Tutsi people


Tutsi / Abatutsi / Watutsi / Watusu / Wahuma / Wahima / Wahinda

The Tutsi, or Abatutsi, are a social class or ethnic group of the African Great Lakes region. Historically, they were often referred to as the Watutsi, Watusi, Wahuma, Wahima or the Wahinda.

The Tutsi form a subgroup of the Banyarwanda and the Barundi people, who reside primarily in Rwanda and Burundi, but with significant populations also found in DR Congo, Tanzania and Uganda.

Tutsis are the second largest population division among the three largest groups in Rwanda and Burundi; the other two being the Hutu (largest) and the Twa (smallest).

Small numbers of Hema and Kiga people also live near the Tutsi in Rwanda.

The Northern Tutsi who reside in Rwanda are called Ruguru (Banyaruguru), while southern Tutsi who live in Burundi are known as Hima, the Banyamulenge do not have a territory.

Tutsi people



Tutsis speak Rwanda-Rundi as their native language. Rwanda-Rundi is subdivided into the Kinyarwanda and Kirundi dialects, which have been standardized as official languages of Burundi and Rwanda.


Origins and classification

The definitions of "Hutu" and "Tutsi" people may 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, and wealthy Hutu were often indistinguishable from upper-class Tutsi.

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 feature of a longer nose, or longer neck, commonly associated with the Tutsi.

Tutsis usually were said to have arrived in the Great Lakes region from the Horn of Africa.

Tutsis are considered to be of Cushitic origin by some researchers, although they do not speak a Cushitic language , and have lived in the areas where they are 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, ethnographers and historians have lately come to agree that Hutu and Tutsis cannot be properly called distinct ethnic groups.

Many analysts and also inhabitants of the Great Lakes Region oppose the Tutsi – as "Cushitics" – to Bantu people like the Hutu and several ethnic groups in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and e.g. in Uganda. 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.

Tutsi people


Tutsi folklore includes poetry, proverbs, folk tales, riddles, and myths. Some Tutsis used to know the names of their ancestors at least six generations back. Many believed they were descended from a mythical king named Gihanga.

One popular folk tale tells the story of Sebgugugu. He was a poor man who was helped by God. God performed miracles to provide food for him and his family. However, each time Sebgugugu wanted more. Through his greed, Sebgugugu lost everything in the end.



Traditional Tutsi houses were huts of wood, reeds, and straw shaped like beehives. Around them were high hedges that served as fences. Modern Tutsi build rectangular houses with Western-style building materials. These houses have corrugated iron or tile roofs.



Tutsi like all the Nilotic groups in East Africa were traditionally pastoralists. The reared cattle and depended on their neighbors for most agricultural produce. This situation makes the Tutsi became very rich because owning any sort of producing animal would bump you up the ladder the social ladder.
However, in recent times, most Tutsi are into small-scale farming which is largely dependent on rain.

Tutsi people


Milk, butter, and meat are the most highly valued foods. However, people will only kill a cow on a special occasion. Goat meat and goat milk are also eaten. However, they are eaten secretly because it is against Tutsi customs. Tutsi in rural areas consume milk products, bananas, and sorghum beer. Meals are arranged around work schedules.
Alcoholic beverages are made from bananas and sorghum. People drink them on special occasions.


Sexual division of production

The main priorities of women are childbearing, childcare, and housework. However, in many rural areas, women also work in agriculture through planting because “their fertility is believed to be transferred to the seeds.” Women are never seen holding high, respected positions, and men handle most of the production of goods


Land tenure

In Rwanda, originally in effect in the fifteenth century, the Tutsi ethnic groups own the land, and the Hutu worked for them. This is called “cattle clientage,” which means that the Hutu “cared for the land and the cattle but did not own it.” This caused the Hutu people to ultimately become possessions of the Tutsi, which was called ubugabire. When the country of Burundi gained independence in 1962, the ubugabire system gradually decreased by 1977. The majority of land is still owned by the Tutsi today , and the class division still exists in other sectors of the economy as well.



The Tutsi people focus more on the art of basketry rather than ceramics. Basket making in this ethnic group is “the most widespread form of artistic expression


Tutsi Clans

Sebagabo Simon (2004:21) affirms that the semantic change of Rwandan Burundi terminologies to create ethnic concept in Rwanda is a root cause of genocide genesis. These terms have undergone different meaning change according to periods. In pre-colonial period, the term “Ubwoko” means clannish identity, which is a group of families who originate from the same family and have a common ancestor. Rwanda has 20 clans refered to as ubwoko in Kinyarwanda, namely Abanyiginya, Abagesera, Abega, Ababanda, Abacyaba, Abasinga, Abashambo, Abahinda, Abazigaba, Abungura, Abashingwe, Abenengwe, Abasita, Abatsobe, Abakono, Abanyakarama, Abarihira, Abahondogo, Abashambo, and Abongera. These clans were mainly used as Rwandan and burundi identity. When you ask an old man or woman in Kinyarwanda language to mention their identity, he or she replies by naming the different clans such as Umugesera, Umunyiginya, Umushambo and so on. This is different from western concept of Umutwa, Umuhutu and Umututsi confused to ethnic group.

When colonialists arrived in Rwanda, they started to learn the Rwandan culture from political, social, and religious perspectives. On the religious aspect, they decided to bring a new religion, Christianity. However, because of poor knowledge of Kinyarwanda, the local language, the colonialists failed to understand some concepts related to culture.

As far as ethnic conflict is concerned, colonization changed semantic meanings of Rwanda identity “Ubwoko, Umuhutu, Umututsi, Umutwa”. As explained above those terms have nothing with “Race or Ethnic” concept according to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) definition: “Ethnic group refers to a group whose members share a common language and culture” (see Akayezu, TC, para 513)

For instance, the crested crane is shared by three clans, namely Abanyiginya, Abasindi, and Abatsobe. The frog totem is shared by both Abega and Abakono. Abacyaba and Ababanda have the same totem hyena and the leopard totem belongs to both Abazigaba and Abenengwe. The only way to explain why these separate clans have the same totem is that they might be subclans of the same clan which split voluntarily or unvoluntarily. Social groups consciously and voluntarily separate from each other to create a new collective identity like the Christian Church or the Muslims who split into distinct groups but kept the same symbols and rituals. Social groups can also change collective identity due to migration and memory loss but keep their collective symbol because it is the only one that has not been erased from collective memory.

Abega and Abakono who share the same totem the frog, Abacyaba and Ababanda whose totem is the hyena and Abazigaba and Abenengwe whose totem is the leopard are probably moieties, groups with a common ancestry who split into two. Abanyiginya, Abasindi and Abatsobe would be a phyratry : a social group which was divided into three separate clans.

There is a possibility also that Abahinda whose totem is inkende ‘squirrel’ and who were the reigning dynastly in Karagwe, Tanzania before immigrating to Rwanda for unknown causes, might be related to Abazirankende, a subclan of Abagesera whose totem is the wagtail. Abazirankende means ‘those for whom the squirrel is a taboo’.

The only clans whose totems are not known are Abanyakarama who are supposed to have originated from Burundi and Abashingwe.


Clans as a social construction

It has been a long held belief that clans are natural social groups which are made up of people who are biologically related. The case of Rwanda shows this not to be the case. This is evidenced by two observations :First, endogamy is allowed within the same clan and second, the same clans and totems are interethnic.

Besides clans, Rwanda also has lineages called in Kinyarwanda imiryango whose singular form is umuryango. A lineage is a group of people related by descent from a common ancestry , igisekuru. The name of the lineage comes from the name of the common ancestor such as Abahidiro from Gahindiro, Abajiji from Bajiji, Abenebwimba from Bwimba, Abaganzu from Ruganzu, etc. Exogamy has to be practiced. Marrying somebody from the same lineage , however remoteit might be , would be considered as incest. Rwanda is a patriarchal and patrilineal society. Children take the ethnicity and the clan of their fathers. It is not the same with clans, however, endogamy is very common.

The other evidence that clans are not social groups which are genetically connected is the fact that although Rwanda has three distinct separate ethnic groups, namely Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, the three groups share the same clans and totems.


Clans and castes

Both clans and castes are social categories that people are born into. In many cases, one’s social status depends on which clan or caste one belongs to. It seems as if they are created to fulfill a societal need, especially in the area of work specialization and share of social responsibilities. Kings came from the Abanyiginya clan. Abatsobe clan provided royal ritualists, abiru, who memorized all rituals used in the new monarch’s coronation and were the keepers of all the royal secrets. The Abega and Abakono clans provided queens.

Abagesera, Abasinga and Abazigaba, which are referred as abasangwabutaka ‘primordial clans’ literally ‘the ones found on the land’, played the role of abase, ritualists for other clans.

They could perform all the rituals done by the head of the family of somebody from another clan if he was absent or do these rituals on the behalf of members of other clans because they were forbidden to do it themselves. Clans could also engage in the practice of guterana ubuse , which is about insulting each other for fun. In a sense, they are not different from the caste system of West Africa. Among the Fulani , for instance, an ethnic group found in many West African countries, clans are associated with castes. They have 12 castes which are not based on social hierarchy like the low and high castes in India and the Burachumins of Japan, but on work specialization instead. such as the caste of griots, the caste of wood carvers, the caste of blacksmiths, the caste of grave diggers, the caste of hunters, the caste of farmers, the cast of cattle herders, the caste of circumcizers, etc.
In some societies , clans have totemic features to distinguish themselves from other clans such as headwear, chestwear, armwear, tattoos, etc. Among the Pacific Northwest Indians such as Chinook, Haida, Nookta, Tlinkit or Hawaiians, clans have totem poless. For instance, the Haida have two clans with their respective totems the raven and the eagle. These two totems appear appear on their totem poles.

In Rwanda there is no physical symbol to designate the clan member. People know their clan membership and totem through oral tradition.


Totems and proper animal names

Totems don’t , in any way, differ from proper names. All are used for identification purposes. The only difference is that totems are a symbol for a group whereas proper names refer to individuals. In many cultures, words referring to animals are used as proper names, as shown by Kinyarwanda and American Indian names below.


Religious Belief

Today most Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi are Christians. However, some traditional beliefs survive. Traditionally, WaTutsi  believe in Supreme being and a distant Creator God called Imaana. This god has the power to grant wealth and fertility. The king shares in this power. It can be seen in his sacred fire, royal drums, and rituals. Spirits of dead relatives, called abazima , carry messages between Imaana and the human world. However, the abazima may bring bad luck to those who do not respect them. People offer gifts to protect themselves from the abazima. They also try to learn the spirits' wishes by seeing fortune-tellers.


Culture and tradition

Tutsi and Hutu families are patrilineal (the family name is passed on by males). In the past, marriage in Rwanda and Burundi was based on the relations between the two families. Today most Tutsis choose the person they will marry.

Tutsi and Hutu rites of passage are very similar. The first one, the naming ceremony, takes place seven days after a child's birth.
Marriage is made legal by payment of the bride wealth. It is paid by the groom's family to the bride's family because they are losing her labor. There is no ritual other than marriage to mark the beginning of adulthood.

Royal dancing and drumming groups performed for the kings of Rwanda and Burundi. For rituals, two dozen tall drums were placed around a central drum. The drummers moved around the drums in a circle. Each one took a turn beating the central drum. This style of drumming is still practiced, and it has been recorded.

Singing, dancing, and drumming are important in rural life. People compose many kinds of songs—hunting songs, lullabies, and ibicuba (songs praising cattle).

A game called igisoro is popular with children and adults. It is played on a wooden board with holes for beads or stones. Players line up their pieces in rows and capture as many of their opponents' pieces as they can. In other parts of Africa the game is known as mancala.

Death is marked by prayers, speeches, and limits on many activities. Close family members are supposed to avoid physical labor and sex after a death. When the mourning period ends, the family holds a ritual feast.



In the past, Tutsi men and women wore robes brought in from the African coast. A woman's costume included a white robe and white headbands. Today Western-style clothing is usually worn. Women wear dresses and scarves made from the printed cloth popular in East Africa. Men wear pants and shirts.


Congolese Tutsi

There are essentially two groups of Tutsi in the Congo (DRC). There is the Banyamulenge, who live in the southern tip of South Kivu. They are descendants of migrating Rwandan, Burundian and Tanzanian pastoralists. And secondly there are Tutsi in North Kivu and Kalehe in South Kivu – being part of the Banyarwanda (Hutu and Tutsi) community. These are not Banyamulenge. Some of these Banyarwanda are descendants of people that lived long before colonial rule in Rutshuru – on what is currently Congolese territory. Others migrated or were "transplanted" by the Belgian colonists from Rutshuru or from Rwanda and mostly settled in Masisi in North Kivu and Kalehe in South Kivu.