Mutton, Mud, and Runny Noses

A Hierarchy of Distaste in Early Rwanda

in Social Analysis

When Rwandan ethnicities are discussed, one seldom hears of the country’s least numerous group, the Twa, who constitute less than 1 percent of the present- day population. Despite this, long before ethnic division arose between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, a great social divide separated Twa from non-Twa. Twa were the first group to have suffered discrimination at the hands of others. Local practices of social exclusion based upon notions of esteem and disgust focused upon the Twa body, which was both feared as dangerous and reviled as polluting. Well in advance of European intervention in Rwanda, interactions between Twa and others were governed by practices of avoidance in marriage, residence, and commensality, practices that were termed kuneena batwa. Twa could neither cultivate the land nor raise cattle. Instead, they were relegated to the least esteemed productive activities: foraging, pottery-making, entertainment, and serving as torturers and executioners for the Rwandan king. Twa were reputed to be gluttonous, and both Hutu and Tutsi spurned the aliments that Twa would consume, mutton in particular. Later, during Rwanda’s precolonial history, similar mechanisms of differentiation began to characterize interaction between Tutsi and Hutu. These practices were exacerbated during the colonial period due to European notions of biological determinism.