BAIRU/HIMA/HUTU/TUTSI ARE CASTES, NOT TRIBES


The caste divisions in Rwanda are (were?) simply that: caste divisions, that is stratification based on socio-economic standing. In the case of Rwanda, the Germans and later the Belgians enforced the caste system to the point of bastardising those groupings into what they called tribes or ethnic groups. That bastardisation of castes continues to obtain in our mistaken thinking. The Rwanda caste system is not any different from what was/is common in East Asia, in Japan, Nepal, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and so on.

India has 5 castes (if you add on the “thug” caste they become six). The Brahman or priests, the Kshatriya (warriors) who may be the equivalent of the cattle-owning, ruling Tutsi of Rwanda/Urundi; then there is the Vaishya who doubled as merchants and farmers, the equivalent of the Hutu; then there are the Sudra or labourers, the land poor, equivalent of lower Hutu who could only provide labour, or the Bairu in Nkore. I think in Rwanda/Urundi and Nkore the structure had not yet differentiated to the point of free crop growers being distinguished from the landless who could only provide labour to the ruling caste. Finally, India has the lowest caste, the Dalit or Harijan, the “untouchables”, the equivalent of the hunter-gatherer Batwa, those to only be spat on. You know the sound of spitting…”Ptwaa! Hence, Twa, Batwa…

India believed so much in caste that any emerging socio-economic group was allocated a caste. As criminality increased, those that thrived on crime were placed in their own caste of the “Thugs”, the sixth caste and these gave a hell of time to the British, forcing them to introduce Hindi “thug” into their language. Bottom line, those were not tribes, they were not ethnicities. They were strata determined by socio-economic position…call them classes.

Rwandan women marrying outside their castes: that is true. Women tend to outnumber men, especially in the warrior caste where there were usually high fatalities among men in endless battles and blood feuds. In later Rwanda/Burundi, this was accentuated by the legal prohibition of polygamy. It is not adventure that drove women to marry outside their caste. It was ontological necessity. Similarly in Uganda, when you go to areas of Nakasongola, south of Lango, there are people there called the Chope or Bachope. They were called Chope because at one time, serious wars among the Luo (in Dokolo etc) forced women and children to flee southwards towards Bunyoro as refugees. When those women were asked where their men were, their answer was, “finished, Kaput, kwisha”. Qestion: “Cho?” answer: “Pe!”. In Luo a man is a “Cho” and kaput is “Pe”; hence Chope. They were quickly married off not due to adventure, but due to the tragedy that had befallen them. Now in Bunyoro and Toro, they have such names as Muchope, Kachope, Kabachope, etc reflecting what you, Mr Okello would call the fruits of adventure. By the way, the Bakopi caste of Buganda seems to have borrowed its name from “Chope”. As you know, the Chope are also called Pawil. The word Biiru or Bairu similarly seems to have also been photocopied from the predicament of those widows and orphans…..

The existential reality of the Hima/Bairu and Tutsi/Bahutu was one of constant and at times bloody conflict over space for crop growing Vs stock grazing. When the cattle of a pastoralist strayed into the millet garden of a crop growing Hutu or Mwiru, the latter would almost always get his spear and finish off part of the offending herd. These conflicts still obtain in all parts of the world where pastoralists co-exist with crop growers. The bitter emotions that go with those conflicts over ecological resources are part of what we witnessed in the form of the Rwanda genocide. That is why I disagree with the Dr.Eric Kashambuzi’s perspective that reduces everything to boyfriends/girlfriends while not explaining the wider picture of the many levels of interaction or lack of it, amongst those groups. If a Hutu speared your beloved cow yesterday after it strayed into his millet garden, and you drowned his son in your cattle watering pond yesterday, when you caught him stealing your water, there may be little room left for romance between the two Hutu/Hima families. Mr Kashambuzi is oblivious of those realities.

In the case of Rwanda and Nkore, what made matters worse was the fact that, those societies subsequently acquired a pastoralist ruling class. As you know, pastoralists can depend on their cattle for virtually everything. Cattle is life! They cannot starve when crop growers deny them their cassava. So, there was a lack of symbiotic dependence between the rulers and the ruled, unlike in the agrarian kingdoms where the ruling class survived by getting tribute in kind (cassava, millet, yams, nswa, bush meat etc) from the subordinate classes and vassals. When you are an aristocrat of an agrarian kingdom, to ensure that you do not starve, you had to have very good relations with all clans. You could not dare to be arrogant. You even had to marry from each one of them to sustain the solid bonds of symbiosis. That is why you hear that Kings of an agrarian Kingdom like Buganda would marry platoons of wives (Kyabagu, 20; Kamanya, 38; Suuna I, 148; Mutesa I, 85; Mwanga, 20; Chwa II, 17 wives, Mutesa II, 14 etc). When you have a king who you don’t owe a living; one who can feed on milk, blood, meat, ghee 24/7, then you have a highly polarised polity: no symbiotic connection, no obligation to marry outside your caste etc…the point that Mr Kashambuzi misses completely in his anecdotes about girlfriends and finacees.

Lance Corporal (Rtd) Patrick Otto

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