Anthropology, Department of



The Rwandese

Date of this Version



FROM: Endangered Peoples of Africa and the Middle East : Struggles to Survive and Thrive. Edited by Robert K. Hitchcock and Alan J. Osborn (Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 2002).


US government work. (R.J. Hartley, National Park Service)


The Rwandese are a set of peoples who live in the country of Rwanda in eastern central Africa who today number an estimated 7.9 million.2 Rwanda is a small country that has the highest population density (numbers of people per square-mile) in Africa. All Rwandese speak Rwanda (Kinyarwanda), and some speak French, Swahili, or English. Rwandese identify with three population groups called Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. Today, these labels are used as ethnic identifiers; however, in the past they designated an individual's occupation. It is not clear if the words Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa existed in ancient times when people from surrounding regions began migrating to Rwanda in greater number. But by the end of the nineteenth century, most agriculturists were known as Hutu, most pastoralists as Tutsi, and those who primarily hunted and gathered were known as Twa. This system of classification was not hierarchical in its earliest usage, and Rwandese could be classified differently throughout their lives if their mode of production changed. The labels have become more rigid over time, and a hierarchy was introduced in the classification scheme. This transformation of the meaning of group identities began in the late nineteenth century as a complex state system grew in Rwanda. The labels were solidified during the period of European colonial rule that commenced in 1899 with a German protectorate. Tutsi became the elite, Hutu were treated as subjects, and Twa were marginalized. The labels Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa were inherited through the father's lineage or, if a child was born to an unmarried mother, through the mother's lineage. The labels no longer indicated an individual's mode of production, could not be altered during the course of a person's life, and were concretized by being added to the mandatory identity cards all Rwandese began to carry. This last practice was introduced in the 1930s by the Belgian colonial administration (1915-1962) and persisted until 1994 despite the end of colonial rule in 1962. Prior to 1994, it was estimated that 85 percent of the population held an identity card that designated their ethnicity as Hutu, 14 percent were labeled as Tutsi, and 1 percent of the population was recognized as Twa.