Moral Courage



Tour Diary


Ethnic Conflict in Burundi
Both Hutu and Tutsi often suffer from convenient amnesia when recalling episodes in their history. Clichés and Myths
Almost everything that can be said about Burundi is contentious. Consider the ethnic mix. Some Tutsi argue that ethnic differences simply do not exist. "We are all Barundi," President Buyoya said when asked by journalists what proportion of Hutu and Tutsi were killed during the 1988 massacre. Indeed, to avoid being justly accused of discrimination against Hutu, his predecessors banned all public or private mention of ethnic identity. [3]

Some sources cite colonial era statistics. The Bantu Hutu constitute 84% of the population. The Hamitic Tutsi make up 15% and the remaining Pygmy Twa about 1%. These statistics are inaccurate. They make no mention of the ganwa, the princely elites that traditionally ruled the country and formed a distinct ethnic group. [4] They do not take into account a large Swahili immigrant minority. The influx of Rwandan Tutsi refugees and the impact of displacement and the killing of a great number of Hutu and Tutsi are also ignored. Nevertheless, no one could reasonably dispute the claim that in Burundi the Hutu form a substantial majority and that many individuals in the Tutsi minority have historically been very apprehensive about that fact.

Much of what has been said about Hutu, Tutsi and their conflict is bound in myths and propaganda. René Lemarchand believes that both Hutu and Tutsi often suffer from convenient amnesia when recalling episodes in their history. [5] What is clear is that these issues cannot be simply explained away as a 'tribal' conflict or a colonial legacy.

Unlike many African countries, Burundi is not an arbitrary colonial construct. Hutu and Tutsi coexisted here under ganwa monarchic rule since the 17th century, even before some European nation states came into being. Hutu and Tutsi share a common language, Kirundi, a similar heritage and have often intermarried. Foreign clichés are not incontrovertible. Hutu and Tutsi cannot always physically distinguish each other as the "short and stocky" [Hutu] or the "tall, lash thin and graceful" [Tutsi]. [6] This often resulted in 'tragic mistakes' at times of conflict.

Class and caste divisions transcend both ethnicities. Not all Tutsi were traditionally 'pastoralists' nor all Hutu were 'cultivators'. Notwithstanding the above, the word 'Hutu' in Kirundi has two meanings. One refers to ethnicity, the other has an inferior social connotation. Thus a subordinate Tutsi in a given social relationship could be described as 'Hutu' despite his cultural identity. [7]

© Burundi Voices Project, 2006.