Batwa: Development of a Marginalized Society
Marginalization from society, government expropriation of lands, and loss of a third of the population during the Rwandan genocide has left Batwa far behind in terms of development. Government programs have been initiated but many are not proving compatible with local lifestyles.
Below is an article published by The Independent (Uganda):
Ibyejo ni ibyabejo,” remarks Jean Pierre Ndagijimana, a construction worker in Nyarugunga village, Kicukiro district. The expression, which translates to “affairs of tomorrow are for those who will be alive tomorrow,” governs Ndagijimana’s mentality in much of the same way as it influences Rwanda’s other 34,000 Twa, known locally as Batwa, who continue to live a largely misunderstood life on the fringes of Rwandan society.
In recent years, the government has made attempts to help poor, marginalised communities through the one cow per one family program, Bye Bye Nyakatsi and Ubudehe, but the results amongst the Twa have not been overly promising.
Various local organizations have also attempted to help, but as David Habimana, the former president of Open Heart Team, an association of students at the National University of Rwanda who support the Twa community of Lango sector in Huye district, explains, “[the Twa] are ever ready to move to somewhere else through government’s expropriations or at self-will and therefore don’t have a reason for making long term plans or keeping lasting goods.”
Since the early 1970s, under the rule of President Habyarimana’s government, the Twa have been subject to displacement from their natural environment in the forests, which had served as a vital function for their livelihoods and culture, to an empty world where other people owned the land, livestock and access to education. In the process, traditional roles for men and women have also evolved:
“Many Batwa came to depend on pottery to replace the forest and hunting as a symbol of Batwa identity,” explains Zephilin Karimba, director of COPORWA, a local NGO working with Twa potters. “With unauthorized hunting strictly outlawed and no land to farm, men’s contribution to the household economy diminished significantly.” Women, he adds, became the focus of family life and the one to look after the children.
Moreover, in the midst of the Tutsi-Hutu violence that plagued the country for decades, a third of the Twa population was killed.
“In many cases, they have been driven away from their territory without compensation or any prospect of alternative livelihood,” says Karimba. “Without land or independent means of sustaining themselves, many pygmies live in extreme poverty.” 90 percent of Rwanda’s Twas, he adds, are landless.
To survive, many Twas still turn to pottery or take on daily casual work from which people like Ndagijimana can earn roughly Rwf2,000 a day. The money can look after food, but is rarely enough to buy exercise books or uniforms for Twa children. Countrywide, only six Twa students study in university.
According to Rwanda’s ministry of local government, the Twa are known to suffer from high levels of illiteracy, insufficient land and produce, and many Twas still lack health insurance. The community, also acknowledges the ministry, is still not well integrated into some national programs.
Though the Permanent Secretary for Local Government Cyrille Turatsinze says plans are now being developed to secure plots of land and iron sheet roofed homes for marginalized groups such as the Twa, it is still illegal for organizations or government to develop policies specific for any particular ethnic group because it can cause “divisionism” or the potential spread of “genocidal ideologies.”
But as COPORWA and various human rights organizations have pointed out, without a more specific approach that takes into account the Twa’s unique history and the perceptions that have been formed from such experiences, it will be difficult for any government aid to have the impact it could.
The Twa, after all, is a community where the members have been told since a young age to expect a bleak and difficult future and live for the present instead. The concept of saving and planning has consequently never been part of their lifestyle.
As a result, even though the government has attempted to involve Twa people in Vision 2020 Umurenge Program (VUP), whereby participants build classrooms, health facilities, training centers, business workshops, village settlements, etc...the Twa population has often abandoned the work for pottery or digging assignments where they are paid every day rather than twice a month.
The government, explains Karimba, can expect similar results with the land and homes it intends to allocate unless it is accompanied by a training program that instills in the Twa the value in cultivating land with proper seeds and agricultural techniques. Without proper farming and adequate food, says Karimba, the Twa will simply sell the iron sheets from their homes to survive. “Actually that house is likened to a prison cell,” he says. “That’s why some people who have tried to help them in that way are disappointed.”
Twa children also need help in understanding the value of an education—something that has never been traditionally important in their community—rather than simply being enrolled in class. According to Anatori Byabagabo, who deals with Twa children as director of a church project that partners with Compassion International Rwanda in Kabuga town, Gasabo district, it is hard to keep Twa children in school for long because they prefer to be elsewhere doing nothing.
“We ran after them in market places and in town, day by day until we could run after them no more,” says Byabagabo. “Some of them were eventually arrested by the police and taken to Gikondo rehabilitation center.”
But in order for Twa to succeed in society, change will also be necessary amongst those the community interacts with. For instance, in Kigalama village, Rulindo district, Zephaniah Mukaremezo says accessing credit from financial institutions is problematic because Twa are considered to be fools who cannot differentiate between a gift and a loan.
In Nyarugunga village, Kicukiro district, Geradine Uwamahoro, a mother of three who recently tried to secure financial support from Ubudehe program to begin a charcoal business, says she was not helped because she needed to give proof of an existing business to be trusted with a loan. “That way, how will the poor pull up their socks, especially many of us who have nowhere to climb from,” she says.
Nevertheless, there are some Twa people who have been positively impacted by some of the government’s assistance programs. 34 year-old, Odetha Mukandayisenga, a resident of Ruhanga Cell, Gasabo district, is one such individual. Mukandayisenga received a cow through the “one cow per one poor family program” two years ago and was also given a home on a piece of land to grow grass for her cow. Four months ago, she says, her cow gave birth and now she receives between 10 and 12 litres of milk every day to share with her family and sell for a profit. “Today I live for tomorrow,” she says.
Mukandayisenga’s new enthusiasm for life has even inspired her to name her three year old daughter Ngombwa Rwandarusha, which literally means “I live in a new Rwanda.”
Initially Mukandayisenga’s admits that she didn’t attach much value to her home or cow because she was brought up to believe that she would never be able to possess wonderful things in life. “I was satisfied with my humble and worrying life of making pots and clay stoves and sell them cheaply to get today’s meal,” she says. “I’ve just understood how it feels to have a milked cow and sleep in iron sheet-roofed house.”