For Burundi's Hutus and Tutsis, past decades have been marked by civil wars and massacres. This antagonism has long made interethnic marriage almost impossible. But now a new generation is showing a change in perception…
By Armel Gilbert Bukeyeneza, Bujumbura
Josiane, a pseudonym for an elegant 28 year old, is a Tutsi banker in the country's capital, Bujumbura. She recently faced her mother's disapproval when she announced her intention to marry Eric, also a pseudonym. He is a Hutu businessman.
“At first, everyone at home thought we were just friends,” recalls Josiane. But everything changed when she shared the “good news” with her family.
“My mother made it clear that there was no way I was getting married to a Hutu man,” she says. Tension mounted as the family polarized. Her brothers and cousins supported Josiane, while her uncles, aunts and grandparents sided with her mother.
On her own
The situation was complicated by a secret Josiane tried to keep hidden from her whole family: Eric is a former Hutu rebel fighter who “executed” Tutsis.
Josiane's family lost many members during the civil war that broke out in 1993 following the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically-elected Hutu president.
Eric's military past came to light in the form of pictures.
“When my brothers saw the photographs of my fiancé dressed in military uniform and carrying an AK-47 among the rebels, they all left me,” recalls Josiane with pain in her expression.
Giving in to family pressure, the young woman ended things with the man she loves.
Before and after colonization
In Burundi, the Hutu and Tutsi divide has not always been synonymous with conflict, discrimination and massacre. Before colonization, ethnic affiliation was essentially based on one's livelihood. Tutsis were known as animal farmers while Hutus were recognized as land farmers. This division of labour was actually more a source of social cohesion than a cause for conflict.
Burundi's 1962 independence marked a turning point in the country's history.
“The power in the hands of the royal family was now coveted by Hutu and Tutsi intellectuals. The king tried to please everyone by alternating prime ministers among Hutus and Tutsis, but in vain. A series of tragedies, each one deadlier than the other, claimed innumerable lives, leaving a rift in the hearts of the now rival Hutus and Tutsis,” according to Zacharie Bukuru in his 1997 book Les quarante jeunes martyrs de Buta [‘The forty young martyrs of Buta’].
Out of fashion
But Hutu-Tutsi rivalry is slowly falling out of fashion with younger generations. It wasn't a coincidence that Josiane was backed by her brothers and cousins, and not by her uncles and aunts.
Since the Arusha Peace Agreement between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi government in 2000, tensions have steadily declined. The debate on ethnic discrimination has become less taboo. Today, Hutus and Tutsis are all represented in government institutions. As far as the political game is concerned, the ethnicity card holds much less weight today. That explains the lack of attachment to ethnicity among the youth who, unlike their parents, did not experience the horrors of discrimination.
Educate away the mistrust
While some parents hold on to the past, others are more open-minded. Philippe is a Hutu father of a teenaged girl.
“How can I forbid her to marry a Tutsi man when her own mother is Tutsi?” he says.
For Philippe, love knows no boundaries.
“There is nothing worse than preventing your daughter to live her life with the man of her dreams solely on ethnic grounds,” says the father. “If there is still mistrust today, it's because the antagonism has been transmitted through generations in the families.”