tutsi increased with King Rujugira’s consolidation of the Rwandan state in the eighteenth century. He expanded his armies and began subjugating much of what is today Rwanda, including areas where these ethnic distinctions previously had little traction. His armies’ long military campaigns required more revenues and deeper administrative penetration of society. The military, which was led by Tutsi, became the basis for a bureaucracy that administered land and collected taxes. Progressively, the loose distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi tightened and became more hierarchical. By the late nineteenth century, when the first colonizers arrived, many Hutu depended on Tutsi chiefs for land to farm and had to pay tithes as well as provide free manual labor. Still, ethnic identity remained fluid, with intermarriages between ethnic groups and the possibility, albeit rare, for rich Hutu to become “promoted” to Tutsi if they owned many cattle and had power in society. At the local level, Hutu remained influential, in particular in the administration of land. Still, social arrangements varied greatly between different regions, with some, like Gisaka in eastern Rwanda, not showing much ethnic polarization until much later.

The conquest of Rwanda—first by Germans, then Belgians—radically altered social structures. A tiny group of white administrators was faced with ruling a complex, foreign country they barely understood. As elsewhere in Africa, the new rulers chose to rule through what they thought were well-established, existing structures. They thus empowered the Tutsi monarchy, which they saw as the “natural” elite, abolished checks and balances on the royal family, and streamlined the local administration by ousting Hutu chiefs and vesting all power in a Tutsi-dominated administration. At the same time, they helped the royal court double the territory under its control, conquering kingdoms and princely states around its periphery. The delicate social balance between the farmers and the pastoralists, the royal elite and the peasantry, the rich and the poor was brutally disrupted. Whereas Hutu peasants had previously been able to appeal to their relatives in case of abuses by the government, or at least play different chiefs off against each other, now they were left at the mercy of a Tutsi administration.

The European rulers grounded their rule in an ideology and ethnography heavily influenced by racial theories popular in the United States and Europe at the time. John Hanning Speke, one of the first British explorers in the region, had written in 1863 about a distinct “Asiatic” sophistication among some of the people, presumably Tutsi, he encountered. “In these countries,” he wrote, “government is in the hands of foreigners, who had invaded and taken possession of them, leaving the agricultural aborigines to till the ground.” Speke, dabbling in history and religion, conjectured a link between these tribes and Ethiopia and proposed a “historical” basis for what he claimed to observe: “The traditions of these tribes go as far back as the scriptural age of King David.”

The first German governor of Rwanda, Count von Goetzen, theorized “the Tutsi are Hamitic pastoralists from Ethiopia, who have subjugated a tribe of Negro Bantus,” while Catholic prelate Monsignor Le Roy put it differently: “Their intelligent and delicate appearance, their love of money, their capacity to adapt to any situation seem to indicate a Semitic origin.” Armed with rulers and measuring tape, craniometric Belgian administrators went about rigidifying with physical measurements the previously more fluid boundaries between Tutsi and Hutu identities. These colonial fantasies soon became engraved on the consciousness of the colonized, as well. The Tutsi elite, long favored under the Belgians, seized on the myths to justify their continued superiority, imbibing the stereotypes of Hutu—as espoused by a Belgian priest—as “the most common type of black, brachycephalic and prognathous, with agronomic taste and aptitudes, sociable and jovial … with thick lips and squashed noses, but so good, so simple, so loyal.” Hutu dissidents, in the meantime, appropriated the stereotypes of Tutsi as a race of crafty herders from Ethiopia to rally support against “the foreigners.”


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Filed under Belgium, economics, Germany, nationalism, Rwanda

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