All Rwandans were equal before the King

“And that is how my poor friend died”. My father concluded with a long sigh. He stood up and headed towards the house. He had been telling me a story on how the family left Rwanda to exile in 1959, but mother had called us again for dinner.

“And that is how my poor friend died”. My father concluded with a long sigh. He stood up and headed towards the house. He had been telling me a story on how the family left Rwanda to exile in 1959, but mother had called us again for dinner.

“But father,” I persisted. “Why did the Hutu want to exterminate the Tutsi”?

“That, my son, is a very long story. I will tell you when and if I have time. For now, let us go in otherwise your mother will kill us.”

Then one morning, two days after this conversation, I was going to the field with mother and my two siblings when my father called me. He was sitting at his usual low stool, and he beckoned me to sit down besides him.

“You asked me the other day why the Hutu wanted to kill all the Tutsi.” He stated as a matter of fact. When I acquiesced, he began:

“Son, how old do you reckon I am now?” I said I did not know and he smiled ruefully.

“I don’t know the exact number myself,” he admitted, but I have lived long enough to serve two kings, I have seen the advent of the Germans and the Belgians, and I saw them all go.

Now, in answer to your question, all I can tell you is that not until the coming of the Germans and later on the Belgians did I ever witness any form of animosity between the Hutu and the Tutsi.

“The king (Umwami) had absolute powers but was assisted by chiefs.

These chiefs were responsible for the army, ensuring territorial integrity and expansion, others oversaw all matters pertaining to cattle keeping, grazing and settling related disputes, while yet others were responsible for agricultural land, produce and related affairs.

The chiefs were mainly Tutsi, but most often, the chiefs of land were Hutu.

“Yes, there existed a system of Ubuhake, which was mainly an economic system which enabled a symbiosis kind of relationship between the wealthy and privileged, and the less privileged.

It was a system in which ordinary Bahutu, Batutsi and Batwa participated and mutually benefited.

This system was voluntarily subscribed to and was entered into for many reasons; including protection and anticipation of getting favours from the wealthy and the most powerful.
It harmonized and ensured a strong interdependency and relationship between two individuals of unequal status in the Rwandan society.

In those days, I mean before the advent of the Bazungu, Rwanda’s main economic activities were cattle keeping and farming.

It is on the basis of these economic activities that one’s status or a family’s status in the society was determined. Because cows were considered very important in our country’s economy, Banyarwanda with more cows were considered wealthier than farmers”.

The patron was mostly Tutsi, but clients could be a Hutu or Tutsi of inferior social status.

One person could be a client as well as a patron; even a Tutsi patron of a Hutu could be a client of yet another Tutsi; take me for instance: I still swear until now, by the names of Chief Buzizi and Chief Rwabutogo, because they were of a superior status than mine and because they have given me cows.

But on the other hand, there are also those who swear by my name. One could be a patron or a client depending on how many cows one had, and many Hutu had many cows at that time, which made them patrons of even less affluent Tutsi. Only the King was the one who could not be a client.

The relationship between the king and the rest of the population was sustained by this highly organized system of Ubuhake, a client-patron kind of relationship between the landed gentry and the less landed and the ordinary subjects who were all equal before the King”.

My father went on to explain that apart from wars of conquest and expansion in the early 19th century, Rwandans were largely at peace, their peaceful co-existence marked by the Ubuhake relationship, even though for so long a time, only one Tutsi clan ‘the Abanyiginya’ dominated the political scene.

By this I also understood that unlike colonial anthropological theorizing on the origins of the Rwandan people, the term Tutsi was used in pre-colonial Rwanda to mean a cattle keeper - and therefore affluent, and Hutu to mean a farmer and therefore less affluent.

Hutu and Tutsi were less sharply distinct, and individuals could and did move from one category to the other on the basis of accumulated wealth.

“The other economic activity,” my father was saying, “was hunting and gathering.

This was mainly done by the less privileged members of the Banyarwanda community known as Abatwa. But the Abatwa were marginalized and often discriminated against by both the Hutu and Tutsi”.

“And now, to come back to your question of why the Hutu wanted to exterminate the Tutsi, the genesis of it all began with the Belgians, or the White Fathers to be exact. It was during the reign of Musinga, King Yuhi V...”

To be continued…