Burundi Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

National policy and ethnicity are nearly indistinguishable terms in the African nation of Burundi. In this lesson, we'll talk about the main ethnic groups of Burundi, and see how this has impacted the nation's history.


Why do we talk about ethnicity? In American culture, the debate about the value of ethnic and racial categorization has persisted for decades, so why do we keep it up? Well, ethnicity is actually a very important aspect of identity for many people around the world. It goes beyond simple genetics to a matter of choice; how do you choose to present yourself, and how do you self-identify? In some places around the world, ethnicity is much more than a simple question on the census, it's an absolutely defining aspect of social relationships and self perception. Sometimes, people of a shared ethnic group created nations around that heritage. Other times, ethnic groups were forced into shared borders by colonial empires. That's the situation in Burundi, a small, landlocked nation in East Africa. Ethnicity in Burundi has very real implications in people's lives, and that has had some dramatic impacts on the nation's history.

Burundi is a small nation in East Africa

Ethnic Groups of Burundi

To understand what ethnicity means to the people of Burundi, let's get to know these ethnic groups a little. The largest ethnic group in Burundi are the Hutu people, who make up about 85% of the total population. The Hutu are an ethnic group ancestrally indigenous to this part of Africa, and are a major ethnic group in the neighboring nation of Rwanda as well. They are a member of the broad ethno-linguistic category of Bantu peoples, which covers between 300 and 600 ethnic groups across central and southern Africa. The Hutu in Burundi mostly speak a dialect of the regional Bantu language Rwanda-Rundi, which is called Kirundi. Historically, the Hutu were agriculturalists along the regions' lakes.

The next major ethnic group in Burundi are the Tutsi. Tutsi make up 14% of the total population, making them the nations largest ethnic minority. The Tutsi are another Bantu ethnicity, very closely related to the Hutu, who also primarily speak Kirundi. The origins of the Tutsi are actually unclear, as various claims have emerged over the decades, almost all with a strong political bias. According to some, the Tutsi were originally nothing more than Hutu people who preferred pastoral and semi-nomadic cattle ranching to settled agriculture. According to others, the Tutsi were a very different Bantu people who arrived in the region much later than the Hutu. Hutu populations do have a stronger genetic connection to people of the Nile River Valley, but much of their history is debated to this day.

The final major ethnic population in Burundi are the Twa people, called the Pygmies (somewhat pejoratively by Europeans) for their slightly smaller stature. Traditionally, the Twa were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, and many researchers believe they are the oldest surviving ethnic group to have inhabited the region. Most Twa live in Rwanda, while in Burundi they only make up 1% of the total population.

Ethnic Conflict in Burundi

So, what has ethnicity meant in Burundi? As I mentioned, the nation's borders were largely set by European empires, which brought the ethnic groups of the region into conflict. After Burundi became an independent nation in the mid-late 20th century, this ethnic conflict became fully politicized. Despite being a numerical minority, the Tutsi dominated the government for most of the remainder of the century and tensions between Tutsi and Hutu factions became violent. The Tutsi assassinated a Hutu prime minister, the Hutu attempted to assassinate Tutsi politicians and overthrow the government, and by the 1970s the situation escalated into full ethnic genocide as the Tutsi-controlled military massacred Hutu communities.

Tutsi soldiers in Burundi
Burundi soldiers

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