Hutus and Tutsis

The classification and grouping of people in Rwanda was a major factor in determining the victims of the 1994 genocide. (Mamdani, 43)  The Tutsi victims were specifically targeted by Hutu perpetrators because of their “race.”  These two groups of people truly believed they were completely different from each other.  Most scholars state three different theories about the origin of “Hutus” and “Tutsis”.  The theories are based on phenotype, genotype, and the Hamitic theory.  Each theory shows that one of the groups migrated to the region.

The first theory, examining phenotype, has to do with physical features.  The three groups of people living in Rwanda (Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi) each has a distinct physical appearance. (Mamdani, 44)  The Twa people are pygmies (anyone under 150 cm).  Since the Twa only made up a very small portion of the total population, the controversy shifted to the Hutu and Tutsi.  The Hutu people are neither tall nor short.  Tutsis are typically tall and slender.  A German anthropologist in the early 2000’s found a difference of 12 centimeters between the height of Hutus and Tutsis. (Mamdani, 44) Given this large height difference, scholars decided that these two groups must have come from different places.

However, there are people that dispute this “phenotype” theory.  These arguments typically examine the social differences between the two groups.  They argue that Hutus were shorter and stockier than the Tutsis because they were not as wealthy and didn’t get the same amount of protein that their counterparts did. (Mamdani, 44)  Tutsis, being richer, drank more milk and had more access to meat.  Another argument points out the differing lifestyles of Hutus and Tutsis.  Whereas the Hutus worked hard on the land, the Tutsis led more privileged lives.

The next theory about the origin of Hutus and Tutsis focuses on their genotype. “Genotype,” in terms of Rwanda, meant the ability of adults to digest lactose and the presence of the sickle cell trait.  Nomadic desert people have a gene that allows them to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk. (Mamdani, 45)  These nomadic people have the gene through natural selection over the course of millennium.  What’s interesting about this is that studies have shown as many as three quarters of Tutsi adults in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi are able to digest lactose.  Only five percent of the Shi people of the Congo are able to digest this sugar. (Mamdani, 46)  Studies in Hutus have found about one out of three adults able to digest lactose.  The one-third rate among Hutus is likely to exist because of intermarriages between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

As far as the sickle cell trait goes, the Hutu have been found to have the trait at about the same rate as people in neighboring countries.  Tutsis on the other hand, rarely, if ever, have the sickle cell trait.  The sickle cell trait provides a higher survival rate than normal in regions with malaria. (Mamdani, 45)  This trait also came about through natural selection.  This finding reinforces the fact that the Hutus and Tutsis have different backgrounds and proves the “migration” theory.

The third possible explanation for the origin of Hutus and Tutsis lies in Hamitic theory.  The Hamitic theory is the belief that descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, are superior to others. (Carney, 11)  Specifically in Africa, the Hamitic race was supposedly superior to the other groups of people living there at the time.  Tutsis were seen as being of Hamitic origin.  “For European theorists in Rwanda, the Tutsi fit the role of Hamitic civilizer; the Hutu were classified as Bantu Africans.  In turn, the Tutsi ‘Caucasians under a black skin’ were seen as superior to their Bantu Hutu neighbors.” (Carney, 11)  This viewpoint is another possible explanation for the fundamental differences between Hutus and Tutsis.

There is however, one major problem with the theories’ attempt to answer the question of why the genocide erupted in 1994.  While these theories delve into the deep history of the origins of Hutus and Tutsis, they fail to account for the Rwanda of the 1900’s.  Rwanda in the 1900’s was a country with two distinct groups, living in peace for much of the century.  For the most part, the two groups found a way to co-exist until 1994 when the genocide began.  The economic system in Rwanda was influenced by the differing backgrounds.  Hutus had land that they farmed and Tutsis owned cattle. However, this was a political divide, not a racial divide. (Carney, 12)  Politics influenced the social class of the two groups and their ability to own cattle.  Hutus and Tutsis lived together in communities.  There were not specific villages for Hutus and specific villages for Tutsis.  They were mixed in with each other and communicated with the other group. Kinyarwandan was spoken by both groups of people.  “The cultural community of Kinyarwanda speakers long predated the political community framed by the state called Rwanda.  Thus, we come to the point that the people called Tutsi, and those who came to be called Hutu, spoke the same language, lived on the same hills, and had more or less the same culture…” (Mamdani, 52)

There were many intermarriages among the Hutus and Tutsis.  This provided a gray area for determining which group a given individual fit in.  Typically, the wife took on the social class of the husband.  For example, if a Tutsi woman married a Hutu man, the woman would become a Tutsi.  (Notice how this didn’t hold true in the genocide in 1994, where a Tutsi woman would be killed even if her husband was a Hutu.)  In the case of children, a newborn took on the social class of his/her father.  A child of a Hutu man and a Tutsi woman would be a Hutu.  There was no “half-and-half.”  Everyone fit into one of the two distinct groups.  Even after many generations of intermarriages, newborn children are always unequivocally either Hutu or Tutsi.  “’There’s been so much inter-marriage over the years that you often cannot tell who’s who,’ said a presidential aid from Burundi to a Western reporter, and then added as an afterthought, ‘but everybody knows, anyway.’” (Mamdani, 54)

A Sudanese intellectual visiting a refugee camp in Rwanda in the summer of 1995 (one year after the genocide) had this to say about the ambiguity of the matter:

I had come to know, more or less, the stereotypical description of the short negroid Hutus and the tall, fine-featured Hamitic Tutsis.  As I looked at my audiences, I saw a few who were clearly Tutsi and a few who were clearly Hutus.  But most were somewhere in between, and I could not identify them.  I later asked the Burundese, including senior government officials and ministers, whether they could tell a Tutsi from a Hutu.  The response of the foreign minister, which represented the general tone, was a confident “Yes,” but “with a margin of error of 35 percent” – a remarkable margin given the confidence of the affirmative answer. (Deng, 15)

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