Kingdom of Burundi: 11,000 year old invention, 5th most important crop in the world

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burundi - Millo_-_Sorghum_bicolor_04
Millo – Sorghum Bicolor. Image rights: public domain
burundi - Millo_-_Sorghum_bicolor_03
Millo – Sorghum Bicolor. Image rights: public domain
burundi - Millo_-_Sorghum_bicolor_02
Millo – Sorghum Bicolor. Image rights: public domain

The kingdom of Burundi is a landlocked historic kingdom located in the east of central Africa, in the south of the equator. It is bordered by Rwanda in the north, Tanzania to the south and east while the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west.  Only a few ethnic communities populate the country, most prominent of them are Tutsi and Hutu communities, with the Hutu formulating a great majority of 85% and the Tutsi a noteworthy minority of 14%. Other groups comprise the Twa approximately 1% and few Swahili-speaking peoples from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. At present, the kingdom covers an area of approximately 10,747 square miles having a population density of 401 per square kilometers.

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Location of Burundi

Although, the agricultural technology of Burundi dates back to the 9th millennium before our era (9500 – 7000BC), the monarchy of Burundi was founded in the 16th century. Burundi remained an independent kingdom until the beginning of 20th century when Germans colonized it.

After the first world war, it was included in the Belgium territory until 1962 when the kingdom was abolished, and Burundi was declared as a republic with independent status. Unlike most of the African countries the present-day boundaries of the country are not drawn by European authorities (Germans in case of Burundi). Instead, they are based on the map developed by the original Burundian empire.


If culture were used to identify the earliest evidence of Burundi civilisation, “Urewe” artefacts can be used. These point to existence of this society as early as the 2nd millennium to 1st millennium before our era (2000 BC to 1000 BC). Metal work emerged from the between the first century in our era to the sixth century in our era, but “a trail of bread crumbs” of this Urewe culture can to be found along the migration path of the Bantu peoples; in the Cameroon, Kongo, DRC region, west Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and south-west Kenya.

If agricultural produce were used to identify the origin of the people of Burundi, Sorghum was invented by South East Africans around 9,500-7000 BC – a time period for which no intelligent modern day “cultural label” can be used. In that prior time, the region around the western side of Lake Nyanza (Lake Victoria) were inhabited by a mixture of Sudanese people and Southern Cushite people. Including evidence from both linguistic taxonomy, iron technology and archaeological artefacts implies either:

1/ either the Bantu came from both the Cameroon, the Congo Basin and Tanzania, or

2/ the Tutsis came from both Sudan and Ethiopia (Cushitic cultures) and brought farming too, not only cattle raising; or

3/ the Tutsis cannot be distinguished from Hutus; and/or

4/ indigens from Tanzania or East Africa were met in Burundi by both the Tutsi and Hutus and all groups intermarried.

The production of Sorghum in Burundi before it spread to West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria) and the Sahel (Mali), from pre-colonial times, turns on its head the idea that people from Burundi only came from the West or the Northeast of Africa. The invention of Sorghum pre-dates the Bantu migration by at least 5,000-6,000 years. Yet, this is understandable and fits in with the reality that humanity is one race, biologically.(I)

The oral tradition – often-told story – is as follows. The country of Burundi was originally populated by the Twa, which was an ethnically Pygmy population. Around 1000 CE, Hutu farmers arrived in the area, and their population grew to become the largest ethnic group of the country.

The earliest evidence of those labelled “Tutsi” date to the 16th century. The Tutsi monarchy was founded under the leadership of Rushatsi Ntare-I.

It isn’t known if this date marks a change from a confederacy (or another form of decentralized polity) to a monarchy from within, or if the 16th century represented an external permanent invasion and subjugation of the Hutus and Twas by foreign invaders, the Tutsi (either from Rwanda or another state such as Ethiopia). An invader from the Near East may have attempted to impose Islam as was done in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, the Sultanate of Modagishu or the Sultanate of Kilwa. An invader from the South could have introduced Sorghum, unless the indigens already produced Sorghum.

There are many versions of the story about the original country of Ntare-I, full name Ntare I Kivimira Savuyimba Semunganzashamba Rushatsi Cambarantama. According to one version, Ntare-I is believed to come from Rwanda, while another source claims that he belonged to Buha in the south-east of Burundi. The relationships between different ethnic groups of the country have been complex from the beginning.

The king of the empire, known as “mwami”, was Tutsi, but there was a class of people known as “ganwa”, constituting the possible successors of the throne, who used to interfere between the king and the population, thus disturbing the new power structure between both the Tutsis and the Hutus.

During the second half of the 19th century, the kingdom of Burundi was explored, invaded and colonized by the Germans and Burundi became a part of German Protectorate of East Africa in 1890, along with Tanganyika and Rwanda.

The kingdom of Burundi between the 1850s and 1899 allowed missionaries to enter its territory but refused to become a protectorate of Germany, change its clothing, language or culture. It was later conquered by force. Early observers likened Burundi to pre-ancient Greek monarchies. Due to the racist thinking of the 19th century in Germany, certain Hamitic theory was used to explain the social structure and assumed intelligence difference: Tutsi were believed to have originated from the Indo-European stock and become homogenous with the population after several centuries of intermarriage. This was used to explain their power, so-called superiority due to that power and military acumen. This sowed the seeds of growing hatred towards the ruling class.

After the first world war, Germany lost its colonies. The areas of German East Africa were split between the imperial Britain, the French empire and the Belgian empire. Belgium received Burundi and Rwanda. Burundi was restructured in the late 1920s, during the reign of its Belgian administrators.

After 2nd world war was over, a movement for independence was started. A political party was formed in 1955 by traditional leaders of Rwanda and Burundi. Initially, it was denied a legal status but after three years, it was registered by the name of Unity for National Progress. In 1959, the mwami, again, was made a constitutional emperor in Burundi. In 1961, legislative elections were held resulting in the success of the party. Burundi became an independent country on July 1, 1962, and the first republic was formed.


The Tutsis and Hutus speak Kirundi – one language, one Bantu language. They share one religion Christianity. They share the same culture. There are no statistical differences in height or appearance between the two except for some differences in extreme instances. It is more accurate to describe the Tutsis as remnants of the elite from the pre-colonial era, who held the administrative, military and religious control.


Most of the population of the present-day country of Burundi is Christian. Among them, only one-eighth of the population are identified as Protestant, and another three-fifth are identified as Roman Catholic which comes out to be four million in number. One-twentieth part of the remaining population is Muslims. The Catholic church of Burundi comes under the worldwide system of Catholic churches under the leadership of pope in Rome. Since the 1970s, the relations between Church and the government of Burundi have been a major contributing factor of prevailing ethnic tension. It was a common perception that the policies of Roman Catholic church are providing favor to Hutu over Tutsi, therefore, during 1976 to 1987, the government of the second republic made many attempts to restrain the educational and social activities of the Catholic church. The issue was temporarily diffused after 1987, yet, still, the church is deemed to be rebellious institute by many Tutsi.

burundi - catholic church
Catholic Church, Burundi


A king traditionally ruled the Kingdom of Burundi with several princes underneath him. The king was known as mwami (translation: ruler). The social structure of the Monarchy of Burundi was characterized by hierarchical authority. Burundi was terminated as a kingdom when king Ntare V was overthrown by his prime minister and chief of Staff, Capt. Michel Micombero, who abolished the kingdom and declared the kingdom as a republic in 1962.

The political system of present-day Burundi is a presidential democratic republic system with the president of the state as the head of government and head of the state.

Present-day Burundi is an individual state which is subdivided into three levels; provinces, communes, and collines. There are 18 provinces in Burundi, each named with its provincial capital. The commune is second subdivision which is a municipality. There are a total of 117 communes in the country. The minimum subdivision in Burundi is the colline with 2,638 in existing in the country.

Culture, Arts and Crafts

Originally, Tutsis were cattle owners, and at that time, cattle were considered as a symbol of wealth, while the Hutu people were farmers. However, based on social standards, a rich Hutu could be recognized as a part of the Tutsi population, and a poor Tutsi could be known as Hutu.

The people of Burundi have relished the expression of their noble culture through visual arts. Mostly, the themes of Burundian tales were depicted through decorated papyrus boards with beautiful geometric patterns. Art admirers highly value these visual art collections along with handmade swords and drums. Some other famous art and crafts include ceramic manufacture, Urewe sculptures, beadwork, and basketry. Burundian handicrafts were often dyed using natural plant extracts.

burundi - visual arts
Visual Arts, Burundi

Many local events were widely celebrated once, like annual sorghum festival known as “Umuganuro.” The event was celebrated with the splendid display of cultural dances by magistrate’s court dancers knows as “Intore.”

Drummers participated in the festival, beating the sacred drum called, “Karyenda,” which was a symbol of the kingdom. This is similar to spiritual symbol of the Buganda kingship, which has been the Royal Drums since the 12th century, called the Mujaguzo.

The practice of celebrating such festivals has been diminished with time. The efforts of the present-day government of Burundi, for encouraging intercultural harmony through shared ethnic heritage display have not been much fruitful. There are many museums in present-day Burundi that celebrate the country’s traditional heritage. Most prominent of them are the Living Museum in Bujumbura and the National Museum in Gitega, which also displays flora and fauna of the majestic kingdom.

Trade and economic activities

Approximately, more than half of the land area is fertile, and about one-third of the available area has been cultivated. The principal food of inhabitants includes maize, beans, sorghum, and cassava. Till the 1990s, Burundi has been rich in massive production of coffee which dropped by about half in the 1990s because of civil conflict. Tea and sugar are also major exports of the country.

“Burundi franc” is the national currency of the country. It is issued by the central bank of the country, named, “Banque de la République du Burundi.” Principal partners for trade include some nearby African neighbors, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Kenya. On average, the earning through export is even less than half of the money spent on imports. About three-fifths of overall export revenue comes from exporting tea and coffee.


A variety of Sorghum called sorghum bicolor originated in Africa. Sorghum is also known as Milo, Millet, Durra or Jowari. Did the people of Burundi invent sorghum bicolor? Sorghum bicolor is a globally important crop with many uses: as food in the form of popcorn, flat breads, sorghum grain, sorghum molasses; production of alcoholic beverages, biofuels and animal fodder. Sorghum is heat -tolerant, drought-resistant and cheap to produce or buy for poor people. Sorghum bicolor is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world(i), after rice, wheat, maize and barley.


Much of Burundi’s rich folk culture, predominantly local dances and folk songs, was intended to admire the monarchy. However, since the decline of the kingdom in the 1960s, principally after a pogrom inflicted on the Hutu in 1972, such practice has reduced. The daily pressure of survival has since hardened the common people due to social oppression.

Many important social institutions, including local family and the town council, have lost their power due to political disorder and the wide-ranging dislocation of the local population. Abuse by the ruling class of Burundi and the racial politics introduced during the 20th century has left Burundi aimless, despite its innovative heritage.


“Burundi,” Encyclopedia Britannica. <;

“Burundi,” Infoplease. <;

“History of Burundi,” Historyworld. <;

“Burundi Art and Craft,” Greenhillsecotours. <;

“Burundi-Religion,” Africaupenn.


(i) Christopher Ehret. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. ISBN-13: 978-0813920856; ISBN-10: 081392085X.

(ii) Tove Danovich (15 December 2015). “Move over, quinoa: sorghum is the new ‘wonder grain'”. The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2018.

Book about kingdom of Burundi

Jean-Pierre Chrétien (Author), Scott Straus (Translator), “The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History” 2006 ISBN: 1890951358 

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Kingdom of Burundi: 11,000 year old invention, 5th most important crop in the world

by Editorial Team time to read: 9 min