The Tutsi people are often associated with the horrific events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but the richness and diversity of Tutsi culture is less well known. The Rwandan genocide is known officially in Rwanda as the genocide against the Tutsi. With deep roots in the Great Lakes region, the Tutsi people are a vital component of the African community. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about the Tutsi people.
Sources: Britannica.com, OrvilleJenkins.com, EveryCulture.com, GeneticLiteracyProject.org, ModernHistoryProject2012.Wordpress.com, Prezi.com
In Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsi people make up one of the largest population groups, second only to the Hutu people. Significant populations also live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania.
The Northern Tutsi, living primarily in Rwanda, are known as Ruguru, or Banyaruguru, while the Southern Tutsi in Burundi are called Hima. Those that live on the Kivu plateau in the Democratic Republic of Congo are known as Banyamulenge.
The Tutsi dominated the region beginning in the 14th century, but established friendly relations with the Hutu in feudal relationships owing to their vast cattle herds and warfare knowledge. When the colonial period began in the late 1800s, favorable treatment of one group over another intensified animosities.
When the region was controlled by European colonizers, a classification scheme was developed for census purposes. Those who owned more than 10 cows, or possessed certain physical features – a longer nose or neck, for instance – were classified as Tutsi.
Tutsi culture has long been based around owning and dealing in cattle. Historically, some Tutsi would lend cattle to poorer groups in return for labor, loyalty, and political support, in an effort to keep peace and stability among the different ethnic groups. In the past, there was a special group of herders known as abashumba who took care of the king’s personal cattle.
Despite their vast cattle herds, the Tutsi people only kill a cow for food on special occasions. Milk products, bananas, and grains are staples in rural communities especially, and communities are known for brewing their own sorghum beer.
As cattle herders and traders, Tutsi people traditionally made time for leisure activities, and communities developed impressive skills in basket weaving, pottery, woodworking, metalworking, and jewelry making.
So-called atypical physical features found in many Tutsi people were thought by colonizers to be evidence of partial descent from European migrants to the Great Lakes region. Modern-day genetics studies, however, determined that the Tutsi people are mainly from Bantu extraction, though it is unclear whether or not this is from intermarriage and mixing with other Bantu peoples throughout the last 100 years.
There are several dialects of Rwanda-Rundi – Kinyarwanda and Kirundi – and both have been standardized and established as the official languages of both Rwanda and Burundi. The Hutu and Twa people, the other main ethnic groups in the two countries, also speak these dialects. Many Tutsi people also speak French, the third official language, and a remnant of the region’s French colonial legacy.
Tutsi folklore, like many other Bantu groups, has a heavy emphasis on ancestry. In some communities, children are routinely taught the names and legends of their ancestors at least six generations back. Many believe their families and communities descend from a mythical king named Gihanga, who surfaces in many Tutsi legends.
While many Tutsis are Christian, tradition points to Imaana as the traditional creator of the human world. Abazima, or spirits of dead relatives, are able to carry messages to Imaana from their living descendants, according to tradition. These spirits demand the highest respect. Failing that, those that have sought wealth and fertility will instead have bad luck.
The Tutsi people do not have rituals that mark a girl or boy entering into adulthood. Marriage is thought to be the mark of the transition. The groom’s family pays a bride wealth, making the marriage legal. This is thought to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of her labor. In the past, arranged marriages were common, but are less so today.
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