Beyond Tribalism: The Hutu-Tutsi Question and Catholic Rhetoric in Colonial Rwanda

In: Journal of Religion in Africa
J.J. Carney Department of Theology, Creighton University Omaha, NE, USA

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Post genocide commentaries on colonial Rwandan history have emphasized the centrality of the Hamitic Hypothesis in shaping Catholic leaders’ sociopolitical imagination concerning Hutu and Tutsi identities. For most scholars, the resulting racialist interpretation of Hutu and Tutsi categories poisoned Rwandan society and laid the groundwork for postcolonial ethnic violence. This paper challenges the simplicity of this standard narrative. Not only did colonial Catholic leaders possess a complex understanding of the terms ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’, but the Hutu-Tutsi question was not the exclusive or even dominant paradigm of late colonial Catholic discourse. Even after the eruption of Hutu-Tutsi tensions in the late 1950s, Catholic bishops and lay elites continued to interpret the Hutu-Tutsi distinction in a wide variety of ways. Catholic attitudes and the escalation of Hutu-Tutsi tensions stemmed more from contextual political factors than immutable anthropological theories, however flawed.

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