Guide to the Zaire crisis: The difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi

The people

John Lichfield
Saturday 16 November 1996 01:02 GMT

The antagonism between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi is not a tribal conflict. It is not, properly speaking, an ethnic conflict. By all the most common definitions, Hutus and Tutsis are the same people, which makes their violent history even more tragically incomprehensible to outsiders.

Yet outsiders may be partly to blame. Differences between the communities were greatly emphasised by the European invaders of Rwanda and Burundi, first Germans then Belgians, as an instrument of colonial rule. Hutus and Tutsis have the same language; the same religion; the same culture. They have lived intermingled for centuries on the same land, in the most densely populated part of sub-Saharan Africa. Before the coming of the Europeans, the minority Tutsis were mostly, but not all, aristocratic herders of cattle; the majority Hutus were mostly, but not all, peasant tillers of the soil.

According to one theory, the Tutsis were a distinct group which arrived later than the Hutus, living peaceably alongside them in some areas, enslaving them in others. Other studies say there is no proof the two were ever distinct peoples; they may have simply evolved into different social classes or adopted different ways of life.

Despite the stereotypical variation in appearance - tall Tutsis, squat Hutus - anthropologists say they are ethnically indistinguishable. The oft- quoted difference in height is roughly the same as the difference between wealthy and poor Europeans in the last century (an average of 12cm).

So why do they hate each other so much? There is an element of class antagonism and economic competition in this crowded part of Africa. But the hatreds result from 30 years of hysterical propaganda by politicians on both sides in quest of absolute power.

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