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Tutsi, Hutu and Hima Cultural Background in Rwanda
Orville Boyd Jenkins

The original version of this article was written in the wake of the terrible ethnic cleansing massacres in Rwanda in 1994.  Similar events have occurred more recently involving the same ethnic animosities, with Tutsi-Hima ethnic groups in the series of civil war in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).  The actual details of the history and settlement are disputed.

Studies of the oral traditions of the many peoples in the Great lakes region of Africa, however, indicates a consistent memory of a series of migrations of different peoples who have moved into the area, either conquering or settling more peacefully, gradually merging into local societies.  Streams of such migrants or invaders seems to have come from both north and east.  For more details see also other articles referenced at the end of this article.

For months, the shocking events in Rwanda have been daily on our TV screens, on our minds and in our prayers.  How does such a thing happen? The news tells us there are two tribes who dislike each other, but how and why did this come about? What is happening in Rwanda illustrates a constant problem of cultural identity throughout the history of humanity and across the geography of the world.

Hutu and Tutsi
The Hutu and Tutsi are generally referred to as ethnic groups or designations.  But some evidence and analyses indicate the idea of social group is more accurate.  The shorter set of the population are referred to as the Hutu people, and are chracterized as earlier inhabitants of the area now known as Rwanda and Burundi.  They spoke a Bantu language, related to the others still known as Bantu.  Forms of Bantu speech cover about two thirds of Africa south of the Sahara, spoken by about two-thirds of the people groups of that geography.

One picture of their cultural history and oral legends, as well as cultural indications, suggested that in about the 1300s, a Cushite people, who are commonly a tall and thin, migrated into the area from the southern highlands of Ethiopia, coming as conquerors.  Genocide survivor Eric Irivuzumugabe states "The truth is, it is difficult to tell who is Tutsi and who is Hutu by outward characteristics."*

They seem to have come originally speaking a language related to Somali and Oromo.  Linguists tell us remnant words seem to indicate this.  The Cushite descendants are known today by the name Tutsi.  While there has been some suggestion that the feudal caste differences developed internally, and the physical differences sometimes associated with the two castes are due to genetic trends within the two castes, this does not seem to account for the extreme variations.

We discuss some of the factors relating the Tutsi to the Cushites.  Some sources will also discuss a Nilotic origin, also discussed briefly below.  Simplistic tendencies that continue to arise in discussion tend to make this either Nilotic or Cushitic.  Indications support complexities of multiple sources.  The Lakes area are rich in overlay of many migratory groups over known history and reference in oral tradition.

The desire to reject the social perversions that have characterized the ethnic/caste violence over the recent centuries behind such denials of migrational differences is admirable.  However, this does not justify the denial of historical, linguistic, cultural and genetic factors that likewise must be accounted for.  I look at some representative information below.

The Tutsis are thought to have originally been cattle-herding warriors, similar in culture to the famous Maasai, but from a different racial stock.  They brought with them humpless cattle, new to the area.  The Bantu people were farmers and fishers, though they also kept the Zebu cattle popular all over Africa, and common among the Bantu peoples.

The Cushite conquerors gradually settled into the local culture, adopted the local Bantu language, and merged generally with the Bantu Hutu.  The language was changed, however, due to the culture and language of the conquerors, and it is through the many Cushite words and cultural indicators that much of the history has been proposed.

The name Hima is also associated with the Tutsis, and with regions in Western Tanzania and Southern.  There are still groups of people called Hima in the region.  Some students of history find the Hima name associated with another invading group of warrior-herders.  This group, called the Bacwezi (pronounced Bachwezi) in legends, seems to have originally come from Nilotic stock, migrating down the Nile River to the Lakes region.  The name Hima is found in Ankole, Uganda, formerly a Bacwezi kingdom.

Over the centuries, the cultural and social situation of the Bacwezi and the Tutsi became similar and their associations grew.  It appears they can be considered as one social group across the various languages and peoples of the region.

The sub-group of Tutsi in southern Burundi are called Hima, while the northern group are called Ruguru (Banyaruguru).  The Tutsi in Uganda (refugees from earlier troubles in Burundi and Rwanda) are called Hima.

The languages of Burundi and Rwanda are linguistically considered dialects of the same language.  They are much closer than Portuguese is to Spanish, a bit more different than British and North American English.

People in the neighboring areas speak related, but more distant, languages.  These include Ha in Tanzania, Ganda and Kiga (Chiga, Ciga or Kyiga) in Uganda.  The people who still call themselves Hima speak the Bantu language, but call it Hima.

Social History
Some sources have pointed out that these various peoples of diverse origin had lived together for centuries and that the conflicts between the classes or tribes known by the names "Tutsi" and "Hutu" have been fostered by the colonial powers, who ruled through a local elite.  Some claim the colonial approach actually created the social or tribal distinction between "Hutu" and "Tutsi."

One correspondent wrote me on this question.  Hima Beekha sent me an email indicating that she is a Hima/Tutsi, and gives some insights into the meaning of some of these terms.  Hima says, "In my language tusi means 'jungle' or 'bush'."  She informs us further, "hima means 'to tell something,' or 'the one who tells something'."  She says the verb form nahimi (from the verb root hima) means "tell me."

Hima finally tells us, "According to my tradition or culture, if I am born in the bush, my name becomes tusi."  This cultural insight may help us in determining the roots of the social distinctions that have now led to the two antagonistic social or racial (tribal) groupings in the region.

A reader from the Oromo ethnic group in the Horn of Africa supports this perspective.  Idris Muktar wrote me in July 2008 in the process of investigating the ties of his people with the Tutsi-Hima groups.  He tells me, "A long time ago I used to hear that Tutsi of Rwanda/Burundi were descendants of the Oromo nation/tribe."  Idris refers to Hima Beekha's comments, then says:  "I was very surprised when I noticed that the meanings of all the words she indicated have the same meanings to Oromo language we speak throughout Ethiopia without any difference."

Another Oromo reader from Ethiopia, Mesay Barakew, writes confirming this information from, Idris Mukhtar.  Further, seeing Beekha's name here, Mesay wrote to inform us that in the Afan Oromo language the word beekha itself is a word meaning "a person who knows."

Another Somali, Omar Ali, wrote to contribute to the discussion, noting some concept similarities between the Tutsi language and his Dir tribe's Somali speech, as well as the traditonal stories.

I am a Somalian from Dir tribe.  We and Tutsi both believe we are related to each other, although scholars never mention that.  My sub-clan is Qubays which is similar to Bachwezi or Chwezi. The characters that you described about Bachwezi dynasty and ours are the same.  The meaning of the name Qubays(Somali word) means the same as Ndahuru (Daahir in Arabic/Somali) all meaning "The cleansed," or "Washed," "Purified with water;" and that is about the excavations of the Big Basin.  In the modern Somali language we still call qubays having a shower to purify.

These similarities are intriguing.  We would need more detailed correlations to come to a definite conclusion from a technical academic persepctive.

Culture and Vocabulary
Another Hima correspondent, Ally Mugisha, wrote to ask further how the language indicates the cultural background.  The resemblance found by comparative linguists has been in borrowed vocabulary, representing concepts and culture attributable to the Ethiopian Highland peoples.  I have not directly analyzed the data myself, but have studied reports from those who have.

Language often is a treasure of past cultures, cross-cultural contacts and historical time frames.  The Bantu languages as a group are not related to the Oromo languages grammatically.  The similarity would show up in the borrowed vocabulary and historical insights of language.

An analogy would be English which is a Germanic language but over half its vocabulary can be traced to Latin, either directly or through medieval or modern forms of French.  Additional technical and cultural terms have been taken into English from Greek.  But English remains Germanic in its structure, grammar and word formation processes.

Ally asks also about the comparative genetic history:

With the development of Genetics, scientists can now establish the origin of people by their DNA, have you in your researches established the similarities between Tutsi/Himas and the Ethiopians?

I have not been able to get specific analysis of the relevant groups in order to evaluate this myself.  Some comments have been written on some genetic comparison studies.  One article has gathered some references on this topic.

One review of these genetic studies comments:  "Although Luis et al in a more general study on bi-allelic markers in many African countries found a statistically significant genetic difference between Tutsi and Hutu, the overall differences were not large."**  This means the difference was significant enough to indicate a separate set of origins, but that the streams have merged to a large degree.  This is consistent with other indicators, also discussed in the article.

More DNA comparisons and analyses are going on all the time.  I am not a geneticist, and watch for the analyses coming out periodically from the DNA studies.  The DNA results often fill in gaps in other types of evidence, or clarify insights from other disciplines.

Tutsi Dominance
In Rwanda and Burundi the Tutsis have maintained their dominance over the centuries, even though they are in the minority.  Though the language and culture of the Hutus and Tutsis merged into one, the Tutsis continued to maintain their separate autocratic identity, much like the Anglo-Norman nobility in Britain.  The ancestors of the Tutsi and the Hutu populations gradually intermarried more and more in the territories we now know as Rwanda and Burundi.

They remained somewhat distinct in physical features, names and other minor markers.  They systematically maintained the social and political distinction.  It is rightly pointed out that today's general population in Rwanda and Burundi all look very much the same.  We note that intermarriage would have merged the varying characteristics.  General stereotypes could have been more recently exploited, as charged, by the colonial powers and their successors for their own purposes and maintenance of power.

However, one cannot discount the historical premise of differing peoples who have merged over the centuries.  For example, the more notable distinctions are quite stark.  One notes, for instance, the features of General Laurent Nkunda,*** Tutsi rebel leader in Congo, who waged a long fight against the central government of Joseph Kabila.   He looks very like the inhabitants of parts of Ethiopia and Somalia.

Twa Pygmies
We should not forget one further cultural factor.  About 1% of each country are Twa pygmies, possibly descendants of Khoisan peoples who originally spoke a "click language" related to the Bushman languages of Southern Africa.

They are thought to be even earlier inhabitants of the area, before even the Bantu settled in the lakes region.  The Twa all now speak the same Bantu language.  The Twa share genetic allele markers with two San-related peoples in northern Tanzania, the Hadza and Sandawe.

Separate Mixed Kingdoms
Burundi and Rwanda had already become separate Tutsi kingdoms before European occupation as the Tutsi-Hima empire broke up.  The Tutsis were a minority in both territories, and currently make up about 15% of the Burundi population and about 9% in Rwanda.  But do not overlook the fact that the Tutsis and Hutus had intermarried considerably, even with the tribal class distinctions.

Some Tutsis have more Bantu features than the "pure" Tutsis.  But the Tutsis have commonly been referred to as "the tall ones" and the Hutus "the short ones."  Many observers of the region comment that there has been no real difference other than superficial differences in features, and that the "tribal" division referred to in recent history was a class distinction exploited by the Germans and treated only by the colonialists as a difference in ethnicity.

The Colonial Era
Animosity between the "indigenous" people and the Tutsis increased due to the German, then the Belgian, colonial pattern of indirect rule.  The colonials chose the Tutsi minority as their ruling class under the suzerainty of the Belgian Empire.

Under German colonial domination from 1890, Germany first occupied what is now Burundi until the end of World War 1, when Burundi and Rwanda were joined by the League of Nations under Belgian administration as Rwanda-Urundi.

Initially Belgian indirect rule supported Tutsi power, but tension built between the two tribes/groups.  Clashes have broken out periodically in both countries.  It was the Belgians who introduced the tribal identity card, requiring every person to be registered as either Hutu or Tutsi, ignoring the social factor of intermarried families across these supposed separate ethnic groups.  The Tutsis have remained dominant in military and politics in Burundi, though recently Hutus have been brought into the government.

Periodically massacres break out from one side or the other, in both Burundi and Rwanda, indicating the underlying racial and social resentment and distinctions between the two ethnic groups.

In Rwanda the Hutus rebelled in 1959, forcing the Belgians to abolish the Tutsi monarchy in 1961.  This led to re-grouping by the Tutsis.  By the current times, about 1 million Tutsi exiles lived outside the country.  These were the base for the new Tutsi-led invasion force.

Ethnic Prejudice and Pride
Political details are not our primary focus here.  This illustrates how ethno-centric tendencies can become deadly for everybody.  This is the probably the worst historical expression of such evil and destructive self-interest.

But this is the same problem encountered to various degrees between ethnic peoples all over the world.  These people speak the same language, have basically the same culture have lived together and intermarried for centuries.  Yet they still hate each other just beneath the surface because they originally came from different places and races!

Prejudice and pride are destructive forces.  Understanding this from the outside does not change what has happened, and does not even help a lot in dealing with the tragedy leaving a wake of hundreds of thousands dead and millions homeless or orphaned.

It also illustrates how strong such ethnic identity is.  It points up the importance of understanding how a people identify themselves.  It is too easy to ignore ethnic self-identity and cover up local dynamics by imposing foreign perspectives as the working model.  Local cognitive and social worldview must be understood in order for outsiders to be of help or influence.

A Gospel Reflection
But reflecting on this affirms, in my opinion, that ethnic pride and prejudice are evils incompatible with Christian values.  It further presents the challenge to all peoples to find that original unity in the redeeming, uniting vision of the New Humanity in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2).  It is amazing and disgusting that Hutus claiming to be Christians took part in the murder of their friends and neighbours.  The message of Jesus had somehow had no effect on their basic life commitments.

Ethnic and social divisions are not the focal point of our human identity.  Our oneness as humans is.  The biblical identity of humans begins with the perspective that Humanity is imbued with the image of God.  Every human – All of us, not just your tribe or mine.
*Eric Irivuzumugabe with Tracey D. Lawrence, My Father, Maker of the Trees (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009) p 27.
**Origins of Tutsi and Hutu – Wikipedia "
***Laurent Nkunda: Profile

Also related:
Anything But Ordinary (Paul Rusesabagina)
Hima, Ham and Cush
The Hima People of Eastern Africa
How Did the Tutsi Conquer?
Models of Assimilation
Our Genetic Journey - Reviewing The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
Sandawe Cultural Profile
The Subtlety of Assimilation
Tutsi and Chwezi:  History and Pre-History
The Tutsi People – Blog
Tutsi, Hutu and Germans
Tutsis the Ethiopia-Somalia Connection
What is a People Group
What is an Ethnic Group

Related on the Internet:
Batutsi:  Tutsi Genetics
Laurent Nkunda: Profile
Origins of Tutsi and Hutu – Wikipedia"
Profile: General Laurent Nkunda


Original version published in the cross-cultural communication journal Afri-Com Vol 7, No 1, Nairobi, Kenya, November 1994
Expanded version, incorporating material written 1996-98, posted 18 December 2004
Revised 6 September 2007
Last Revised 11 April 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 1994, 2004, 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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