Embracing the Batwa: Hard lessons in inclusivity

Monday July 05 2021
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A Mubatwa with her pots for sale in Western Province, Cyamudongo, Rwanda. PHOTO | AFP


History has not been kind to the Batwa, the minority community of the Great Lakes region. Whether in Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo or Burundi, old or young, their misery is deep and shared, like a culture.

Known for their stoicism, they face life on the fringes of society, ostracised and discriminated, but are still here.

Majority of the Batwa do not have any level of conventional education not only in Rwanda but in all regional countries they are found. To the extent that when in 2020 a Ugandan Mutwa girl, Alice Nyamihanda, graduated from Bugema University, it made news.

Many in Rwanda have never attended school, but a few have graduated from university. Efforts to improve their access to education is slow, with only 500 in primary, 200 attended secondary and 30 have graduated.

Vincent Bavakure is among the few. He benefited from a government scholarship through the ministry of Local Government.

Of the 20 Batwa students on scholarship, five of them dropped for various reasons, but mostly stigma and discrimination.


“My identity was concealed throughout school, no one knew that I was a Mutwa, and that is what enabled me to complete school and university. I sat through painful sessions of class where my community was referred to in derogatory terms, but I had to keep quiet to protect myself so that I could study,” he said.

Only the headmaster knew his true identity, and he is grateful to him for keeping it a secret and protecting him.

“Today the stigma and discrimination is covert. You cannot get concrete evidence, but it is prevalent and still affects many,” says Bavakure.

“People have shunned businesses established by Batwa, and when they contest leadership positions at different levels, they are not elected, affecting the little confidence left.”

He says that even when a Batwa family loses a family member, “some people come to the vigil just to see how a dead Mutwa looks like. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done to fight this mind-set.”

Bavakure, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree, now heads Coporwa, an organisation doing advocacy and improving the social-economic conditions of his people.

The government of Rwanda is addressing the educational, social and economic needs of the community, but the shift has been slow.

The lack of education and general social mistreatment keeps them off government programmes, because “many don’t consider themselves Rwandans because of how they are treated by the larger population.”

Real life experience

I met Ndahimana Amani in Kacyiru, where he comes every morning to make clay flower vases for sell to Kigali’s middle class. He belongs to a co-operative, called Kigali Modern Pottery, with 55 other members, all of them Batwas.

He learnt pottery when he was 15, after he abandoned school because of stigma discrimination and has been making pots and clay vases ever since. He is now 54-years-old.

Ndahimana says the stigma and discrimination back then was more open and unpunished by the government. He carries with him painful memories of his life and that of his kin. “We made cooking pots for people, who in turn gave us food, but the same people would not eat with us or want anything else to do with us,” he said.

“I remember delivering pots to a home and found them eating, and they served me in my own secluded place. After eating my plate would be isolated and everyone informed that here is a plate that was used by Umutwa, so no one else would use it.”

But Ndahimana is pleased that the current government has in a way “restored their humanity through laws that regard and protects everyone as a Rwandan.”

Exposed then isolated

As the dawn of the 19th century brought a rise in deforestation, mass logging and large-scale agriculture, it meant diminishing natural homes for the forest community Batwa, who lived as hunter gatherers.

They were further displaced by national protection and conservation of forests, especially those inhabited by the endangered mountain gorillas and other wildlife for the sake of tourism.

The Batwa were pushed out of their ancestral homes and into landlessness and a transactional economy without the necessary survival skills.

But the Batwa story is not just about displacement. It is socio-cultural too. Just because they are different, naturally short in stature, they are discriminated.

I remember my grandmother’s Rwandan folklore, and how she would mimic the apparently lethargic way the Batwa spoke, depicting them as dumb people who did other community’s dirty work, to be paid not in cash but mutton, cow ghee, beans and other foodstuff.

To date, the Batwa are still discriminated against in many ways, their integration into Rwandan society is slow, but it has started.

Rwanda’s law criminalises discrimination of any kind, giving protection to a number of groups, the Batwa included.

Although he acknowledges that stigma and discrimination against the Batwa community still exists, at least it now has a name, which is ‘’divisive ideology’’ or ‘’discrimination,’’ which are both punishable by law.

Article 80 (2) of the 2003 Constitution of Rwanda provides for one senator to be named among the eight appointed by the president to represent historically marginalised groups, of which the Batwa are. In fact, officially they are referred to as ‘’historically marginalised people.’’ But not all are please, saying, the new tag further reinforces stigma.

The government and its partners have done a lot to improve the lives of indigenous people, for instance giving them land and accommodation but many have been taken advantage of by people who end up paying peanuts for their land,” said John Mugabo, the executive director of Men4Women, an advocacy non-governmental organisation working with for the Batwa.

“Some have been given livestock through the Girinka programme but they slaughtered them for food, so we continue to educate them to slowly adapt to modern life,” he said.

In general, the Batwa are still exploited but whenever we raise these issues, some people in government say this is ethnic division talk, yet this is reality. The government has helped a lot, but there is a need for a more pragmatic process of integrating them to the larger community,” said Bavakure.

By the last census of the community in 2014, Rwanda had 35,015 Batwa, down from 36,073 in 2012.