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Colonial era depiction of the Tutsi as a superior Hamitic race that invaded Rwanda laid the ground for severe ethnic polarisation. This myth resurfaced in the period leading to and during the genocide of 1994

‘[…] it appears impossible to believe, judging from the physical appearance of the Wahuma [Batutsi">, that they can be of any other race than the semi− Shem−Hamitic of Ethiopia.’ John Hanning Speke, (The Discovery of the Source of the Nile, 1863, Chapter IX.) [1]

‘[…] I am telling you that your [Batutsi"> home is in Ethiopia, that we will send you by
the Nyabarongo so you can get there quickly’. Léon Mugesera (22 November, 1992, in Kabaya, Rwanda)[2]

Formulating scientific hypotheses about colonial subjects was a concomitant objective of the European conquest of Africa (Van den Bersselaar 2006). After visiting the Kingdom of Rwanda on his journey to the source of the Nile, explorer John Hanning Speke developed a hypothesis claiming that a ‘higher’ nomadic people had migrated into the interior of the continent and had subdued its ‘primitive’ inhabitants. In 1992, some 130 years later, Léon Mugesera, a staunch supporter of Rwandan President Habyarimana, revitalised this claim, inciting the country’s Bahutu to commit genocide against the Batutsi who he deemed an embodiment of those nomadic invaders.

Although this semi-scientific hypothesis has long been refuted, its racist assumptions linger and play into the dynamics of contemporary conflicts. This essay aims at assessing to what extent this ‘political myth’ has nurtured genocide ideology and prepared the ground for the systematic murder of Rwanda’s Batutsi and moderate Bahutu between April and July 1994. Most accounts treat historical misrepresentations and racist ideology as a ‘given’ in producing the genocide (Gourevitch 2000; Newbury 1998; Hintjens 2001; Des Forges 1999; Prunier 2010). Although the present paper concurs with these views, it seeks to challenge the ‘conventional wisdom’ on three accounts. First, explaining current political realities through colonial-era myths, without considering ruptures or diverging developments, is bound to deliver biased results. Second, reiterating ideology as the socio-psychological force behind the genocide trivialises the legal and ethical responsibilities of individual perpetrators.

Third, treating the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ as a unique Rwandan phenomenon runs the risk of ignoring comparative case studies which can foster a more thorough understanding of the country’s particular path to violence. To advance these arguments, the essay will proceed in the following manner. First, it will discuss theories on the social construction of antagonistic identities and trace back the origins of the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’, while outlining some of its contradictory historical developments and claims. In a second step, these insights will benefit the discussion on the hypothesis as a recurrent propagandistic tool that shapes public opinion through the media and eventually influences the actions of perpetrators. Here, some alternative views on the impact of the myth will be discussed. Last, the author will make some concluding remarks about the significance of the myth in preparing genocidal violence.


While the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ (Endlösung) became conceivable through the deep-rooted anti-Semitism in European societies (Brustein & King 2004), Rwanda’s genocidal violence could arguably thrive on an ideology known as the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’. The hypothesis attributes any technological or cultural achievement in Africa to the influence of a superior ‘northern’ race, most likely from ancient Egypt or Ethiopia, as ‘Africans’ were categorically deemed void of civilisation (Prunier 2010, 7). Europeans regarded Rwanda’s Batutsi as the descendants of those nomadic invaders who supposedly subdued their more ‘primitive’ African neighbours (i.e. the Bahutu) (Mamdani 2001, 82). Right from its inception, the hypothesis was more than a theoretical construct, but rather an ‘ideological statement, a myth motivating actions’ (Rekdal 1998, 17). Its underlying assumption – the dependency of African cultures on a more advanced deus ex machina - put Europeans in a good position to justify their mission civilisatrice and the colonial project at large. To properly capture this ideological genesis, a brief historical account is necessary.

Early expeditions to Africa were inspired by modernist and empiricist exploratory zeal, whereas indigenous people were categorised according to scientific racism (Uvin 1997, 95; see e.g. Seligman 1930). Expecting a continent of ‘savages’, German explorer Count von Götzen was bewildered when he discovered sophisticated socio-political structures and a monarchic-hierarchical ‘state’ on his arrival in Rwanda in 1894 (Von Götzen 1895, 156; Schmuhl 2000, 311). His travelogue, though exemplary for contemporary racist beliefs, conveys the zeitgeist which reaffirmed the conviction that ‘everything of value ever found in Africa was brought there by the Hamites’, a supposedly lost branch of the Caucasian ‘race’ (Sanders 1969, 521). A contemporary of von Götzen, German geographer and anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel, subsequently formulated his ‘Hirtenkriegertheorie’ (herding-warriors-hypothesis) in which he tried to prove the cultural superiority of the Batutsi (among others) on the basis of their nomadic way of life (Spöttel 1998, 131).

This interpretation of the ‘Hamitic Myth’ deviated substantially from earlier biblically-inspired versions that had classified ‘Hamites’ as ‘black savages’, ‘natural slaves’, ‘Negroes’, and as the progeny of Noah’s cursed son Ham (Sanders 1969, 532; Rottmann 1996, 54). Sanders explains these seemingly contradictory ontological claims with the growing influence of the European Enlightenment, the declining profitability of slavery in the early 1800s, and Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt which disclosed an ancient African civilisation that challenged simplistic notions of the continent’s ‘savagery’ (1969, 524-528). While previous accounts had legitimised the enslavement of black Africans on the grounds of their supposed racial inferiority (Spöttel 1998, 133), the colonial enterprise greatly gained from a race-theoretical turn that distinguished between ordinary Africans (‘Bantus’) and higher-ranking ‘Hamites’, the latter epitomising the notion of an alleged Kulturvolk[3] (a cultured people) with European ancestry.

Belgian colonialists and missionaries in Rwanda granted official status to this concept by institutionalising racial distinctions between 1927 and 1936. The introduction of identity cards, and the favourable treatment of Batutsi in education, politics and the economy, effectively cultivated social injustices (Mamdani 2001a, 87f.). Pre-colonial Bahutu and Batutsi identities, that were mostly based on status, occupation or wealth, were replaced by racialised categories and enshrined in a colonial ‘master narrative’ that was internalised by both colonisers and colonised (Jefremovas 1997, 96f.; Pels 1997, 174). Hintjens notes that prior to colonialism, ‘cross-cutting allegiances served to prevent the crystallization of anything akin to ‘ethnic’ identities’ (2001, 28). Making race the master-signifier of belonging annulled those allegiances. Indigenous identities began to compete with an externally-imposed racial categorisation.

The ‘Hamitic Myth’ gained currency not only as an ideology for keeping Bahutu ‘in their place’, as Des Forges (1995, 44) suggests, but also for rallying opposition against a perceived Tutsi domination. Mamdani’s (1996; 2001a; 2001b) approach to colonial identity emphasises political and socio-legal elements, such as histories of discrimination and the creation of bifurcated colonial citizenship, whereas Appadurai (2006) champions a socio-psychological understanding of mutual ‘Othering’ that relies on the social invocation of myths. Both explanatory models are inseparably intertwined, and shed light on different development phases of the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’. By stressing the functionality of ideology and ‘fear’ during various genocides, Appadurai (2006) makes his theory generally applicable. In contrast, Mamdani (2001a) traces back the specific roots of Batutsi-Bahutu relations and puts the genesis of the above narrative into a local historical perspective. Appadurai’s thesis lacks this insight and therefore fails to adequately grasp the Rwandan conundrum. Other than in Nazi Germany, where Jews were neither historically privileged (on the contrary), nor posed an objective threat to state order at any point in time, the Batutsi had a history of dominating Rwanda’s socio-political life, although this was mediated by colonial law and practice (Newbury 1995). However, both functional and comprehending approaches are causally connected, especially where the colonial imagery of a ‘master race’ was translated into actual legal facts. In the process of ethno-racial polarisation, that characterised the post-colonial period until the 1994 genocide, fact and fiction indistinguishably coalesced.

Decades of racist colonial policies had left their imprints on Rwanda society. In 1957, Grégoire Kayibanda pursued the transformation of socio-political structures in favour of the Bahutu majority (Prunier 2010, 48). His popular movement Parti du Mouvement de l'Emancipation Hutu (Parmehutu) sought to rid the country of “double colonialism”, both from Belgian and Tutsi rule. Both demands were formulated in the so-called ‘Bahutu Manifesto’ of 1957 (Newbury 1998, 11). It stipulated that Batutsi-Bahutu cleavages are the result of a ‘political monopoly held by one race, the Mututsi, […] [which"> has become an economic and social monopoly’ (Niyonzima et al 1957, 3, emphasis added). The ‘Hamitic Myth’ became the ideological basis for the 1959 ‘Hutu Revolution’ that abolished the monarchy and turned Rwanda into a republic (Mayersen 2011, 171). As a result of the uprising, thousands of Batutsi were victimised and killed, being publicly vilified as ‘henchmen’ of colonialism and proponents of ‘Hamitic-feudalist’ rule (Mamdani 1996, 12).

Here, the hypothesis fulfilled two purposes. First, as Prunier argues, the establishment of the republic merely equalled an ‘ethnic transfer of power’, rather than an attempt in nation-building (2010, 50). Others go even further and suggest that ethno-cultural Hutu-nationalist propaganda aimed at the systematic social exclusion or outright elimination of the Batutsi in order to create a pure Hutu nation (see Appadurai 2006, 53; Mamdani 1996, 14; Hintjens 2001, 41; Gourevitch 2000, 95). Distinguishing between the two objectives is a matter of degree. While the first theory emphasises socio-economic balancing and a shift in power politics, the second adds an element of racial exclusivism which produces a Hutu “anxiety of incompleteness” (Appadurai 2006, 52) that requires the extermination of the Batutsi group.

On achieving independence in 1962, Rwanda’s internal cleavages further deepened (Prunier 2010, 55). Belgiums’ strategic shift in favour of the Bahutu opposition left the Batutsi isolated and vulnerable to extremist violence. During Kayibanda’s presidential years, structural discrimination and indoctrination against the Batutsi remained common practice (Newbury 1998, 13). ‘Tutsification’ of neighbouring Burundi, after a successful military coup in 1965, further exacerbated anti-Tutsi sentiments and quickly revived the parlance of a ‘Hamitic plot’ (Lemarchand 1995, 60). Also the formation of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in their Ugandan exile nurtured resentments against a returning ‘master race’ trying to reverse the 1959 Hutu revolution and re-imposing its supposedly ‘age-old’ domination over Rwanda (Van der Meeren 1996, 259). The spectre of the ‘evil Hamite’ was haunting the region again, but this time fiction merged with actual fact, and whether it was the ‘killing fields’ of 1972 (Lemarchand 1989) in neighbouring Burundi, or the approaching ‘Tutsi army’ of the RPF in 1990, reality seemed to evidence whatever ‘secret plot’ the Batutsi were said to have made.


Due to the brevity of this essay, and a thematic focus on the ideology of the genocide, other factors that have contributed to its unfolding, such as the RPF invasion, the economic downturn, regional security, the environment, and foreign state complicity, are deliberately omitted, but have been discussed in-depth elsewhere (see Kamola 2007; Cameron 2012; Newbury 1998; Reed 1996, Kuperman 2004; Magnarella 2005; Uvin 1997). As in other genocide cases, the invocation of a ‘higher cause’ also attached a specific ‘meaning’ to the 1994 Rwandan killings. In Nazi Germany, Jews were dehumanised as a “cancer” or “disease” to humanity, and thus their millionfold death in gas chambers was portrayed as a “salvation” for mankind (Pine 2010, 58). A similar rhetoric was employed by Serbs to justify the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Bosniaks during the 1990s (HRW 1992, 249). In Rwanda, the physical destruction of Batutsi was euphemised as ‘chopping trees’, and victims were pejoratively referred to as ‘cockroaches’ (inyenzi) (Des Forges 1999, 62). As outlined before, genocidal ideology necessarily rests upon a process of dichotomisation and dehumanisation to justify the destruction of another group (Moshman 2007). Considering the above examples of racial propaganda from other sites of mass murder, this point seems valid and coincides neatly with Vansina’s apt description of ethno-racial myths as the “handmaidens of war propaganda” (1998, 38). However, myths and ideology are rarely the causes of conflict, they merely perpetuate its deadly logic by reconciling fact with fiction, grievances with ‘higher cause’. Bearing these theoretical discussions in mind, the question is which impact the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ had on social and criminal interactions during the Rwandan genocide. A discussion of the media is therefore a useful focus for analysis.

While most killings were conducted by the interahamwe (Bahutu militias) and units of the army (FAR), an ever-growing propaganda machinery provided ideological guidance through radio broadcasts, newspapers and public speeches. Although the RPF was responsible for spreading counter-propaganda, a detailed discussion thereof is precluded here by spacial constraints. In their broadcasts, the state-backed Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and other stations continuously harped on the ‘foreign’ descent of Batutsi, denouncing them as ‘invaders’, a trope which proved particularly effective in the light of the RPF offensive (Yanagizawa-Drott 2012, 8; Baisley 2014, 51). Kimani concludes that racist radio propaganda “created an environment in which the ‘Tutsis of the past’ and the ‘Tutsis of the present’ became the same” (2007, 112). By invoking the ‘Hamitic’ origin of their enemies, propagandists could historicise contemporary animosities. To what extent this ideology directly spurred violence is debatable. Yanagizawa-Drott claims that over 51,000 victims can be attributed to radio propaganda alone (2012, 5). Based on qualitative interviews with génocidaires, Scott Straus criticises this view, stating that over half of the respondents declared the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ was utterly unknown to them (2007, 627). Considering the strong case most authors make to establish a direct connection between racist myth-creation and the perpetration of crimes (see Prunier 2010; Gourevitch 2000; Hintjens 2001; Des Forges 1999), this result seems surprising at first, but supports the view that other structural factors were pivotal.

Print media was similarly ambiguous. Distributing propagandistic newspapers, such as Kangura, proved difficult due to a relatively small readership concentrated in Kigali (Chalk 1999). Kangura instigated anti-Tutsi hatred in various ways, featuring treatise that interpreted politics through a racial lens. In 1990, the newspaper published a notorious pamphlet called the ‘Ten Commandments of the Bahutu’ which, although not explicitly mentioning a ‘Hamitic plot’, used language to celebrate Hutu-ness and to evoke solidarity among ‘Bantu brothers’ (Kangura 1990). Another contribution from 1991 explains that “the Bantu people […] are fighting a legitimate battle to free themselves from the tutsi [sic"> hegemony;” (emphasis added, cited in Kabanda 2007, 67). Again, the struggle of “Bantu people” is an allusion to the imaginary ‘Hamito-Semitic’ origins of Batutsi. Making these connections does not per se demonstrate the hypothesis’ efficacy in encouraging violence, yet it documents its persistency throughout the 1990s.

The same is true for public speeches. Léon Mugesera achieved considerable ‘fame’ with his 1992 appearance in Kabaya where he threatened to send Batutsi (corpses) ‘back’ to their fictive Ethiopian home land via the Nyabarongo river - a macabre vision that became reality barely two years later (MoCI 2003, 23). Hate speeches of this calibre, fuelling the fear of ‘alien’ domination, were commonly used to spread genocidal ideas (Des Forges 1999, 68). Measuring the precise effect of such rhetoric, and its translation into violence action, seems analytically desirable, though unrealistic. Attempts by Straus (2007) and Yanagizawa-Drott (2012) in this regard are ambitious and promising, yet more work needs to be done.

The above examples arguably reflect the ideological tendencies prevalent in Rwandan public opinion during the genocide. The ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ re-surfaced continuously throughout Rwanda’s colonial and post-colonial past and cast a long shadow on Batutsi-Bahutu relations. By socially normalising contempt towards another group, and lowering the inhibition threshold for denouncements, dehumanisation, and eventually murder, the ideology played a crucial role in enabling genocide (Vollhardt et al 2006; Moshman 2007). A key witness in the ICTR trial against the publishers of Kangura remarked that genocidal ideologies spread like ‘petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day [they"> would be able to set fire[…]’ (cited in Benesch 2004, 62). With media propaganda as a case in point, the ‘Hamitic Myth’ seems to have provided a superstructure that rationalised mass murder. However, the following three aspects put this ‘conventional wisdom’ into a more critical perspective.

First, the concept’s adaptability to historical circumstances is particularly noteworthy as it defies the simplistic claim of a timeless European-inspired racist ideology. On the contrary, its content was subject to substantial change and modification, depending on the social climate or the political objectives of its proponents (Sanders 1969). The RPF’s advances during the genocide, or the anti-Bahutu atrocities of Burundi’s oppressive Batutsi regime have been pointed out as catalysts for reinforcing prejudice and myth-making in this context. Drawing simple comparisons between the colonial construction of the ‘Hamitic Myth’ and its crystallisation during the genocide seems methodologically flawed. Frederick Cooper polemically criticises this historically negligent technique as ‘leapfrogging legacies’ (2005, 17).

Second, the insistence on establishing an immediate causal link between racist ideology and violent deed not only runs the risk of eclipsing the bulk of alternative factors that have contributed rendered genocide possible (see Magnarella 2005), but also trivialises the individual responsibility for participation in such crimes, an issue addressed in more detail by Straus (2004) and Franck (2007). Last, assuming the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ was symptomatic only for the 1994 tragedy overlooks the fact that Rwanda is not a singular case in colonial-era social engineering. Rekdal points to the Iraqw people of Tanzania who were first branded as descendants of Middle Eastern migrants and were later declared as being representatives of a culturally superior ‘Hamitic’ race (1998, 17). He holds that although the Iraqw’s self-perception and sense of belonging is inspired by the hypothesis, a notion of vicious racial antagonism, as in the Rwandan case, is practically unheard of in Iraqw historiography. Likewise, during colonialism the nomadic Maasai were constructed in a similar way, but the post-colonial Tanzanian state tried to eradicate such racist legacy at the root, sometimes even by force (Mamdani 2001a, 47f.; Rekdal 1998, 29). The impact of racial politics on those groups was rather different than on the Rwandan Batutsi, which shows that the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ is neither a one-way-road to genocide, nor a self-sufficient explanation for ethno-racial conflict. Once again, an in-depth analysis of local histories, cultures and social settings is inevitable for comprehending myth, reality and what lies in between.


John H. Speke’s contemporaries were convinced that Rwanda’s Batutsi were racially and culturally superior to their Bahutu counterparts. Colonial policies translated this scientific myth into laws and practices, thus establishing an order of racial favouritism that privileged the Batutsi minority in socio-political life. Independence saw a reversal of those roles, victimising the former protégés of the colonial state and declaring them second-class citizens in a Hutu republic. The ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ proved a versatile tool for justifying discrimination, defamation and violence, but also a powerful social force in rallying nationalists around a notion of exclusivist Hutu-ism, fostering the emergence of a “predatory identity” (Appadurai 2006, 51) against the Batutsi. Seemingly irrefutable, the hypothesis and its inflammatory ideological assumptions survived in the catacombs of Rwandan politics, based on fragmentary evidence and ambiguous historiography. Since its inception in the colonial era, its ideas have strongly defined Rwanda’s social relations by fusing fiction and political fact, thus lastingly poisoning the country’s social climate. During the 1994 killings, the ideological perseverance of this ‘political myth’ became evident as its rhetoric resurfaced in media and the public space. Before this background, the Batutsi-led RPF rebel army and the oppressive minority regime in Burundi served as catalysts for a further polarisation and escalation of violence. Other than in Nazi Germany, where the Jews were never privileged nor posed an objective threat to state power, Rwanda’s past was an ambiguous space imbued with contested memories of oppression and the fear of a collective ‘Other’. Genocide propaganda thrived on the interstices of these both real and imaginary grievances and rationalised thousandfold murder.


[1] The e-document is available online,
[2] A transcript of Mugesera’s speech is available in Canadian legal documents prepared by the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship,
[3] The term ‘Kulturvolk‘ (a cultured people) was first mentioned by German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder who used it as an antonym to the category of ‘Naturvolk’ (a primitive people).


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* Hanno Brankamp is currently completing his postgraduate studies in International Security at the University of St Andrews, UK. He also holds a B.A. degree in Area Studies Asia/Africa from Humboldt University in Berlin with a specific focus on conflicts and security in Eastern Africa, including the Great Lakes and the Horn. He also publishes on Think Africa Press.'



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