Alexandre Kimenyi
Clans, Totems and Taboos in Rwanda
by Alexandre Kimenyi

Studies in cultural anthroplogy have shown that societies which are made up of clans also have totems and taboos. The totems are in great majority animals and plants. In some cases, however, the totem can be any object, animate or inanimate. The totem has been interpreted in the case of animals as a sacred object which is symbiotically linked to the clan historically, physically and spiritually. These animals are revered by clan members because apparently they represent the soul and the spirit of their progenitor. Because of its troubled history, the exodus of Tutsi due to cyclical massacres of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, the Tutsi genocide of 1994 and the people’s movement to cities, the clan system and totems are being forgotten by the new generation. The study of clans and their totems in Rwanda and a comparative study of totems in other cultures sheds new light on this fascinating universal social phenomenon. There is a metaphoric or menonymic relationship between the clan and the totem. A strong similarity is found between totems and other social groups identification symbols such as names, emblems, logos, mascots, etc. There is no evidence to lend support to some anthropologists’ claim that fauna and flora totems exist for eco-systems’ concerns by clans.
Although clans like other social categories happen to be a social construction, totems like other symbols are hard-wired in the brain as cross-cultural examples convincingly illustrate.

Clans and Totems in Rwandan

Rwanda has 20 clans called ubwoko in Kinyarwanda, namely Abanyiginya, Abagesera, Abega, Ababanda, Abacyaba, Abasinga, Abashambo, Abahinda, Abazigaba, Abungura, Abashingwe, Abenengwe, Abasita, Abatsobe, Abakono, Abanyakarama, Abarihira, Abahondogo, Abashambo, and Abongera

The totems known as ibirangabwoko in Kinyarwanda for these clans are :

umusambi 'crested crane' for Abanyiginya/Abasindi/Abatsobe
inyamanza 'wagtail' for Abagesera
sakabaka 'black kite' for Abasinga
ifundi 'robin' for Abungura
inkende 'squirrel' for Abahinda
ishwima 'animals tick-eater bird' for Abahondogo
umuhari 'jackal' for Abasita
intare 'lion' for Abashambo
uruvu 'chameleon' for Abarihira
ingeragere 'deer' for Abongera.
igikeri 'frog' for Abega/Abakono
impyisi 'hyena' for Abacyaba/Ababanda
ingwe 'leopard' for Abazigaba and Abenengwe

Moieties and Phratries

In the list of totems above, it was noted that some totems are shared with other clans . For instance, the crested crane is shared by three clans, namely Abanyiginya, Abasindi, and Abatsobe. The frog totem is shared by both Abega and Abakono. Abacyaba and Ababanda have the same totem hyena and the leopard totem belongs to both Abazigaba and Abenengwe. The only way to explain why these separate clans have the same totem is that they might be subclans of the same clan which split voluntarily or unvoluntarily. Social groups consciously and voluntarily separate from each other to create a new collective identity like the Christian Church or the Muslims who split into distinct groups but kept the same symbols and rituals. Social groups can also change collective identity due to migration and memory loss but keep their collective symbol because it is the only one that has not been erased from collective memory.

Abega and Abakono who share the same totem the frog, Abacyaba and Ababanda whose totem is the hyena and Abazigaba and Abenengwe whose totem is the leopard are probably moieties, groups with a common ancestry who split into two. Abanyiginya, Abasindi and Abatsobe would be a phyratry : a social group which was divided into three separate clans.
There is a possibility also that Abahinda whose totem is inkende ‘squirrel’ and who were the reigning dynastly in Karagwe, Tanzania before immigrating to Rwanda for unknown causes, might be related to Abazirankende, a subclan of Abagesera whose totem is the wagtail. Abazirankende means ‘those for whom the squirrel is a taboo’.
The only clans whose totems are not known are Abanyakarama who are supposed to have originated from Burundi and Abashingwe.

Clans as a social construction

It has been a long held belief that clans are natural social groups which are made up of people who are biologically related. The case of Rwanda shows this not to be the case. This is evidenced by two observations :First, endogamy is allowed within the same clan and second, the same clans and totems are interethnic.
Besides clans, Rwanda also has lineages called in Kinyarwanda imiryango whose singular form is umuryango. A lineage is a group of people related by descent from a common ancestry , igisekuru. The name of the lineage comes from the name of the common ancestor such as Abahidiro from Gahindiro, Abajiji from Bajiji, Abenebwimba from Bwimba, Abaganzu from Ruganzu, etc. Exogamy has to be practiced. Marrying somebody from the same lineage , however remoteit might be , would be considered as incest. Rwanda is a patriarchal and patrilineal society. Children take the ethnicity and the clan of their fathers. It is not the same with clans, however, endogamy is very common.
The other evidence that clans are not social groups which are genetically connected is the fact that although Rwanda has three distinct separate ethnic groups, namely Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, the three groups share the same clans and totems.

Clans and castes

Both clans and castes are social categories that people are born into. In many cases, one’s social status depends on which clan or caste one belongs to. It seems as if they are created to fulfill a societal need, especially in the area of work specialization and share of social responsibilities. Kings came from the Abanyiginya clan. Abatsobe clan provided royal ritualists, abiru, who memorized all rituals used in the new monarch’s coronation and were the keepers of all the royal secrets. The Abega and Abakono clans provided queens.
Abagesera, Abasinga and Abazigaba, which are referred as abasangwabutaka ‘primordial clans’ literally ‘the ones found on the land’, played the role of abase, ritualists for other clans.
They could perform all the rituals done by the head of the family of somebody from another clan if he was absent or do these rituals on the behalf of members of other clans because they were forbidden to do it themselves. Clans could also engage in the practice of guterana ubuse , which is about insulting each other for fun. In a sense, they are not different from the caste system of West Africa. Among the Fulani , for instance, an ethnic group found in many West African countries, clans are associated with castes. They have 12 castes which are not based on social hierarchy like the low and high castes in India and the Burachumins of Japan, but on work specialization instead. such as the caste of griots, the caste of wood carvers, the caste of blacksmiths, the caste of grave diggers, the caste of hunters, the caste of farmers, the cast of cattle herders, the caste of circumcizers, etc.

In some societies , clans have totemic features to distinguish themselves from other clans such as headwear, chestwear, armwear, tattoos, etc. Among the Pacific Northwest Indians such as Chinook, Haida, Nookta, Tlinkit or Hawaiians, clans have totem poless. For instance, the Haida have two clans with their respective totems the raven and the eagle. These two totems appear appear on their totem poles. Among the Ndebele, the clan carries the name of the totem and some members of the clan carry the totem as their personal name. Among the Ndebele personal names such as Dube ‘zebra’, Mpofu ‘eland’, Sibanda ‘predator animal’, Ncube ‘babboon’ Nkomo ‘cattle’, Ndlovu ‘elephant’, Nyoni ‘bird’, Ngwena ‘leopard’, Masilela ‘fish species’, Mphisi ‘hyena’, Mvundla ‘hare’, Manzini ‘water’, reveal the clan and the totem of the bearer. The only clan which never had a totem is the Khumalo who according to Smile Dube because being members of the royalty , they had to be above all groups.. According to Smile Dube, today’s Ndebele and Shona as a matter of fact, don’t use the totem as the name of the clan but use praise-poems instead. This is due as expected to cultural dynamism, migration and the influence of other cultures especially colonialism and Christianity.
In Rwanda there is no physical symbol to designate the clan member. People know their clan membership and totem through oral tradition.

Totems and proper animal names

Totems don’t , in any way, differ from proper names. All are used for identification purposes. The only difference is that totems are a symbol for a group whereas proper names refer to individuals. In many cultures, words referring to animals are used as proper names, as shown by Kinyarwanda and American Indian names below.

Kinyarwanda animal names

Gasimba 'insect', Kagurube 'pig', Kabwa 'dog', Senkoko 'chicken'
Sehene 'goat', Sentama 'sheep', Kajangwe 'cat', Kayuki 'bee'
Kavubi 'wasp', Gikeri 'frog', Kimonyo 'red ant', Gakoko 'little animal'
Senguge 'monkey', Rukwavu 'rabbit', Mpyisi 'hyena', Ntare 'lion'
Rgwe 'leopard', Senyoni 'bird', Kanuma 'pidgeon', Kanyange 'royal crane'
Semusambi 'crested crane', Segatashya 'sparrow', Sembeba 'rat'

American Indian animal names :

Running Antelope, Eagle Bull, Black Bull, Bear Bull, Crazy Bull, Sitting Bull, Yellow Bull, Black Bear, Conquering Bear, Crazy Bear, Hollow Horn Bear, Medicine Bear, Standing Bear, Ten Bears, Blue Bird, Medicine Crow, Crow Eagle, He Dog, Low Dog, Yellow Dog, Spotted Eagle, Lone Elk, Red Fish, Changing Hawk, Fish Hawk, Thunder Hawk, Crazy Horse, Many Horses, Red Horse, White Horse, Red Armed Panther, Little Wolf, Lone Wolf, Old Wolf,

Before colonialism, Rwandans had only one name. First names, last names or family names didn’t exist. All Rwandan names also have meanings. They are either descriptive, prescriptive or used as a laconic statement of the namer’s philosophy. Kinyarwanda has also names called amazina y’amagenurano, names given for specific purposes. The names reveal the existential experiences of the namer. Has the namer been victim of high intant mortality, did he have bad neighbors, was the mother a good or bad wife, has he had serious problems in life? All this can be revealed in the child’s name. Because of high infant mortality, children were given bad names hoping to dupe death, because a bad name would indicate that the child is undesirable (Kimenyi, 1989)..
Kinyarwanda names such as Ntare (Lion),Rugwe (Leopard), Segatashya (Sparrow), Semusambi (Crested Crane), Kanyange (Royal Crane), are metaphoric names because they imply either strength, speed, beauty or elegance. There is supposed to be some kind of similarity , real or desired, between the name and the person. They describe the bearer’s name or prescribe what the namer wants the bearer’s name to be. Names such as Kagurube (Pig), Sehene (Goat), Kajangwe (Cat), Gikeri (Frog), Mpyisi (Hyena), Sembeba (Rat ) are not metaphoric, however. These animals are either hated or despised. The pig is a dirty animal, the frog is ugly and has a terrible voice, …but parents give their children these animals’ names. They are metonymic. They have a cause and effect relationship with the person who carries the name. The namer wants to fool death making it believe that the child is not wanted or the child is given the name of the animal because of its magic and mystical power. For instance the hyena is believed to bring good luck. Many people in the country side and other superstitious people refuse to respond to some greetes in the morning. It is only after they have uttered silently or in a very low voice the expression nabanje impyisi ‘I talked to the hyena first’ , that they can greet back. There is an ingrained popular belief that saying the hyena’s name neutralizes the evil effect that the greeter may cause. In Rwanda , there are indivuals or clans, through no fault of their own,are believedd to have an evil eye effect, cause bad luck if they are the first ones one talks to .in the morning. This is known as gutera umwaku ‘to cause bad luck’. Totems like names were also chosen or given to clans either as metaphors or metonymies.
According to tradition, Abagesera, apparently, were given the wagtail totem because they are peaceful people, Abasinga the black kite because they like meat, Abungura the chameleon because they are mean. The bite of a chameleon is believed to be very painful and lethal.
These names thus show that indeed totems may have been selected as metaphors, clan members identifying with them because of what they like in theri physical or character qualities, or metonymies because of the presumed mystical power of the animal. But the case of Rwanda also shows that clans might not have chosen their own totems but given to them by other clans.

Totems, sport team names and mascots

It is not only ‘primitive’ societies that were interested in identifying themselves with animals. Modern societies still do. For instance, the eagle is the emblem of the United States, the bear the emblem of California.
The majority of sport teams’ names and mascots in the US and Canada are animals. There are only two teams with plant names, namely the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Portland Rosebuds. Others are animals as examples below show :

Detroit Lions, Detroit Tigers, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Wildcats, Miami Dolphins, Jackson Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles, St Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bulls, Chicago Bears, Los Angles Bulldogs, Buffalo Bisons, Alabama Hawks, Montreal Beavers, Omaha Mustangs, Chicago Owls, Cleverland Spiders, Boston Bees, UCLA Bruins, Sacramento State Hornets, Pittsburgh Condors, Detroit Cougars, Phoenix Coyotes, Boston Doves, Anaheim Ducks, Worcester Ice Cats, Quebec Jumping Frogs, Alabama Hawks, Memphis Grisslies, Piittsburgh Penguins, Alabama Hawks, California Golden Seals, Atlanta Falcons, Albany River Rats, Brooklin Robins, New Jersey Sky Cats, Maryland , Mississauga Red Wolves, Louisiana Cajun Pellicans, Pennsylvania Pit Bulls, Harlem Strong Dogs

The majority of animal names have been chosen because of their speed, grace and elegance, or strength. The name of the team thus suggests that the team is strong or fast. Others have been chosen because they are dangerous animals.

Since sport teams are like armies and players like warriors, the best names are the ones which are supposed to cause fear and panick in the adversary teams because they suggest large physical size, ferocity, meanness, roughness, toughness, cruelty. they have the power to destroy , exterminate , reduce to ashes, etc.
The US army , for instance, uses Amarican Indian names and mascots to name its warplanes or weapons such as surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, cruise missiles, etc. because Indians were considered as tough and ferocious warriors eventhogh they were exterminated by Europeans in the Indian wars, the forced relocation and western expansion. :
Below is a list of some US combat helicopters which have American Indian names, Native American mascots or names of American Indian chiefs :

Apache Helicopter,Blackhawk Helicopter, Cayuse Helicopter, Cherokee Helicopter, Chinook Helicopter, Comanche Helicopter, Iroquois Warrior, Kiowa Helicopter, Lakota Helicopter, Scout Helicopter, Sioux Helicopter, Tomahawk Helicopter, Crazy Horse Helicopter.
These names have the intended effect of scaring the enemy.
Similarly, many sports teams uses people’s professional names or natural disaster metaphors as their names :

St Louis Bombers, New York Titans, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Shockers,Richmond Rebels, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburh Maulers, Oakland Invadors, Arizona Outlaws, Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Oilers, Orlando Renegades, New Jersey Devils, Nashville Predators, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Clippers.

The weather names which cause natural disaster such: Newark Tornadoes, Carolina Hurricanes, Lincoln Thunder, Portland Storm, Miami Heat, San Diego Wildfire, …are talso favorite for sports teams. Like personal names, sport teams’ names are also either metaphors or metonymies.

Totems and environmental concerns

It has been hypothesized that totemic societies were the first ecologists. Clans have the obligation to protect their totems. It is taboo , imiziro (in Kinyarwanda), for a clan to kill its animal totem. A clan member can’t cut down a tree if the tree is its clan’s totem. Some cultural anthropologists have suggested that to protect the environment, clans decided to adopt either certain animals and certain plants to prevent them from extinction.
It is true that traditional societies in which clans and totems are still found, have great respect for the environment and is the only place where it is still possible to find a large biodiversity. The earth is regarded as the mother because it provides everything that people need to survive. Plants, animals and human beings live in a symbiotic and interdependence realationship. Animals are not killed for sports. It is also possible to predict which animals will be chosen as totems knowing the ecosystem. In the rain forest, for instance, it is apes (monkeys, babboons, chimpanzees, gorillas…), snakes and birds which are chosen as totems. In savanna areas, it is elephants, big cats (carnivores) such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, scavengers (hyenas, jackals, …) and preys (carnivores) such as giraffes, zebras, antelopes, which are totems. Clans in the deserts choose reptiles and people whc live near rivers, lakes, oceans have different types of fishes as their totems. Crocodiles are totems in many societies which live near rivers and lakes.
There are no data, however, to support this hypothesis that clans made certain plants and animals their totems, in order to adopt and protect them. In the area of plants and trees, there are very few societies in which clans have them as totems. Among the Aborigines of Australia for instance, there are hundreds of animals which are totems. The non-animal totems that have been identified are the ‘lily seed’, the ‘lily root’ and the ‘yam’. The majority of totems in many societies are always animals. Some clans use domestic animals as their totems eventhough obviously they didn’t need any protection. The Baganda of Uganda, have clans which have the cow and the dog as their totems. In Ancient Egypt, the cat, the pig, the ram, were also considered as a sacred animals. Some clans also use inanimate objects and body parts as their totems. Among the Akamba of Kenya for instance, there is a clan called Mukisii whose totem is the liver. Among the Shona of Zimbabwe, atlhough the majority of clans’ totems are animals, there is a mwoyo (heart) clan and a tsiwo (penis) clan. Like the Shonam, the Ndebele also have the heart known as mwoyo or nhliziyo and ndlble ‘ear’.Like the Mukisii clan of Kenya, Ndebele have a liver clan as well known as sibindi.

Totems : ancestors, guardians and helpers of the clan

The majority of the literature on clans and totems claims that clans consider totems as the incarnation of ancestors. These totems are thus not only the clans’ progenitors but also their guardians and helpers. In all four corners of the world, societies have used animals in one way or another as natural allies, protectors, friends. The Chinese have a twelve-year circle which is represented by twelve animals namely : the rat, the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig.
The majority of the twelve zodiac signs also happen to be animals as well, namely : the ram (Aries), the bull (Taurus), the crab (Cancer), the lion (Leo), the scorpion (Scorpio), the goat (Capricorn) and the fish (Pisces).

In Ancient Egypt, each region has its sacred animals.These were : the ape, the ass, the baboon, the cat, the cobra, the cow,the crocodile, the dog, the falcon, the frog, the hawk, the heron, the hippopotamus, the goose, the ibis, the jackal, the lion, the lynx, the ostrich, the pig, the ram, the scarab beetle, the scorpion, the turtle, the vultures and the wolf.These animals were revered and mummified like the pharaohs The most sacred were the cat, the ram, the crocodile and the falcon. These animals became symbols and gods and goddesses because of their function in the society and also because of what people thought about them. Frogs which were numerous in the Nile river became a symbol of fertility. Cats chased away mice and other reptiles from storage places.
Native American totems : alligator, ant, anteater, antelope, bat, badger, bee, beaver, buffalo, butterrfly, elk, hare, beaver, caribou, cat, cheetah, cobra, coyote, crab, crane, crocodile, crow, deer, reindeer. Some of these totemic animals were revered whereas others were reviled. Among the Plains Indians for instance : Sioux, Cheyene, Comanche, Blackfeet,Crow, Assiniboin, Cree, Hidatsa, Mandan, Osage, Omaha, Cheyene, Arapaho, Apache, the buffalo was the icon, their friend, ally and food provider. The coyote, the trickster par excellence in folktales just like Anasanse the Spider in West Africa or the Hare in East African folktales was a revered totem in many American Indian clans. The Panther such as the leopard, jaguar, cheatah, cougar, puma is the totem of many clans among many American Indian and African clans because it is admired for its strength, speed, agility cunning and ability to hunt. Among the Miwok of California, the Hopi, the Navajo, the Apache and Huapas of Arizona, the puma is much respected and its help is solicited through shamanism and other rituals in hunting.
There are, however, totemic animals which are feared, hated, despised and reviled. The crocodile, which is known as caiman in West Africa and alligator in the US southeaster part as alligator is a feared animal but it is the totem of many clans in West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. In Rwanda , the hyena, the chameleon, or the frog are hated and reviled but they have been selected as totems.
Despite this universality, however, totems like other symbols don’t have an instrinsic value. There is no natural, inherent relationship between the totem and the clan. The value is conventional, thus a social construction. Like other symbols, totems end up being identified with clans they represent. For instance, people feel hurt or fight when they are insulted as if words had the power to cause physical harm. It is a crime in many countries to desecracate, tear up or burn a national flag eventhough doing so can cause no harm to the country.
In the Catholic Church, some Christians believe that the bread and the wine become Jesus’ body and blood when the priest blesses them for communion. Rituals are taken seriously as if they were real actions producing the intended result.
Totems came about exactly the way new symbols are are being created different new organizations. Diachronically totems, symbols and rituals were, in their genesis, conventional, selected because of the image that the group wanted to project or the effect it wanted to cause to other groups.

Conclusion :

The study of Rwandan clans and totems has shown that clans are not natural categories based on genetic affiliation. They arose to fulfill societal needs like many other social organizations such as religions, secret societies, political parties, social clubs. The clan name was chosen like other names. The totems were conventional symbols, as well. There was no intrinsic relationship between the clan and the totem. The majority of totems happen to be animals. Very few societies use plants as their symbols. It is very clear then that clans chose animals for totems not out of environmental concern but primarily as metaphors or metonymies. The totemic thinking, the belief in the mythic and magic power of names, symbols and rituals, is still alive in modern societies, as evidenced by the choice of emblems and logos by different organizations such as sports teams, schools, civil society, governments, and businesses,

Note :

Some sport team names have been chosen for the peculiarity of the region.
Texas Oilers reminds people of Texas oil companies, Detroit Pistons because Detroit is automibile capital of the world, Pittsburgh Steelers because of steel industries, Seattle Supesonics because Seattlle is the seat of Boeing haedquarters.

References :

Kimenyi, Alexandre. 1989. Kinyarwanda and Kirundi Names : A semiotic analysis of Bantu onomastics. New York : The Edwin Mellen Press.
Dube, Smile. 2007. Personal communication.