Rwanda's Batwa could be ‘left behind, forgotten’

Friday April 18 2014

The Batwa break into song and dance at a get-together. Photo/DANIEL SABIITI

The Batwa break into song and dance at a get-together. Photo/DANIEL SABIITI 

By Edmund Kagire Rwanda Today

Twenty years after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda has received plaudits for the socio-economic achievements registered over the past two decades.

A new report however claims that a section of Rwandans classified under the ‘Twa’ could be forgotten and left behind.

Rwanda has over the years banished ethnic groupings such as Hutu, Tutsi and Twa and advanced a one-people country as a means of entrenching unity and reconciliation.

As Rwanda entered the 20th commemoration, Minority Rights Group International (MRG), an International rights group fighting for the rights of minority groups, called on the government of Rwanda to do more to address specific needs of vulnerable Batwa community.

MRG’s Africa office manager Jolly Kemigabo said that the rights body is concerned about the government’s lack of commitment towards the Batwa.

“Rwanda has a very tragic history, which makes the issue of ethnicity difficult to discuss,” Kemigabo said.

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“Our view is that first, the Batwa have a right to self-identify and secondly, they are a distinct community with specific needs which can only be addressed through tailor-made interventions,” she added.

The rights body however commends the government’s efforts towards reconciliation including through instituting commissions promoting national healing but is concerned that its continued outlawing of ethnicity serves to deepen hidden divisions within Rwandan society.

“With a no-ethnicity policy in place, the government has moved swiftly to remove ethnicity from the national consciousness of Rwandans by omitting its mention from school curricula and national identity cards,” a statement released by the group said.

“And there have been attempts to re-orient Rwandans towards a collective ‘we are all Rwandan’ thinking, which in itself is not a bad thing,” the group further said.

The Rwandan government classifies the Batwa people under the “historically marginalised” but MRG said there has been slow progress towards bringing this group to the same level of inclusive development and enjoyment of opportunities like other ethnic groups which have been fully integrated.

A research done by the international rights group found that the Batwa, who constitute one per cent of the Rwandan population, have not enjoyed the same pace of justice and development that the rest of the country enjoys.

It says that the majority of the Batwa are still involved in the informal sector, doing manual labour. Those who have been trying to develop a local pottery industry are now facing stiff competition from an onslaught of cheap Chinese clayware. 

“All national social protection efforts have got to pay particular attention to the particular situation the Batwa currently face. This will give the Batwa a sense of national belonging as well as uphold their right to identify themselves as a distinct community,” added Kemigabo.

The Community of Potters of Rwanda (COPORWA), a local Batwa organisation, report that “77 per cent of the Batwa are illiterate (compared to 33 per cent for the general population), 51 per cent have never attended school, 47 per cent have no farmland (four times the national average), and 30 per cent are unemployed (less than two per cent nationally).”

This level of marginalisation is faced by Batwa communities across the Great Lakes region, who today remain among the most invisible and marginalised indigenous peoples.

The UK-based group, which operates in 150 countries, is working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples.

According to IRIN, a UN humanitarian news agency, the Batwa people who mainly live in forested parts of Northern and Western Rwanda, have been driven out of their ancestral land by government conservation programmes.

It is estimated that there about 130 Batwa families living in Northern Province area neighbouring the Volcanoes National Park and most of them have become beggars or landless labourers working for less than $1 a day.

“Sometimes a Mutwa will work on someone else’s land for free. In return, he will just earn something to eat. He will not complain for that, as he knows that he’s receiving more than other fellow Batwa,” says Benon Mugarura, the executive director of the African Indigenous & Minority Peoples Organisation, a Rwanda-based NGO.

Mugarura has been involved in promoting and developing the Batwa way of life at a socioeconomic level since 2002 with the support of MRG.

“We have given groups of Batwa plots of land, which they can farm collectively. But we are at a young stage. These people have to learn how to utilise the land that has been given to them.”

“At the moment, they lack the skills and tools for farming. One has to understand that farming does not come natural to the Batwa. They are hunter-gatherers by nature,” Mugarura said.

IRIN further says that today, Rwanda’s poverty-reduction schemes and land policies do not seem to take into account the situation of the Batwa.

However, the Governor of the Northern Province Aime Bosenibamwe rubbished the reports of the Batwa people being left out, saying that the government has done all it can to incorporate them in the development process.

“Some of these NGOs do not speak the truth and don’t want to recognise the progress that has been made. No government has paid attention to the plight of the Batwa people more than the current government.”

“As we all know, these communities have been very conservative but with determined efforts, we have been able to encourage them to move from the forests to Midugudus and they now access all social services like any other Rwandans,” Mr Bosenibamwe said.