Abatutsi, Imfure, Wahuma, Wahima, Watutsi
Total population
(2.5 million (Rwanda and Burundi))
Regions with significant populations
Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
Rwanda-Rundi, French, English
Christianity, Islam
Related ethnic groups

The Tutsi (/ˈtʊtsi/;[1] Rwanda-Rundi pronunciation: [tūtsī]), or Abatutsi, are a population inhabiting the African Great Lakes region. Historically, they were often referred to as the Watutsi,[2] Watusi,[2] Wahuma or the Wahima. The Tutsi form a subgroup of the Banyarwanda and the Barundi peoples, who reside primarily in Rwanda and Burundi, but with significant populations also found in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania.[3] They speak Rwanda-Rundi, a group of Bantu languages.

The Tutsi 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, Kiga and Furiiru people also live near the Tutsi in Rwanda. The Northern Tutsi who reside in Rwanda are called Ruguru (Banyaruguru),[4] while southern Tutsi that live in Burundi are known as Hima, and the Tutsi that inhabit the Kivu plateau in the Congo go by Banyamulenge.[5]

Origins and classification

A Tutsi man.

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 European 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.

The Europeans believed that some Tutsis had facial characteristics that were generally atypical of other Bantus. They sought to explain these purported divergent physical traits by postulating admixture with or partial descent from migrants of Caucasoid stock, who usually were said to have arrived in the Great Lakes region from the Horn of Africa and/or North Africa.[6][7]

By contrast, the Europeans considered the majority Hutu to be characteristic Bantu people of Central African origin.

The Tutsi have lived in the areas where they are for 400-500 years, leading to considerable intermarriage with the Hutu, a Bantu people in the area. To note the names Hutu and Bantu are not the same as they imply different things. 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.[8][9]


A Tutsi immigrant in Berlin.

Y-DNA (paternal lineages)

Modern-day genetic studies of the Y-chromosome generally indicate that the Tutsi, like the Hutu, are largely of Bantu extraction (60%E1b1a, 20% B, 4% E3). Paternal genetic influences associated with the Horn of Africa and North Africa are few (16% E1b1b), and are ascribed to much earlier inhabitants who were assimilated. However, the Tutsi have considerably more Nilo-Saharan paternal lineages (14.9% B) than the Hutu (4.3% B).[10]

Trombetta et al. (2015) found 22.2% of E1b1b in a small sample of Tutsis from Burundi, but no bearers of the haplogroup among the local Hutu and Twa populations.[11] The subclade was of the M293 variety, which suggests that the ancestors of Tutsis in this area may have assimilated some South Cushitic pastoralists.[12]

Autosomal DNA (overall ancestry)

In general, the Tutsi appear to share a close genetic kinship with neighboring Bantu populations, particularly the Hutus. However, it is unclear whether this similarity is primarily due to extensive genetic exchanges between these communities through intermarriage or whether it ultimately stems from common origins:

[...]generations of gene flow obliterated whatever clear-cut physical distinctions may have once existed between these two Bantu peoples – renowned to be height, body build, and facial features. With a spectrum of physical variation in the peoples, Belgian authorities legally mandated ethnic affiliation in the 1920s, based on economic criteria. Formal and discrete social divisions were consequently imposed upon ambiguous biological distinctions. To some extent, the permeability of these categories in the intervening decades helped to reify the biological distinctions, generating a taller elite and a shorter underclass, but with little relation to the gene pools that had existed a few centuries ago. The social categories are thus real, but there is little if any detectable genetic differentiation between Hutu and Tutsi.[13]

Tishkoff et al. (2009) found their mixed Hutu and Tutsi samples from Rwanda to be predominately of Bantu origin, with minor gene flow from Afro-Asiatic communities (17.7% Afro-Asiatic genes found in the mixed Hutu/Tutsi population).[14]


The traditional Tutsi king's palace in Nyanza.

Prior to the arrival of colonists, Rwanda had been ruled by a Tutsi-dominated monarchy after mid-1600. Beginning in about 1880, Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the Great Lakes region. Later, when German forces occupied the area during World War I, the conflict and efforts for Catholic conversion became more pronounced. As the Tutsi resisted conversion, missionaries found success only among the Hutu. In an effort to reward conversion, the colonial government confiscated traditionally Tutsi land and reassigned it to Hutu tribes.[15]

The area was ruled as a colony by Germany (prior to World War I) and Belgium. Because the Tutsi had been the traditional governing elite, both colonial powers kept this system and allowed only the Tutsi to be educated and to participate in the colonial government. Such discriminatory policies engendered resentment.

When the Belgians took over, they believed it could be better governed if they continued to identify the different populations. In the 1920s, they required people to identify with a particular ethnic group and classified them accordingly in censuses.

In 1959, Belgium reversed its stance and allowed the majority Hutu to assume control of the government through universal elections after independence. This partly reflected internal Belgian domestic politics, in which the discrimination against the Hutu majority came to be regarded as similar to oppression within Belgium stemming from the Flemish-Walloon conflict, and the democratization and empowerment of the Hutu was seen as a just response to the Tutsi domination. Belgian policies wavered and flip-flopped considerably during this period leading up to independence of Burundi and Rwanda.

Independence of Rwanda and Burundi (1962)

The Hutu majority in Rwanda had revolted against the Tutsi and was able to take power. Tutsis fled and created exile communities outside Rwanda in Uganda and Tanzania. Since Burundi's independence, more extremist Tutsi came to power and oppressed the Hutus, especially those who were educated.[16][17][18][19][20] Their actions led to the deaths of up to 200,000 Hutus.[21] Overt discrimination from the colonial period was continued by different Rwandan and Burundian governments, including identity cards that distinguished Tutsi and Hutu.

Burundi genocide (1993)

Main article: Burundian Genocide

In 1993, Burundi's first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated by Tutsi officers, as was the person entitled to succeed him under the constitution.[22] This sparked a genocide in Burundi between Hutu political structures and the Tutsi military, in which "possibly as many as 25,000 Tutsi" were murdered by the former and "at least as many" were killed by the latter.[23] Since the 2000 Arusha Peace Process, today in Burundi the Tutsi minority shares power in a more or less equitable manner with the Hutu majority. Traditionally, the Tutsi had held more economic power and controlled the military.[24]

Rwanda genocide (1994)

Main article: Rwandan Genocide
Flag of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front.

A similar pattern of events took place in Rwanda, but there the Hutu came to power in 1962. They in turn often oppressed the Tutsi, who fled the country. After the anti-Tutsi violence around 1959-1961, Tutsis fled in large numbers.

These exile Tutsi communities gave rise to Tutsi rebel movements. Exiled Tutsis attacked Rwanda in 1990 with the intention of liberating Rwanda. The fighting culminated in the Hutu mass killings of Tutsi in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, in which the Hutu then in power killed an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 people, largely of Tutsi origin.

At the same time in 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), mostly made up of diasporic Tutsi in Uganda, advanced to Rwanda. It had experience in organized irregular warfare from the Ugandan Bush War, and got much support from the government of Uganda. The initial RPF advance was halted by the lift of French arms to the Rwandan government. Attempts at peace culminated in the Arusha Accords. The agreement broke down after the assassination of the Rwandan and Burundian Presidents. Victorious in the aftermath of the genocide, the RPF came to power in July 1994.


Tutsis speak Rwanda-Rundi as their native language. It is a member of the Bantu subgroup of the Niger–Congo family. Rwanda-Rundi is subdivided into the Kinyarwanda and Kirundi dialects, which have been standardized as official languages of Burundi and Rwanda. It is also spoken as a mother tongue by the Hutu and Twa. Additionally, many Tutsis speak French, the third official language of Rwanda and Burundi, as a lingua franca. The Hima speak the same language, but call their language Hima.[5]


A traditional Tutsi wrist guard (igitembe).

In the Rwanda territory, from the 15th century until 1961, the Tutsi were ruled by a king (the mwami). Belgium abolished the monarchy in response to Hutu activism, following the national referendum that led to independence. By contrast, in the northwestern part of the country (predominantly Hutu), large regional landholders shared power, similar to Bugandan society (in what is now Uganda).

Under their holy king, Tutsi culture traditionally revolved around administering justice and government. They were the only proprietors of cattle, and sustained themselves on their own products. Additionally, their lifestyle afforded them a lot of leisure time, which they spent cultivating the high arts of poetry, weaving and music. Due to the Tutsi's status as a dominant minority vis-a-vis the Hutu farmers and the other local inhabitants, this relationship has been likened to that between lords and serfs in feudal Europe.[25]

A traditional Tutsi basket.

According to Fage (2013), the Tutsi are serologically related to Bantu and Nilotic populations. This in turn rules out a possible Cushitic origin for the founding Tutsi-Hima ruling class in the lacustrine kingdoms. However, the royal burial customs of the latter kingdoms are quite similar to those practiced by the former Cushitic Sidama states in the southern Gibe region of Ethiopia. By contrast, Bantu populations to the north of the Tutsi-Hima in Kenya were until modern times essentially without a king, while there were a number of Bantu kingdoms to the south of the Tutsi-Hima in Tanzania, all of which shared the Tutsi-Hima's chieftancy pattern. Since the Cushitic Sidama kingdoms interacted with Nilotic groups, Fage thus proposes that the Tutsi may have descended from one such migrating Nilotic population. The Tutsis' Nilotic ancestors would thereby in earlier times have served as cultural intermediaries, adopting some monarchical traditions from adjacent Cushitic kingdoms and subsequently taking those borrowed customs south with them when they first settled amongst Bantu autochthones in the Great Lakes area.[25]

However, little difference can be ascertained between the cultures today of the Tutsi and Hutu; both groups speak the same Bantu language. The rate of intermarriage between the two groups were traditionally very high, and relations were amicable until the 20th century. Many scholars have concluded that the determination of Tutsi was and is mainly an expression of class or caste, rather than ethnicity.

As noted above, DNA studies show clearly that the peoples are more closely related to each other than to faraway groups.

During the 1980s, school principals reported that, although secondary school admissions were proportional to the groups within the country and were made by competition within ethnic groups (in accordance with quotas mandated by the Habyarimana government), the students of Tutsi origin (14% of intake) comprised nearly 50% of graduates, on average. This report provoked accusations of tribal favoritism.

Congolese Tutsi

Main article: Banyamulenge
Mixed group of Banyamulenge and Bafuliru repairing a road between Lemera and Mulenge, South Kivu (ca. 2003).

The Banyamulenge are an ethnic group of the Tutsi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The term Banyamulenge, which means people of Mulenge in Kinyarwanda, is rather a collective denomination of descendants of Tutsi migrants from Rwanda most of whom are concentrated on the Itombwe Plateau of South Kivu, close to the Burundi-Congo-Rwanda border and were there for over 500 years. In 1924, more groups of Tutsi migrants added into the highlands of South Kivu, where they were later joined, from 1959 to 1962 by successive waves of Tutsi refugees fleeing persecution.[26] Its use has been controversial, but since the late 1990s, following the Rwanda Genocide, it has been used by Congolese Tutsi, formally known as Banyarwanda (people of Rwanda) to avoid being seen as foreigners.

The Banyamulenge have an ambiguous political and social position in Congo, which has been an issue of contention with other ethnic groups. They played a key role in the run-up to the First Congo War in 1996-7 and Second Congo War of 1998-2003.


  1. "Tutsi". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. 1 2 Collins English Dictionary
  3. Gourevitch, Philip (2000). We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Reprint ed.). London; New York, N.Y.: Picador. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-330-37120-9.
  4. Leatherman, Janie. Breaking Cycles of Violence: Conflict Prevention in Intrastate Crises. p. 142.
  5. 1 2 http://orvillejenkins.com/peoples/tutsiandhutu.html
  6. International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, Africa, Volume 76, (Oxford University Press., 2006), pg 135.
  7. Josh Kron, "Shooting star of the continent", Haaretz, 14 September 2010, accessed 14 September 2010
  8. Philip Gourevitch,We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. 1998.
  9. http://www.preventgenocide.org/edu/pastgenocides/rwanda/indangamuntu.htm
  10. Luis, J. R.; et al. (2004). "The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations". American Journal of Human Genetics. 74 (3): 532–544. doi:10.1086/382286. PMC 1182266Freely accessible. PMID 14973781.
  11. Trombetta, B;; et al. (2015). "Phylogeographic refinement and large scale genotyping of human Y chromosome haplogroup E provide new insights into the dispersal of early pastoralists in the African continent.". Oxford Journals. 7: 1940–1950. doi:10.1093/gbe/evv118. ()
  12. Henn, B;; et al. (2008). "Y-chromosomal evidence of a pastoralist migration through Tanzania to southern Africa.". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105: 10693–8. doi:10.1073/pnas.0801184105. PMC 2504844Freely accessible. PMID 18678889.
  13. Joseph C. Miller (ed.), New Encyclopedia of Africa, Volume 2, Dakar-Hydrology, Charles Scribner's Sons (publisher).
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  15. Berg, Irwin M. "Jews in Central Africa". Kulanu Highlights. Retrieved 2010-03-17.
  16. Michael Bowen, Passing by;: The United States and genocide in Burundi, 1972, (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1973), p. 49
  17. René Lemarchand, Selective genocide in Burundi (Report - Minority Rights Group; no. 20, 1974)
  18. Rene Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide (New York: Woodrow Wilson Center and Cambridge University Press, 1996)
    • Edward L. Nyankanzi, Genocide: Rwanda and Burundi (Schenkman Books, 1998)
  19. Christian P. Scherrer, Genocide and crisis in Central Africa: conflict roots, mass violence, and regional war; foreword by Robert Melson. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002
  20. Weissman, Stephen R."Preventing Genocide in Burundi Lessons from International Diplomacy", United States Institute of Peace
  21. Christian Davenport and Allan Stam, "Rwanda 1994: Genocide + Politicide"
  22. International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi: Final Report, Part III: Investigation of the Assassination. Conclusions at USIP.org
  23. Totten, p. 331
  24. International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi (2002)
  25. 1 2 Fage, John. A History of Africa. Routledge. p. 120. ISBN 1317797272. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  26. La nationalité des banyamulenge dans le processus de paix et de réconciliation nationale (French)
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