Jonathan Gatera is an angry man. Seething. Disillusioned. “Why should the government label us ‘historically marginalised people’?” he asks furiously. “As far as I know, I am not historically marginalised. That’s an insult. It’s discrimination. People should stop calling us whatever they want. We are simply Batwa.”
Mr Gatera is the president of the Community of Potters in Rwanda (Coporwa), a non-profit organisation that works to promote Twa rights and support them with development projects and training.
Since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the government has toned down ethnicity, and ethnic references have been scrapped off all official documents such as the indangamuntu (national identity card). Which is understandable.
During the genocide, ethnicity was used as the impulsion for mass killings as Hutu extremists were encouraged to slaughter their fellow countrymen simply because their identity cards said they were Tutsi.
But much as it is not entirely a bad thing, the banning of ethnic references has left the Twa without a proper name. Victims of prejudice, they are usually referred to as the “indigenous population,” “historically marginalised people,” “potters” or “pygmies” (because of their relatively modest stature) and are often stereotyped as primitive and uneducated.
But Mr Gatera is tall (about 6ft), and is among Batwa who do not conform to this stereotype of the primitive, uneducated Twa. He throws the challenge: “Look at me... What is primitive about me? What is ‘historically marginalised’ about me? My children have gone to school and there is nothing primitive about them.”
In reality, however, the Twa are marginalised and society looks down upon them (even literally) because the majority of them are poverty-stricken — and short in stature. Numbering an estimated 35,000 people (about 0.4 per cent of Rwanda’s population), many of the Twa live in destitution in different parts of the country.
Most vulnerable and poor
According to a report published by Coporwa, the Twa are “the most vulnerable and poor group in the country.” The report said that 77 per cent of the Twa were illiterate, 51 per cent had never attended school while 30 per cent were unemployed – and more than 95 per cent of those employed were potters and the average potter was earning about Rwf7,000 per month.
But at the Modern Pottery Co-operative in Kacyiru, which is run by members of the Twa community, most of the Batwa that I met were more concerned with recognition than material wellbeing.
Speaking on behalf of his people, Mr Gatera said: “The problems of all Rwandans are the same.
“The problems we encounter are the same problems other people face. All we need is to be recognised as Batwa because that is what we are. That’s our right.
“The fact that when it comes to the genocide the government wants us to refer to it as the ‘Genocide against the Tutsi’ means that the Tutsi are being recognised as an ethnic group. So, why not the Batwa?”
Mr Gatera said the Batwa’s problems are galvanised by the fact that they are not well represented in parliament. There is only one Twa senator, Zephyrin Kalimba, who is also not “fighting for our rights.”
“We need more representation in parliament,” Mr Gatera added.
When contacted for a comment, Mr Kalimba was controlled, well aware that ethnicity is a touchy subject for an official of his calibre.
According to the senator — the only Twa serving in a key position in all public institutions, according to him — the unique identity of this indigenous group cannot be officially recognised because the government maintains that all the people of Rwanda are simply Rwandans since they speak the same language and also have the same history and culture.
“There are no ethnic groups in Rwanda; the government recognises all the people of Rwanda as Rwandans,” Mr Kalimba says, adding that the Twa are supported by the government just like any other vulnerable group.
According to Mr Kalimba, more Twa now have access to free medical care, education and housing thanks to the government’s efforts to improve their lives. He told Rwanda Today that there are 42 Batwa pursuing university degrees, 250 in secondary school and 6,000 attending primary school.