Intermarriage per se does not justify symbiotic ethnic relationship

Any conversation about the Great Lakes region of Africa is likely to touch on ethnic relations. During my mission (January/February 2010) to DRC, Burundi and Rwanda ethnic issues came up in the three countries. Those who argue that there are no ethnic problems resort to using intermarriage as a justification. While in Burundi, the topic of extensive intermarriage came up at times when it was out of context.

In Uganda senior officials have endorsed the institution of intermarriage as a national unifying factor. And we should applaud that. But we need to examine the kind of intermarriage that has occurred between Batutsi/Bahima and Bahutu/Bairu in the region to be able to determine whether that is the model we should promote.

I will be brief because I have written on the subject several times. Let me stress at the outset that I support the institution of intermarriage but it has to be a two way relationship between ethnic groups to be meaningful and unifying. It also has to be combined with other considerations such as social interaction and equal access to opportunities by all ethnic groups based on merit. A few illustrative examples will be used about intermarriages and other social relations that have taken place so far.

Regarding Rwanda intermarriages let us see what Jacques Maquet Oxford and Harvard educated professor of Athropology has written. “Marriages across the caste [ethnic] line were exceptional, in the sense that they were rare and in the sense that they were due to special circumstances which indicated who was assimilated to the spouse’s caste. If a rich Hutu dear to his Tutsi lord was granted by the latter a Tutsi girl … as a wife, their children were likely to be considered as Tutsi, and their grandchildren almost certainly (if the ‘children’ marry Tutsi, of course). If a Hutu marries a Tutsi girl who for some reason has not been able to find a Tutsi husband (because of some physical disability, or because she has already had a child – which was very objectionable in Rwanda where girls were supposed to remain virgins up to marriage – or because her father has lost the trust of the king) and who lives with her husband cultivating a plot as a Hutu wife would do, their children will be considered Hutu. If an important Tutsi takes a Hutu girl as one of his wives – because she meets his fancy [extremely rare] – he will oblige others to consider her children as Tutsi. If a Tutsi who has lost his cattle, and for some reason pertaining to a serious offense he has committed cannot obtain the protection of a lord, marries a Hutu girl and lives near his wife’s father, their children will be Hutu. As these four examples indicate, there is no general rule for intercaste [interethnic] marriages, except perhaps this one: children will be considered Tutsi if the marriage constitutes a social promotion for the Hutu spouse and Hutu if it marks the downfall of the Tutsi spouse” (Arthur Tuden and Leonard Plotnicov, 1970).

Tutsi and Hima men till now have resisted marrying Bahutu and Bairu women not because the women are short, ugly and/or unintelligent but because as Kevin Shillington (1989) put it “They avoided intermarriage [and still do] and by keeping themselves distinct they managed, in time, to establish a position of domination over the majority peasant [Bahutu and Bairu (slaves or servants)] cultivators of the [Great Lakes] region”.

As Bahutu and Bairu men gained education, wealth and political power, Tutsi and Hima came up with a strategy of keeping the former dominated. They have encouraged their Batutsi and Bahima women to marry Bahutu and Bairu men with political potential who are then absorbed into Tutsi and Hima social class as junior partners on condition they cut off connections with Bairu and Bahutu peasant cultivators, leaving the latter leaderless and vulnerable. In other words they become ‘Tutsified’. These examples represent what has and is happening in the Great Lakes region since independence in the 1960s. Does this kind of intermarriage measure up to a symbiotic relationship?

There are other examples that work against ethnic symbiosis and in fact promote antagonism. First, because of ethnic hierarchy irrespective of ones status such as wealth, Hutu and Tutsi did not eat or drink together. Or a Hutu was not allowed to look at the mouth of the Tutsi when the latter was eating. Strict segregation was maintained during social occasions leading to superior and inferior categories: Tutsi being superior and Hutu inferior with the latter tending to imitate the symbols of higher societies like speaking accent. A Tutsi was a potential ruler whereas a Hutu had no chance. Further, because a Tutsi had cattle and was a warrior, he inspired respect in his Hutu neighbors, and they would not dare to refuse a service when asked such as agricultural produce or the right to graze his cattle on Hutu land with a possibility of destroying the latter’s crops.

Second, in the area of the military you will hear stories that Hutu participated in the king’s army. Yes they did but largely as providers of agricultural produce and services such as cooking and carrying luggage when there was an expedition. However, in the rare circumstances when Hutu were given an opportunity, they proved excellent fighters and even commanders!

Third, the most humiliating Hutu experience that instills resentment came during hard times such as drought and/or famine. During these times a desperate Hutu would approach his lord and beg for milk and protection. “Be my father,” he would say, “and I will be your son.” The superior, if he wished to accept his client, could give the man a cow as a mark of the relationship. When a Hutu was client and a Tutsi chief his patron, he [Hutu] was expected to give service and royal support” (Philip Curtain et al., 1996).

We are beginning to see the emergence of signs of this relationship between the poor and the rich in the Great Lakes region. You have to beg and make all kinds of promises to get a job, promotion or some kind of hand out from those who hold political power and economic means. This does not represent a symbiotic relationship. We need to do more to pass the test.