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Tutsi and Chwezi:  History and Pre-History
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I had some correspondence with a reader interested in the relationship of the Tutsi to the Chwezi Empire of the 1200s-1300s.  He was querying the relationship of the related Bantu languages of the region and the waves of immigrants or invaders speaking other languages.

This led to a focus on the historical depth of the timeline involved if we want to seriously understand the dynamics of the conflict and cooperation in the Great Lakes area of Africa in recent years.

The correspondent points out that the Tutsis derived from one of the ruling families in the Chwezi dynasty.  And he rightly noted that the Chwezi royalty and nobility were Bantu speakers.

The Chwezi dynasty ruled a large empire that spanned the Great Lakes region.  We know that it collapsed under the invasion of the Babito, thought to be an invading warrior people from the north likely in the 1500s-1600s.  (Dates vary in the literature, since dates are estimates based on analysis of various traditional oral histories of the various peoples and other factors from the disciplines.)

These Bito (or Babito with the Bantu prefix for people) are generally thought to be a Nilotic people.  These Babito later merged into the Bantu-speaking local population in the upper Great Lakes area of Southwestern Uganda and Eastern Zaire (Democratic of the Congo).

Related clans or lineages of these Nilotes retain slightly different forms of the same Nilotic speech: Acholi, Lang'i, Luo, Lwoo and related in central and northern Uganda and Kenya, all the way back into the Sudan. These various forms of Nilotic speech are much more similar than the still strikingly-similar Bantu languages in the region, consistent with the later historical depth of the Luo/Lwoo speech.

With my limited command of the Luo language, even I could hear and interact with Lang'i and Acholi speakers.  I could read their New Testaments, even where I could not understand much of their speech.  They could understand my Luo.

Under the force of the Nilotic Bito invading from the north, the ruling family and nobility of Chwezi scattered in different directions.  Various names we know related to this dispersal are Nyambo (Tanzania), Hinda and Kiga (Southern Uganda), Nyiginya, Bega, Tutsi and others (Rwanda and Burundi), Basoni (Burundi) and others (Zaire/DRC).  Some include the Ganda and related tribes as well, on the northern banks of Lake Victoria/Nyanza.

Many historical sources are available for the details of this scenario and studies of the individual kingdoms that developed out of this dispersal.  The names are associated now with various tribal identities in the area, but investigations seems to indicate a general awareness among these peoples that these were and are related peoples or clans.

The Bantu languages across the Lakes area are all similar and show ancient relationships.  The linguistic affinity of the Bantu group derives from an apparent ancestral speech form, from before the time of Christ.  Comparative and Historical Linguistics is one of the disciplines and tools specialists and historians have used to reconstruct the prehistory of the peoples and the region, along with oral traditions, which are critical sources.

The Chwezi dynasty scattered under the onslaught of the Nilotic Babito probably around the 1500s-1600s AD.  The fleeing nobility retreated, as my correspondent put it, “to the distant parts of the fallen empire.”

The name Tutsi referred to one group of these Chwezi nobility who fled the Bito.  I have not seen definitive studies and evidence on the historical origin of the name Tutsi.  This Bito invasion, however, happened late in the cultural and ethnic history of the Great Lakes region.

When we discuss a possible immigration of Cushite settlers or conquerors in the region, we are thinking of the early time before the establishment of the great Hima-Chwezi Empire we know of in the recent modern era (16th century).  The literature on oral traditions and language-culture analysis has indicated about a possible original Cushite migration from the east.

Much pre-history can be reconstructed from oral traditions.  During the decades I lived in East Africa, there were many publications of oral histories, traditional wisdom and legends.

The University of Nairobi sent out graduate students and scholars all over the region to gather this precious ancient cultural wisdom before it was lost in the traumatic change of culture Africa was experiencing in the face of modernization.  Unfortunately, most of these publications went out of print.  Others are hard to get outside of Africa.

I bought, read, analyzed and compared these works, probing the history and culture of East Africa.  I discussed these matters with my personal friends and cultural informants, formal and informal.  I wanted to understand the history and culture of the peoples of East Africa.

I was also engaged in training foreigners in the techniques of worldview investigation and understanding of ethnic history of the people among whom they would living and working.  I worked to present and design training for Christian agencies who had stringent requirements for cultural competency and language skill as a criterion for their work among the peoples of Africa.

Bantu Chwezi
For perspective, let's consider the social and related political situation of the Chwezi Empire at the time of the Lwoo (Bito) invasion.  (Also, there are aspects of that incursion which seem to have been gradual and peaceful, as well as the more sudden, militant aspect that no doubt was necessary to dislodge the Chwezi dynasty and their supporting nobility.)

The language of the affected peoples would have long been Bantu by the time the Babito came.  The earlier elite groups that seem to have come centuries earlier from the Cushite east or the north, would have been culturally and linguistically integrated by this time.

Linguistic studies indicate that every incoming wave adopted the speech of their Bantu-speaking subjects.  But it appears that the ruling dynasty would maintaining their privileged noble social status, until overthrown by a new invader or usurper people.  The Lwoo-speaking invaders are the last great wave, thus players in comparatively recent history, according to the oral histories I have had access to.

Bantu Origins
For further perspective, here is the historical scenario we have in mind.  The ancestors of what we now know as Bantu-speaking peoples are commonly referred to as Proto-Bantu.  The Bantu peoples were still settling in this area in their own migration from only a few centuries before, some say as late as 300-500 BC.  You see, this is 1600-2000 years before the Bito invasion.

These proto-Bantu, speaking closely related forms of speech, were involved in continuing waves of movement.  This seems to be the common pattern around the Great Lakes and the mountains of central and eastern Africa.  So the mix of migrants developed in multiple historical and cultural layers.  It was gradual and continual.

The details are still hidden in pre-history.  The specialists and technical analysts try to spin out the best possibilities and most likely picture from archaeology and oral traditions.  The Bantu strata is the earliest I am aware of except for the San who were across this whole area, apparently, before the migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples.  The two oldest languages (Hadza and Sandawe) of the San group, now found mostly in southern Africa, are still spoken in northern Tanzania.

The primary evidence of Cushitic speech I have seen is found by analysts in the Bantu speech of the peoples around the lakes, which indicates an understructure or cultural stream.  We can watch for further reports from ongoing analysis and new insights yielded by the specialists that can sharpen and modify our various views from those clues into history in the language.

These dispersing groups fleeing the Babito attacks were retreating to other areas where similar Bantu language was already spoken.  The Bantu language integration was centuries earlier, maybe 1000-1500 years earlier.  Remnants of the Cushite language lives on in certain cultural terms.  Technical discussions of this exist in various sources, online and in print.

Two recent authors summarize the process of these various layers of settlement, up to the coming of the Babito and their cultural and linguistic absorption into the conquered Bantu-speaking peoples they came to rule.

Starting with the "Southern" Nilotes, the earliest Nilotic wave in the southward migration, they explain:

"The linguistic evidence indicates that these Southern Nilotes, pushing down the Rift, experienced close contacts with the previously settled Cushite, and considerable intermingling took place.  The Southern Nilotes were followed in their turn by their linguistic cousins the Eastern Nilotes, who also came south along the Rift corridor in the early centuries AD. ...

   "By this time the Bantu-speaking peoples had also begun to push into the eastern parts of Eastern Africa.  A complex process of interaction between the various northern immigrants and the Bantu began.  In the process, most of the Cushite speakers, as well as the hunting communities [San and perhaps others], were absorbed. ...

   "By the fourteenth century AD, the traditions claim that the [legendary god-kings] the Abatembuzi were supplanted by a new dynasty, the Abachwezi, pastoralists from the north, whose original linguistic affiliation is unknown and who are today represented by the Tutsi of Rwanda and Burundi."*

You can see from this what I was saying about their being several layers of immigration and absorption.  These authors conclude with the linguistic finale of all this when the Babito become established as the last major layer of incoming migrants of various ethnic origins.

"The final major influx of migrants into East Africa was yet another group of Nilotic speakers from the north, the Lwoo.  Pushing into Uganda around 1450, the Lwoo Babito dynasty supplanted the Abachwezi.  The coming of the Lwoo caused the disintegration of the sprawling Kitara state into a number of new yet still highly centralized kingdoms, such as Bunyoro and Buganda."*

The Babito who settled in western Uganda took up the local Bantu language.  Martin and O'Meara conclude:
"Like the Abachwezi before them, the Babito kings quickly abandoned their Nilotic languages in favor of Bantu speech."*

This, then, was a series of waves of immigration, all of which found their accommodation to the dominant established language in the area, some form of Bantu speech.  The conqueror was conquered by the speech and generally by the culture of the conquered!

When I originally addressed this topic, it was specifically in regard to the genocide in Rwanda.  It was the specific current local situation that led to this discussion, so naturally Rwanda-Burundi was the region from which the discussion progressed outward in geography and backward in history.

Thus the current terms "Hutu" and "Tutsi" were and are necessarily the operative terms. I have discussed elsewhere how colonial attitudes and procedures created a new dynamic of division and animosity into the already complex social equation.

But the colonialists did not make up these terms.  They found them in the setting.  These had arisen among the people.  Oral traditions, archaeology, historical linguistics and other scientific endeavors have enabled specialists to probe the past and consider possibilities for understanding the people in their own terms.

The Rwanda government has had a task force working on this since the reconstruction in recent years.  A colleague of mine has been a member of that team, collecting all relevant manuscripts, old publications and transcriptions of oral traditions.  There is a museum dedicated to this quest.

Thus we work backward from our present time, drawing on more authoritative specialist sources to reconstruct the past of peoples who have no written history.  

The original Chwezi Empire was already established in a broad area, it seems, before the comparatively late Babito invasion.  The refugees from the brunt of the frontal assault fled to the less affected areas of the old Empire, and there arose in those areas less connected local hegemonies that developed into more powerful centralized kingdoms as they reconsolidated.  We depend on specialists, of course, with their more comprehensive and refined view, to clarify some of these details.

I appreciate those who specialize in this topic and can give attention to the original sources, who can interpret and sift oral traditions that are so critical to draw out a more comprehensive understanding of the complex cultural history of the Lakes area.

The abstract application of any simple rule about conquerors always imposing their language, however, is quite problematic, as we can see from the scenario above.  The Bito Lwoo speakers merged with the conquered to become part of the Bantu language stream and became part of the ethnicities they conquered, leaving primarily the political structures as their heritage.

Conquered Conquerors
There are situations where conquerors imposed their language, but it less common.  If you look over the breadth of history and peoples, it is common to see situations where conquerors have taken up the language of the people they conquered.  In fact it tends to be the general rule.

An excellent example is found in the largest people of Eastern Africa, the Kikuyu in Central Kenya.  I lived for most of 25 or so years.  I learned their language and studied their history and traditions.  The Kikuyu are a mélange making up a Bantu-speaking people.  But their own oral traditions, language analysis and a reconstruction of their cultural history are consistent in pointing out that there were many other cultural sources that moved in from other areas, some more peaceful than others.

But these incoming peoples, as well as what seems to be a previous Cushitic people already there, speak a Bantu speech very similar to other forms of speech in the region.  Neighbouring peoples also have traditions of Cushitic or Nilotic peoples coming in.  The language and cultural history of most peoples of the world is very complex like this.

A similar pattern occurred with the Maya in Central America, where incoming Aztec (Nahuatl) speakers moved in aggressively but took up the language of the locals, and finally became a clan of the Maya, helping them in defense against later Aztec clans coming against their territory from farther north.

Elsewhere we find similar situations.  

The Germanic tribes marauding into Europe from the northeast and coming down into the Roman Empire (areas now Turkey westward to Spain) all commonly accepted the local language.  In the less-populous northern areas they tended to keep their Germanic dialects.

The Franks are a great example.  They learned Latin, and became Roman in outward culture.  Their culture and language became what we know as French, and their Latin Frankish language became the common language of Europe.

The Romans learned Greek and wrote their documents and literature in that language until late in the first century of the Christian era, when they began writing more formal works in Latin.  Greek was the language of administration of the Roman Empire.

English – A Double Transition
The Normans (Northmen, a group of the Germanic Vikings) conquered an area of territory of the Franks, who the earlier Germanic people who had already given up their Germanic language for Latin.  The Normans took up Frankish Latin (French) and gave up their German language.  In 1066, a Norman Duke conquered Great Britain, ruled by the Saxons and Danes, and they used their own Frankish Latin (French) for administration.

Their French language affected the language of the Saxons, which came to be known as English.  The Saxon nobles had to learn French to interact with their new Norman lords, and many terms entered the speech of the common people too.  But finally the Normans became more English than French, partly because of the constant wars with the Franks for territories on the continent.

Norman French died out in favor of English, changed and updated, sturdy, stubborn and strong with the incorporated Norman-French terms, usages and concepts.  Thus the Normans, a great conquering people who ruled the English territories from 1066 until about 1765, gradually gave up their Norman French language in favor of English, after they had already replaced their Viking language with the French of the people they had conquered in Europe.

Changing Languages
These are only a few common examples of conquerors taking up the language and culture of the people they conquered.  Numerous examples are on record from various continents.  

Sometimes the language of the conquerors prevails, sometimes the language of the conquered prevails.  There are many factors that determine this.  

We just have to investigate each case and see what actually happened.  No universal rule can determine that a conqueror cannot learn the language of the conquered.  We investigate and find it has happened over and over again in the history of humanity.

Everywhere you want to look, human culture is rich and complex.  The range of human history entails mixes and mélanges of various human populations moving from one area to another due to various causes, some natural some human.  It is sad that histories and facts can be distorted and twisted for venial purposes, and false conclusions drawn either because of irresponsibility or malice.

I am grieved by the simplistic distortions that occur because people draw conclusions or make accusations without really seeking all the facts.  And the terminology used can be a problem.

We get caught in a quandary, don’t we, trying to find ways to honestly look at the facts of the matter, while searching for ways to defuse the emotional prejudices to sort through all the dynamics.  It is hard to decide at times what to say or how much to say without getting bogged down or confused with details.

But I love to study and analyze, in the hope of facilitating an honest mutual understanding among humans of different cultures, clan and continents.
*Phyllis Martin, Patrick O'Meara, Africa Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 1995), p 92.

Related on this Site:
Anything But Ordinary (Paul Rusesabagina)
Hima, Ham and Cush
The Hima People of Eastern Africa
How Did the Tutsi Conquer?
The Nyankore of Uganda
Sandawe Cultural Profile
The Tutsi People – Blog
Tutsi, Hutu and Hima – Cultural Background in Rwanda
Tutsi, Hutu and Germans
Tutsis – the Ethiopia-Somalia Connection
What is a People Group

Related on the Internet:
Babito, Bachwezi and Tutsi, Africa, by Phyllis Martin and Patrick O'Meara
Bachwezi-Babito History – Hartford Archives
Barack Obama's ancestry: The Lwoo Babito dynasty
Bunyoro-Kitara Virtual Museum
The Hima Peoples
Kingdoms of Uganda
Nyankore-Hima:  PeopleGroups.org
Nyankore:  Ethnologue
The Origins of the Wanga Kingdom
What is an Ethnic Group?


First thoughts composed in an email exchange 10 March 2011
Article developed for Thoughts and Resources 13 March 2011
Last updated 15 May 2015

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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