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The Poisoned Country

Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology, Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania

by Liisa H. Malkki
University of Chicago Press, 374 pp., $21.50 (paper)

In Burundi do the tall ones kill the short ones or the short ones kill the tall ones? I know Burundi does one thing and Ruanda the other.

Shiva Naipaul, North of South: An African Journey

1.

Wherever you go in Rwanda and Burundi—to a private house, a bar, a government office, a refugee camp—drinks are served with the bottle caps on, and opened only before the eyes of the drinker. It is a ritual that honors the fear of poison. An open bottle is unacceptable. When, as with the potent banana beer which is drunk in quantity in rural areas, a drink comes unbottled from a common pot, or when a drink is to be shared, the provider must take the first sip—like a food taster in a medieval court—to prove that it is safe.

Tales of poisonings punctuate the lore of pre-colonial and colonial Rwanda and Burundi. Indeed, Marc Vincent, a pediatrician from Brussels who practiced in the Belgian colony of Ruanda-Urundi during the early 1950s, observed that the locals tended to regard poisoning or sorcery as the main cause of fatal illness. In his monograph L’Enfant au Ruanda-Urundi, Vincent recalls overhearing a very sick ten-year-old Burundian boy tell his father, “When I die, you must see who poisoned me.” And an eight-year-old boy told Vincent, “Yes, death exists, but all those who die here, it’s not ordinary death, it’s sorcery. When you spit on the ground, one takes your saliva, one takes the dust on which you walked. My parents told me to watch out.” Such attitudes, Vincent reports, pervaded all levels of society.

Family hatreds and vendettas were extremely tenacious and members of enemy families would not risk casually to drink beer at each other’s homes. One chief of Urundi, young and raised in European ways, genuinely disengaged from the Bantu beliefs, told me one day: “We can’t ignore these family enmities…just as you see me, I wouldn’t dare to go drink or eat with old Tutsis, or the elders of an enemy family, because I know that they are capable of slipping me some poison. Yet, if you saw me meeting them in public, you could take us for the best friends in the world, so completely would they and I speak civilities and politeness.” This declaration is not unique, and must be taken to reflect the exact situation. The natives see poisoners everywhere.1

Even today, after the most extreme political violence in all of post-colonial Africa, Rwandans and Burundians still frequently blame invisible poisoners when the deaths of public figures cannot be otherwise explained. Poison, then, takes on the quality of a metaphor for societies in which there must be little expectation of a natural end. When death is the work of enemies, distrust and subterfuge are the means of survival, and politics itself can become a poison.

We saw the effects of this poison in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994, when Hutus were provoked by their leaders to slaughter at least 800,000 and perhaps as many as one million people from the Tutsi minority, as well as tens of thousands of Hutus who were perceived as enemies of the extermination program. Now a host of voices—in the UN, the State Department, humanitarian aid groups, and the press—warn that Burundi, which has the same mix as Rwanda (roughly 85 percent Hutu, 14 percent Tutsi, and 1 percent Twa pygmies), is also at risk of erupting into a frenzy of genocidal mass killing. As René Lemarchand’s lucid political history of Burundi makes clear, it would not be the first time; the poison of “ethnic” violence has already claimed the lives of as many as half a million Burundians since the country gained independence from Belgium in 1962. Fighting between the Tutsi-dominated military and an increasingly well-armed and tightly organized Hutu insurgency claimed around one thousand lives a month in 1995, and the situation is rapidly deteriorating. Reports that twenty Hutu civilians were killed on May 5 by Tutsi soldiers or militias in northern Burundi followed accounts of a massacre on April 26 of 234 Hutu civilians in the Gitega district of central Burundi, including 137 women and 87 children. At the end of April, one of the main roads into the capital city of Bujumbura—now an “ethnically cleansed” Tutsi enclave ringed by Hutu rebels—was closed for three days because of land mines laid by rebel insurgents. The murder of political officials has become an almost daily occurrence. Staff members of three international humanitarian relief agencies which have not already left Burundi are frequently attacked. As Iwrite, Bujumbura is without electricity and has been for the past week, and there is a severe water shortage. In response to Hutu rebel activities, Antoine Nduwayo, the country’s Tutsi prime minister, recently urged his young followers “not to hesitate to destroy people they would qualify as suspects.”

Lemarchand, a French-born political scientist, has been tracking the conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis since 1960, two years before Rwanda and Burundi gained independence from Belgian colonial rule. The central question he has been forced to confront is how these two countries, which are unique among modern sub-Saharan African states in having existed as cohesive political societies, more or less within their current borders, for centuries before colonialism, have recently produced the continent’s most unambiguously genocidal politics.

The precise origins of Hutus and Tutsis have never been reliably established. According to the prevailing legend, Hutus are a Bantu people who settled the Great Lakes Region of central Africa well before the Tutsis arrived, migrating, it is supposed, from Ethiopia or elsewhere in the horn of Africa four or five hundred years ago. Hutus were cultivators and Tutsis were cattle-herders, and this appears to be the main indisputable distinction between the two groups, apart from their different, but highly variable, physical characteristics. By the time anything like a reliable historical record can begin to be cited, around the early to mid-nineteenth century, Hutus and Tutsis had developed a common culture. They shared the same languages (Kirundi in Burundi, Kinyarwanda in Rwanda), the same spirit faiths, folk customs, political institutions, and cuisine, and they lived intermingled, with few territorial disputes and without taboos against intermarriage. For these reasons, they cannot properly be said to fit the anthropological definition of separate tribes or ethnic groups.

Rwanda and Burundi, moreover, had been organized as separate political entities before the colonial period. In Rwanda, Tutsis emerged as the dominant monarchical clans and the economic elite. In Burundi, the picture was more complex: the monarchs came from a dynastic lineage known as the ganwa, who were distinct from Hutu and Tutsi and regarded them both as collectively inferior. Frequent feuding among rival ganwa clans kept any single king from consolidating his power. In addition, there were two classes of Tutsis in Burundi—the Banyaruguru, known colloquially as the “high Tutsis,” and the Hima, or “low Tutsis”—and poor Tutsis often found themselves subservient to wealthy Hutus. Under the circumstances, Lemarchand writes, “Even the most superficial reading of Burundi’s precolonial history reveals unmistakable evidence of widespread social discontent; yet seldom does it express itself in the form of a sharp and persistent Hutu-Tutsi opposition.”

Then the Europeans came—Germans in the last years of the nineteenth century, and Belgians after World War I—bringing with them the fiction of “race science” in a particularly ludicrous form, the so-called “Hamitic hypothesis,” which posited that Tutsis are the lost tribe of Ham, a tall, beautiful master race, and that Hutus are a slavish Negroid sub-species. To be sure, despite intermarriage and social mobility, Hutus and Tutsis had, to varying degrees, retained their distinctive physical characteristics, and although these attributes are a notoriously unreliable means of identification, the Europeans imagined a logical correspondence between the shapes of their bodies and their status. Marc Vincent expressed the conventional wisdom of his day when he described Tutsis as “nobles”—slow-moving, lazy, “slender,” “fine featured,” “diplomats and sophisticates”—and Hutus as their “feudal vassals”—stocky, coarse, “poor, loutish, dirty and ill-clad.”

This was the myth with which the Belgians helped to create tribal divisions in the territory they administered as Ruanda-Urundi. They pursued a policy of divide-and-rule and imposed an apartheid-style system that dismantled the traditional monarchical structures which had maintained considerable social cohesion in the country. Under the Belgians, “ethnic” identity cards were issued, and Tutsis were favored for educational, professional, and political opportunities. However much Tutsis may have exploited their privileged status, as Lemarchand makes clear, it was “the European colonizer who introduced this vector of disunity,” thereby writing “the script” for the political polarization and violence that filled the vacuum of power that was created when the Belgians left the country to self-rule.

On October 13, 1961, on the eve of independence from Belgium, the man who had emerged from legislative elections as Burundi’s prime minister designate, Prince Louis Rwagasore—a son of Burundi’s last ganwa king, Mwambutsa, and a nationalist much loved by both Hutus and Tutsis—was assassinated at a restaurant overlooking Lake Tanganyika. The gunman was a Greek named Jean Kageorgis, who was later discovered to have been hired by two sons of Mwambutsa’s leading rival to the throne, Pierre Baranyanka. In January 1963, the two brothers and three co-conspirators were hanged before a crowd of about ten thousand spectators in Bujumbura by order of the high court of the Republic.

Throughout the colonial period, the would-be king, Baranyanka, had allied himself with the Belgian administrators against Mwambutsa, Prince Rwagasore’s father, and he had become an advocate of Tutsi supremacy. Conversely, many Hutus gravitated toward the view that Mwambutsa was their true champion—a “just king” thwarted by the colonial system. With independence, as organized party politics developed, the old princely rivalries took a different form and Rwagasore’s murder quickly acquired “ethnic” overtones.2 Moreover, the shadow of Rwanda’s bloody Hutu revolution of 1959-1962, in which tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred and hundreds of thousands were driven into exile, fell heavily on Burundi, making Tutsis particularly distrustful of Hutu advances.

Rwagasore’s assassination, then, set the pattern for an all-engulfing Jacobean drama of infighting among Burundi’s new political elites, who increasingly pursued their quest for power by exploiting ethnic divisions. By 1963, with “the National Assembly split down the middle between Hutu and Tutsi, and the government almost paralyzed,” King Mwambutsa attempted to become a broker between the parties. But his efforts were short-lived.

In January 1965, Pierre Ngendandumwe, a Hutu, was appointed prime minister by King Mwambutsa, only to be gunned down three days later by Tutsi extremists. Ngendandumwe’s killing set off a new round of unrest, which led to a coup attempt late in 1965 by Hutu military officers. Tutsi officers immediately launched a successful counter-coup, seizing control of the previously integrated military, purging Hutu officers, arresting virtually every Hutu leader in Bujumbura, and executing a great many of them. The Tutsi repression, according to Lemarchand, resulted in “the physical elimination of the entire first generation of Hutu leaders,” and as many as ten thousand Hutu deaths nationwide. In 1966, a Tutsi army officer, Captain Michel Micombero, abolished the monarchy and established himself as president. Micombero’s consolidation of power in a Tutsi-dominated military dictatorship has continued to define Burundian political life to this day. As Lemarchand writes, the specter of a “Hutu peril” was also useful in keeping a lid on intra-Tutsi struggle at the higher levels of state power.

  1. 1

    Dr. Marc Vincent, “L’enfant au Ruanda-Urundi” (Brussels: Institut Royal Colonial Belge, Section des Sciences Naturelles et Médicales, 1954).

  2. 2

    In preparing the ground for self-rule, the Belgians demonstrated blatant preference for Baranyanka’s Parti Démocrate Chrétien Tutsi supremacists, and they regarded Rwagasore’s victory as a slap in the face. Indeed, Lemarchand finds evidence that the prince’s assassination was encouraged by the Belgian administrator at Bujumbura, who is reported to have stated three weeks earlier, “Rwagasore must be killed.”

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