From 7th to 15th April in the year 1994, an event took place in Rwanda that shook the very core of humanity. Militias from the communal group Hutu led a series of barbaric attacks on the Tutsi communities that lived with them side by side for centuries. They killed Tutsi people in the streets with machetes, raped their women, slaughtered their children, and also killed any Hutu that helped them. Those that hid in churches were surrendered to the militias by the priests, Hutu men killed their Tutsi wives in fear of death threats, and all the while the international community only looked on. Nearly a million people died in that slaughter that lasted about ten-day. Now, we know that incident as the “Rwandan genocide”.
More than two decades have passed since that event. Yet, people are still trying to find out more underlying reasons for how human society can so easily turn so barbaric. There are many factors behind that incident. Some of them are political, others are cultural, but there is one reason that is rooted in the history of both groups. It is a theory that gave birth to these two cultural groups, it is a theory known as the “Hamitic Myth”.
Creation of Hamitic theory for Africans: Before Rwanda’s colonization, Hutu and Tutsi weren’t actually two separate ethnic groups. In fact, they were considered as a class group. The rich were called Tutsi and the peasants in the field were known as Hutus. At that time, Rwanda itself was ruled by the Tutsi elite under its tribal laws. Moreover, a Hutu could become a Tutsi if he could become rich. So the ethnic identity was a lot more fluid. However, after the colonization that identity changed when the Hamitic hypothesis or Hamitic myth was introduced.
The Hamitic hypothesis has been used to create a colonial racial vision of African peoples and it was the foundation of identity-based thinking in several African countries, especially in Rwanda. This hypothesis has its root originated from the biblical myth and also on research on racial diversity.
The basic principle of this theory suggests that the “Hamitic” people are a version of Mediterranean people who are responsible for bringing cultural and technological advancement to the “Negroid” people of Africa who mostly led pastoral lives. This group of brownish people had features quite similar to Arab and Egyptian and also were somewhat different from the regular black Africans. Despite mixture with local black people, certain features on the Hamitic people allowed one to distinguish between them and the other blacks.
Impact of Hamitic theories for Rwandans: Due to this hypothesis, in Rwanda, and in Burundi different ethnic groups were created in spite of the absence of the traces of cultural or linguistic otherness in those societies. It divided their society into three races: the Tutsi as the Hamitic or “conquering” race, the Hutu as a Bantu or typical black race, and the Twas as pygmoid. As such, the Tutsi were labeled as more superior to the Hutu population.
In 1926, the Belgian government that ruled over Rwanda decided to classify the Rwandan population as either Tutsi or Hutu. At first, they identified the race based on certain “features’. But, soon this new Belgian initiative basically designated those who owned more than ten cows as Tutsi and anyone else as Hutu. All citizens were issued national identification cards which included their identity as Hutu or Tutsi. So both culture groups were formed and were given a solid identity that couldn’t be altered.
Because of already existing wealth into the newly created Tutsi community, the disparity between both groups was created and it also enhanced Tutsi supremacy over the Hutus under European tutelage. Tutsi would work more with the colonizer and help them dominate over the Hutus. This would create an everlasting bad impression of Tutsi in the mind of the Hutus. In fact, Tutsi would later be called “collaborators” for their role as the assistance of the colonizer even long after Rwanda’s independence.
The irony is that this division between Hutu and Tutsi is something that they didn’t create in the first place. They both share the same cultural language and even religion. This division created such resentment between both groups that later it would create distrust and hate among them which eventually culminated in the Rwandan genocide.
Keep in mind, one shouldn’t just blame this hypothesis or the colonizers for the genocide and conflicts in Rwanda. There are several other equally impactful reasons; many of which are solely the fault of the Rwandan government or its community leader or even the UN. We should understand all of these reasons as much as possible so that the future of humanity won’t get scared by anything like what happened in Rwanda during those dark days.
Recommended Reading List:
Edith R. Sanders, The Hamitic hypothesis: its origin and function in time perspective, in Journal of African History, vol.x, no 4, 1969, p.521-532.
Campenhout, G. V. (1933). Au Ruanda Sur Les Bords Du Lac Kivu ( Congo Belge ) – Un Royaume Hamite Au Centre De L’Afrique. Bruxelles.