Looking back while moving forward in the Great Lakes Region

his article in the Wall Street Journal of February 13, 2009, Mart
Laar, former Prime Minister of Estonia, observed that “It is said
that the only thing that people learn from history is that people
learn nothing from history”. It seems that people in the Great
Lakes Region of Africa have learned nothing from the region’s

to attempt to solve the current formidable political economy
challenges in the region one has to study and draw lessons from the
history of the region if not the history of the entire continent.
According to Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle (1997), “More than
anywhere else, in Africa [and particularly in the Great Lakes
Region], the past poisons the present”.

this background, delving in the racial and ethnic history of the
Great Lakes Region – Burundi, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
(DRC), Rwanda and South West Uganda – should be welcome and not
condemned and dismissed right away as an exercise in sectarianism and

race theories and practices that still liger in the region started
with the legends of Ham and his father Noah. It is reported in the
Bible and Babylonian Talmud that Ham castrated or laughed at his
drunk and naked father. The father was so angry that he cursed Ham by
making Ham’s first son Canaan and his descendants the slaves of
others. Canaan’s descendants would also be ugly and black – the
Negroes – with kinky hair, red eyes and thick lips and would go
naked! Thus they received the double curse of slavery and blackness.

had four sons: Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan who collectively became
known as Hamites. Each one became the founder of a nation. The
nations of Cush, Mizraim and Put were located in Africa.

European scholars used the term Hamite interchangeably with black.
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German naturalist, defined black as a
person with a black skin, muscular body, thick lips, flat nose,
projecting upper jaw and black ‘curly’ hair (Richard Poe, 1999).

to the Master Race theory, the black race was inferior to the white
race. Therefore blacks – with such inferiority – had no
civilization and history of their own. They lived in a dark continent
and darkness is not a subject of history.

when Europeans visited Africa they found advanced civilizations which
– according to them – could not have been developed by blacks.
Therefore these civilizations – such as those in Egypt and East
Africa – must have been developed by white (Caucasian) invaders.

with the Master Race theories, early anthropologists came under
pressure to find a ‘non-black’ origin in East Africa’s high
civilizations. They manipulated evidence – retaining what they
wished and discarding the rest – which they elaborated in the
process of “whitening of the Hamites” that had previously been
described as black.

the end, the mysterious white settlers were firmly linked to the
Hamites who descended from Ham. The ‘curse’ of slavery and
blackness was thus lifted from them – hence the birth of the
‘Hamitic Myth’ or the white people of Africa.

his book “Races of Africa” published in 1930 Charles Gabriel
Seligman, a British anthropologist, wrote that the Hamites are
Caucasians and belong to the same great branch of mankind as almost
all Europeans. The Hamites were cattle–herding nomads and whose
warlike ways enabled them to subdue and dominate the peaceful farming
tribes of Africa.

Hamites were described as tall with thin lips and narrow, bridged
noses. The colonialists initially from aristocratic classes in Europe
identified themselves with the Hamites because they had similar
physical features and were employed as chiefs in African colonial
indirect rule.

white the Hamites were therefore superior, more intelligent and born
leaders. Charles Gabriel Seligman recorded that the Hamites were
responsible for the civilizations in Africa as the Negroes were too
primitive to embark on such progress on their own.

chapter nine of his book “Discovery of the Source of the Nile”,
John Hanning Speke elaborated on the “Hamitic Myth” and wrote
that the Wahuma (Bahima) a pastoral white clan invaded countries in
Africa, founded kingdoms including in Ankole and left the aborigines
to till the land. The Bahima imposed the epithet – a term of abuse
– of Wiru (Abairu) or slaves upon the people they found in all
areas bordering on Lake Victoria “because they had to supply the
imperial government with food and clothing” (John Hanning Speke,

or people of the same stock moved into Rwanda and Burundi where they
became Batutsi. They founded kingdoms and named the indigenous people
Bahutu, the counterpart of Bairu in Uganda. The ‘hamite’ word is
still used in parts of Uganda.

Batutsi from Rwanda who founded the short-lived Mpororo kingdom –
1650 to 1750 (other researchers record a shorter period) – became
Bahororo (the people of Mpororo) under the leadership of Bashambo

Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Batutsi there are known as

Hanning Speke depicted Bahutu and Bairu as destined for ever to serve
as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. And Christopher Ehret
added that the cattle-keeping (Bahima/Batutsi etc) were people born
to rule.

studies by anthropologists, archeologists, historians, linguists and
geneticists have all dismissed the ‘Hamitic Myth” as a mirage –
composed of wishful thinking and fudged data (R. Poe, 1999).

the stereotype of the pastoral conquering Hamite has been abandoned,
the “pervasive and pernicious myth of racial superiority [still]
lingers to this day in many subtle forms and underpins the ethnic
conflicts in the Lake Plateau [Great Lakes Region] …” (Collins
and Burns, 2007).

to Richard Poe (1999), “Even so, the Hamitic hypothesis remains
quietly influential among scholars to this day”.

Reader (1997) adds that “This hamitic myth has a long and enduring
history; indeed, the notion of a separate origin for the pastoral
elites, and their superiority over cultivators of the lakes regions,
persists to this day. The idea was reinforced by the colonial regimes
and since independence the elites themselves have seized every
opportunity to perpetuate it”.

Bahutu and Bairu are still regarded – in evasive ways – as slaves
or servants with no capacity to lead or govern. This characterization
is increasingly being resisted as more people in this group get good
education and begin to read and understand the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights and subsequent international, regional and national

I of the Declaration is instructive: “All human beings are born
free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason
and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of

these reasons, there is a good case why a study of the region’s
history by everyone – national and foreign – interested in peace,
security, harmony and prosperity for all in the Great Lakes Region is
a must so that lessons can be drawn for application as appropriate.

reiterate: “More than anywhere else, in Africa [and especially in
the Great Lakes Region] the past poisons the present”.

if we let the poisoned present continue, it will poison the future
even more. This should not be allowed to happen by all peace-loving
people of the world especially those in the region of the Great Lakes
of Africa.