By Gitura Mwaura

Unlike with the previous regimes, Rwanda’s current official view is that Rwandans are one and the same people, with the law not recognising the identities of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa.

To the perception of many inside and outside Rwanda, however, is the notion of the identities being “ethnic” groups, with its persistence mainly being perpetuated by the media.

To watch CNN or listen to the BBC one will consistently hear the Hutu and Tutsi being referred to as “makabila” (tribes) in a Kiswahili Service news item, or as “ethnic” in the World Service.

It is the same with other local and international media, and no less the authoritative magazines such as the Economist.

There is also the example of the Kenyan scholar, Prof. Ali Mazrui, not too long ago in Kigali where he delivered a controversial lecture that made it seem almost irredeemable the assumed “tribal” or “ethnic” polarities between the Hutu and Tutsi. He compared them with ethnically dual societies such as Belgium (i.e., between the Flemish and the Walloons), or the war-torn Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, among others.

Who, then, are the Hutu and Tutsi?

The answer lies in Rwanda’s history, where these opposing views form the subject of much scholarly debate, of which it may serve to consider a few of the arguments.

Rwanda has always had the categories Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. The eked a living as hunter-gatherers as well as being notable artisans, with the Hutu mainly practicing agriculture, and the Tutsi being mainly pastoralist and constituting the ruling class and nobility.

However, these were mobile categories, as the Hutu who gained wealth in cattle could become a Tutsi, and likewise a Tutsi who lost his wealth could become a Hutu.

Due to the Twa’s tiny number and their very limited influence in the history of Rwanda, they have tended to be ignored leaving the Hutu and Tutsi as the main subjects in the Rwanda discourse.

However, without discounting the Twa, the Kenyan historian Prof. Bethwell Ogot, an authority on the peoples of East and Central Africa notes in the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) corpus on the history of Africa, that despite the ascribed activities of the of the Hutu and Tutsi, agriculturalists and pastoralists had long inhabited the region for eons.

He nevertheless observes that, though this be the case, archaeological evidence suggests that from about the 15th Century pastoralist groups began immigrating in considerable numbers into the Great Lakes Region.

Prof. Ogot’s assertion about the immigration of pastoralists into the region may provide the template where may be drawn the battleline between those who propound the “distinct difference” and the “no difference” between the Hutu and Tutsi.

It seems obvious, to physically appreciate them, as it did to explorers such as John Hanning Speke, followed by the German and Belgian colonialists and the Roman Catholic missionaries, that the much taller, slender and “fine featured” Tutsi could not be the same with the short, stocky and “coarse featured” Hutu; giving rise to the notion that they must have come of different ancestors.

Though it is not a definite fact, some oft quoted studies seem to confirm the migration hypothesis. For instance, as they have been synthesized by the Ugandan scholar of the Great Lakes Region, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, in his book, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, one physical anthropology survey on the “Genetics and History of Sub-Saharan Africa” concludes that the Tutsi and Hima of Uganda are closer genetically to the Somali and Ethiopians.

This observation seems to gain some credence in another study finding that, much like the pastoralist Somali and Ethiopians in their mosquito-free hot climates in the Horn of Africa, the Tutsi, unlike the supposedly “Bantu” Hutu, do not exhibit the sickle cell trait found in the blood that is necessary for survival in malarial environments. 

Other studies point out the ability among adults to digest the milk sugar, lactose. The ability to digest lactose is limited in most human populations, except in milk dependent nomadic desert populations, among whom the cattle herding Tutsi may be included. Three out of four Tutsi exhibit this trait, as compared to one out of three Hutu.

These genetically determined characteristics of “Cushitic” looks, sickle cell traits and ability to digest lactose  may seem watertight as scientific proof, but they do not explain whether the Tutsi migrated or not, let alone being cousins to the Somali and Ethiopians.

Which brings in the counter arguments of those who propound the “no difference” hypothesis. They hold that it is equally possible to have these genetic traits without having migrated from anywhere.

They argue that the Hutu and Tutsi difference is a result characteristic of privileged classes throughout history through selective feeding and, or, breeding.

The French social geographer, Dominique Franche, writing in an article in the Le Monde Diplomatique, pointed out that the 12-centimetre difference in average height found by colonial physical anthropologists and said to be differentiate Hutu from Tutsi was “exactly the same difference that existed in France between a conscript and a senator in 1815.”

The social geographer concludes that the difference in height can be explained by their different lifestyles and eating habits, with sexual selection playing an important role in the ideals of beauty that might include height and looks. In this conclusion may be enjoined the iconic scholar, Dr Walter Rodney, in his popular book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that the difference is most likely selective feeding and breeding.

The proponents of “no difference” also pose the problematic that, even if, for the sake of argument, it was true that the migration hypothesis holds, of what particular significance is it in today’s Rwanda?

The simple, incontrovertible reality is that the Hutu and Tutsi shared and continue to share the same culture and clans, speak the same language; lived and continue to live on the same “a thousand hills,” cohabited and intermarried each other.

Drawing from this fact many Hutu look like Tutsi and vice versa, so that to a large extent it is difficult to tell them apart, despite the aforementioned genetic ascriptions.

Also, the Banyarwanda traditionally ascribe to the patriarchal ideology that children born of intermarriages, say born of a Hutu father, automatically became Hutu and vice versa. There are not “Hutsi”, i.e., both Hutu and Tutsi. You were Hutu or Tutsi because you were constructed so in the institutional medium of the patriarchal family you were born.

The above constitute only a few of the arguments, but as to this vexed issue of who Hutu, Tutsi or Banyarwanda (Rwandans), it may seem difficult for many to decide.

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