Pre-colonial Burundi (c1300 - 1890)

Updated April 2010

The current ethnic differentiations in Burundi have their origin in patterns of human settlement that began to take final shape in the Fifteenth Century. Oral traditions and archaeological evidence suggest the gradual encroachment of eastern Bantu agriculturalists from Mali and the Central African Republic in the 12th Century on the indigenous hunter gather societies that originated in the Congo Basin (the Twa or pygmies) the Bantu speakers also introduced animal husbandry, namely cattle, sheep and goats (Bentley & Southall 2005, 32; Global Internally Displaced Person Project 2005). Overtime a patchwork of polities emerged in the densely populated areas of the Great Lakes Region and by the end of the eighteenth century these had been consolidated into six large kingdoms, four in Uganda and the kindred states of Rwanda and Burundi (Bentley & Southall 2005, 32, 33).

In Burundi an elaborate hierarchy emerged centred on a divine king (mwami) whose officials, drawn from royal princes (ganwa), formed the ruling oligarchy that governed through largely autonomous chiefdoms (Oketech & Polzer 2002, 91; Bentley & Southall 2005, 35). The chiefdoms themselves were overwhelmingly dominated by a wealthy cattle owning warrior elite who, together with the king and royal court officials, formed the Tutsi ruling class that comprised about 14% (Oketech & Polzer 2002, 91; Bentley & Southall 2005, 35; Mthembu-Salter 2008, 152). The vast majority of the population (around 85%) were peasants engaged in agriculture and were called Hutus, but there was also a small number of Twa (perhaps 1%) who were economically and socially marginalised (Oketech & Polzer 2002, 91; Bentley & Southall 2005, 33, 35; Mthembu-Salter 2008, 152). Thus when Burundi entered recorded history in the mid 19th century the kingdom was a complex integrated social structure bound together by a common loyalty to the monarchy, by the extensive system of government and administration that had been developed and by the elaborate bonds of personal client-patron relations that tied the people of various strata of society to one another. Moreover they shared a common language, religion and ethno-political identity ( 1992, Kimber 1996).

Social identity, privileges and social obligations depended on an array of factors. These included lineage, cattle ownership and usage, occupation and standing in the complex social and political hierarchies that exercised executive and judicial power. These hierarchies also controlled the distribution of land (Global Internally Displaced Person Project 2005). The designations Hutu, Tutsi and Twa came to refer primarily to lineage and occupation and these groups were stratified internally along lines of wealth and socio-political standing. Neither internal nor external identity boundaries were rigidly determined at birth and one could move upwards and downwards in class within these structures and even between them (Oketech & Polzer 2002, 91). Thus "Hutus could 'become' Tutsi by achieving certain levels of wealth in cattle or influence" and they "enjoyed significant positions of responsibility and authority and were accorded property rights" (Oketech & Polzer 2002, 91). This was further cemented by intermarriages between Tutsis and Hutus (Global Internally Displaced Person Project 2005, 1992).

In the second half of the 19th century conflict within the ganwa between two competing royal lineages, the Bezi and the Batare, led to Bezi ascendancy over their rivals and the Batare were displaced from positions of power; the rivalry between the two groups was later to be exploited by the colonial authorities (Bentley & Southall 2005, 36; Mthembu-Salter 2008, 152). To effect and consolidate their power monopoly, the Bezi centralised the administration of the kingdom, resulting in the transformation of the client-patron relationships that had hitherto bound Burundian society together into feudal like structures of lordship and bondage with society rigidly divided between Tutsi overlords and the Hutus who had been reduced to serfdom, with both under the domination of the Bezi who controlled access to land and cattle (Bentley & Southall 2005, 36; Oketech & Polzer 2002, 91, 121). Technically all land belonged to the king and was dispensed by him; under the centralised polity effective control of land was in the hands of the ganwa who used their power of distribution to cement their control over the Hutu peasants (Oketch & Polzer 2002, 122). In this way Tutsi and Hutu indenties lost their fluidity and took on the features of a ridged caste structure (Bentley & Southall 2005, 36).


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