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The Tutsi (/ttsi/;[2] Kinyarwanda pronunciation: [..tu.tsi]), also known as Abatutsi, are a people from the African Great Lakes region. They are a Bantu-speaking ethnic group in Rwanda and Burundi, and the second largest of the three main ethnic groups (the other two being the largest Bantu ethnic group Hutu and the Pygmy group of the Twa) The Tutsi were formerly pastoralists who made up the warriors’ caste. Prior to 1962, they used a client ship framework to administer and control Rwandan society, which was made up of Tutsi aristocrats and Hutu commoners. They were the ruling class and occupied the dominant positions in the society’s sharply stratified society.

Origins and classification

The definition of “Tutsi” people have changed through time and location. Social structures were not stable throughout Rwanda, even during colonial times under the Belgian rule. The Tutsi aristocracy or elite was distinguished from Tutsi commoners. When the Belgian colonists conducted censuses, they wanted to identify the people throughout Rwanda-Burundi according to a simple classification scheme. They defined “Tutsi” as anyone owning more than ten cows (a sign of wealth) or with the physical features of a longer thin nose, high cheekbones, and being over six feet tall, all of which are common descriptions associated with the Tutsi. Tutsis are said to have arrived in the Great Lakes region from the Horn of Africa.Tutsis were considered to be of Cushitic origin, although they do not speak a Cushitic language, and have lived in the areas where they presently inhabit for at least 400 years, leading to considerable intermarriage with the Hutu in the area. Due to the history of intermingling and intermarrying of Hutus and Tutsis, some ethnographers and historians are of the view that Hutu and Tutsis cannot be called distinct ethnic groups. Many analysts as well as inhabitants of the Great Lakes Region, carrying on the tradition, distinguish the Tutsi – as “Cushitics” – from Bantu people like the Hutu and several ethnic groups in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and in Uganda (excluding the Hima). However, Bantu is a linguistic classification (see the Bantu lemma as well as the lemma on Bantu people – the latter says: “Bantu people are the speakers of Bantu languages”). As the Tutsi speak the same Bantu language as the Hutu, they are Bantu (speaking) people.


The traditional Tutsi king’s palace in Nyanza (top) and Rwanda c. 1900, Tutsi Chief Kaware travelling (bottom). Prior to the arrival of colonists, Rwanda had been ruled by a Tutsi-dominated monarchy after the mid-1600s. Beginning in about 1880, Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the Great Lakes region. Later, when Belgian forces occupied the area during World War I, efforts for Catholic conversion became more pronounced. As the Tutsi resisted conversion, missionaries found success only among the Hutu. In an effort to reward conversion, the colonial government confiscated traditionally Tutsi land and reassigned it to Hutu tribes.  In Burundi, meanwhile, Tutsi domination was even more entrenched. A ruling faction, the Ganwa, soon emerged from amongst the Tutsi and assumed effective control of the country’s administration. The area was ruled as a colony by Germany (prior to World War I) and Belgium. Both the Tutsi and Hutu had been the traditional governing elite, but both colonial powers allowed only the Tutsi to be educated and to participate in the colonial government. Such discriminatory policies engendered resentment. When the Belgians took over, they believed it could be better governed if they continued to identify the different populations. In the 1920s, they required people to identify with a particular ethnic group and classified them accordingly in censuses. In 1959, Belgium reversed its stance and allowed the majority Hutu to assume control of the government through universal elections after independence. This partly reflected internal Belgian domestic politics, in which the discrimination against the Hutu majority came to be regarded as similar to oppression within Belgium stemming from the Flemish-Walloon conflict, and the democratization and empowerment of the Hutu was seen as a just response to the Tutsi domination. Belgian policies wavered and flip-flopped considerably during this period leading up to independence of Burundi and Rwanda

Independence of Rwanda and Burundi (1962)

The Hutu majority in Rwanda had revolted against the Tutsi and was able to take power. Tutsis fled and created exile communities outside Rwanda in Uganda and Tanzania. Their actions led to the deaths of up to 200,000 Hutus. Overt discrimination from the colonial period was continued by different Rwandan and Burundian governments, including identity cards that distinguished Tutsi and Hutu.

Burundian genocide (1993)

In 1993, Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated by Tutsi officers, as was the person entitled to succeed him under the constitution.  This sparked a genocide in Burundi between Hutu political structures and the Tutsi military, in which “possibly as many as 25,000 Tutsi” were murdered by the former and “at least as many” were killed by the latter. Since the 2000 Arusha Peace Process, today in Burundi the Tutsi minority shares power in a more or less equitable manner with the Hutu majority. Traditionally, the Tutsi had held more economic power and controlled the military

Rwandan genocide (1994)

A similar pattern of events took place in Rwanda, but there the Hutu came to power in 1962. They in turn often oppressed the Tutsi, who fled the country. After the anti-Tutsi violence around 1959–1961, Tutsis fled in large numbers. These exile Tutsi communities gave rise to Tutsi rebel movements. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, mostly made up of exiled Tutsi living primarily in Uganda, attacked Rwanda in 1990 with the intention of taking back the power. The RPF had experience in organized irregular warfare from the Ugandan Bush War, and got much support from the government of Uganda. The initial RPF advance was halted by the lift of French arms to the Rwandan government. Attempts at peace culminated in the Arusha Accords. The agreement broke down after the assassination of the Rwandan and Burundian Presidents, triggering a resumption of hostilities and the start of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, in which the Hutu then in power killed an estimated 500,000–600,000 people, largely of Tutsi origin. Victorious in the aftermath of the genocide, the Tutsi-ruled RPF came to power in July 1994.


In the Rwanda territory, from the 15th century until 1961, the Tutsi were ruled by a king (the mwami). Belgium abolished the monarchy, following the national referendum that led to independence. By contrast, in the northwestern part of the country (predominantly Hutu), large regional landholders shared power, similar to Buganda society (in what is now Uganda). Under their holy king, Tutsi culture traditionally revolved around administering justice and government. They were the only proprietors of cattle, and sustained themselves on their own products. Additionally, their lifestyle afforded them a lot of leisure time, which they spent cultivating the high arts of poetry, weaving and music. Due to the Tutsi’s status as a dominant minority vis-a-vis the Hutu farmers and the other local inhabitants, this relationship has been likened to that between lords and serfs in feudal Europe. According to Fage (2013), the Tutsi are serologically related to Bantu and Nilotic populations. This in turn rules out a possible Cushitic origin for the founding Tutsi-Hima ruling class in the lacustrine kingdoms. However, the royal burial customs of the latter kingdoms are quite similar to those practiced by the former Cushitic Sidama states in the southern Gibe region of Ethiopia. By contrast, Bantu populations to the north of the Tutsi-Hima in the mount Kenya area such as the Agikuyu were until modern times essentially without a king (instead having a stateless age set system which they adopted from cushitic peoples) while there were a number of Bantu kingdoms to the south of the Tutsi-Hima in Tanzania, all of which shared the Tutsi-Hima’s chieftaincy pattern. Since the Cushitic Sidama kingdoms interacted with Nilotic groups, Fage thus proposes that the Tutsi may have descended from one such migrating Nilotic population. The Tutsis’ Nilotic ancestors would thereby in earlier times have served as cultural intermediaries, adopting some monarchical traditions from adjacent Cushitic kingdoms and subsequently taking those borrowed customs south with them when they first settled amongst Bantu autochthones in the Great Lakes area. However, little difference can be ascertained between the cultures today of the Tutsi and Hutu; both groups speak the same Bantu language. The rate of intermarriage between the two groups was traditionally very high, and relations were amicable until the 20th century. Many scholars have concluded that the determination of Tutsi was and is mainly an expression of class or caste, rather than ethnicity. Tutsi have their own language, but due to colonization by Belgium, French is usually their first language. They also have a very strong genealogical memory, with the ability to recall the names of at least six previous generations, based on their knowledge of their ancestry. In their culture, morning, afternoon, and evening greetings are different. Tutsi and Hutu families are patrilineal (surnames are passed down from male to male). In the past, most people had arranged marriages with people of the same social class. Today, Tutsi people can choose whom they want to marry. Group activities are a common couple date. However, some young Tutsis in the city are experimenting with Western dating and clubbing





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