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Interlacustrine states

Traditional political societies in East Africa

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Burundi

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Congo

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UN War Crimes Tribunal, Arusha

Interlacustrine states
The area of the north, west and southwestern shores of Lake Victoria as far as Lake Kivu and the eastern parts of Congo-Kinshasa were inhabited by a group of kingdoms where the languages were closely related varieties of Bantu. The largest of course was Buganda, followed by Rwanda and Burundi. As well as these three large kingdoms were several smaller ones: Ankole, Bunyoro, Butoro, Buhaya (in Tanzania).

Until recently the conventional historians' explanation (see Oxford History of East Africa) for the situation in these countries was:
In all these kingdoms a population of Bantu-speaking peasants had been conquered in the 14th or 15th century by a cattle herding people, believed to have been of Nilotic language, perhaps from the Ethiopian area or Sudan. The result was a feudal aristocracy descended from the cattle herders, the Tutsi, and a peasantry descended from the original Bantu speakers, the Hutu. All the aristocrats now speak the language of the peasants. (This has some similarities with the experience of the English, invaded by French speaking Normans in 1066.)

This theory may now be discredited as DNA evidence tends to disprove a northern origin for the Tutsis.

This theory may have originated with the early Europeans in the area, seeing what they thought was an analogy to English experience when they were invaded by French-speaking Normans, founding a hereditary ruling aristocracy. In fact the scholars who proposed this conventional theory may have been projecting on to what they were seeing their own, English, history when perhaps the explanation for the Hutu-Tutsi social structure may have been quite different. Genetic evidence shows the trace of a gene in the Tutsi that is not found in the area to the north. In any case there has never been any evidence for a non-Bantu language. The conventional historians have been unable to show this linguistic evidence - after all, the English language is full of the evidence of the 200 hundred years of French dominance, so that it is reasonable to expect that some words of a non-bantu origin might still be found in these languages.

This discussion may be politically important as much of the quasi-fascist Hutu ideology depends on this notion that the Tutsi are descendants of ancient "invaders". But maybe they are just a local aristocracy. No doubt too the Hutu fascists were influenced by stories of the French Revolution they heard about in the schools. Many of the French aristocracy were killed during the Reign of Terror.

Thus a speculative theory has had catastrophic results - in the civil wars and disturbances of the whole area of Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern parts of the Congo. In Burundi and Rwanda the notion of an "aristocracy" became the basis of first German and then Belgian rule in these territories and thus affected the life of everyone in these countries.

On the whole the British in Uganda did not apply the theory so that a distinct aristocracy was not recognised - apart from the theory and practice of indirect rule that led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Buganda and the smaller kingdoms as part of the government of colonial Uganda. The Buganda aristocracy seem to be well integrated into society (though President Museveni is from the Ankolan equivalent of the Tutsi).

In 2009 there have been demonstrations to restore the Kabaka of Buganda.

Useful Reading

Roland Oliver & Gervase Mathew - Oxford History of East Africa Volume 1 (OUP) 1963


History of East Africa: v. 1


Kenneth Ingham A History of East Africa (Longman)1965


A History of East Africa. With maps, and plates


History of East Africa

The author has been a graduate student at Makerere University in Uganda.

Last revised2/02/11


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