Oct 24, 2006

Batwa: Rwanda’s Forgotten Minority

Though the lessons from the genocide need to be firmly borne in mind as Rwanda continues to build a peaceful future, but Rwanda still faces enormous challenges today such as poverty and marginalization.

Rwanda has come a long way since the dark days of the 1994 genocide. Now, more than ten years after those terrible events, many people are looking forward to the future as opposed to mulling over the terrible past.

Though the lessons from the genocide need to be firmly borne in mind as Rwanda continues to build a peaceful future, Rwanda still faces enormous challenges today such as poverty and marginalisation.

One of the most marginalised groups in Rwanda is the Batwa people. These people have lived in what is contemporary Rwanda as well as parts of neighbouring Burundi, Uganda and Congo for centuries, pursuing their traditional hunter-gatherer type existence in the region's once plentiful forests. Nowadays, they find their habitats and their livelihoods have been denied them.

The Rwandan state has for decades been taking over and controlling forest areas for conservation, tourism and security purposes. The Batwa have been effectively denied access to their homelands and with that have lost most of their means of making a living and now live a shockingly impoverished existence.

CARE has recently started a project to try to address the rights of the most marginalised communities in Rwanda. The Batwa are the main target group. CARE UK’s Regional Manager for Africa, John Plastow recently visited the programme and saw for himself what a terrible situation the Batwa are in: "I would compare them to the so called ‘untouchables’ of India. People refuse to share things that they have touched, they are given menial and the dirtiest tasks in society, for which they are paid a pittance. They are shunned in public gatherings and generally considered to be dirty and lazy by wider Rwandan society.

"I went to see their situation in the foothills of the Ruhengeri Mountains famed as being one of the homelands for the mountain gorillas for which international tourists pay thousands of pounds just to get a glimpse. The Batwa used to live in these same forests but so as not to disturb the gorillas and because of concerns about security they have been denied any sort of entry for decades. They have been forced to move down the hills and into the already hugely overcrowded plains where they live a life of unimaginable hardship deprived of the chance to make use of their forest skills or to use natural resources like honey from which they could otherwise make a living.

"The Batwa invariably have no land, and those few who do or did, have invariably sold the little they had it to neighbours to keep their lives together. Most of the people CARE is working with live in the tiniest of shacks which are home to families often up to six or seven in number. Most own absolutely nothing but the land on which their house sits.

"CARE has started a project teaching adults to read and write to help people gain confidence and the skills that should enable them to better integrate into social and economic life. Very few Batwa have ever been to school and their extreme poverty still means that very few of their children go to school since they do not have the means to provide pens, books or even to give them enough food to see them through the school day.

"In Kabasungu village in the shadow of the Ruhengeri Mountains villagers are keen to participate. One man voiced his concern that he would be excluded from the project because he has had three years of primary schooling, though he said he’d forgotten what he was taught. Miheto later told his story: He had left school after less than three years because his parents couldn’t afford the costs. His father was brought up in the forests but was thrown out as a young man and was not able to provide for the family. Since then he had grown up and had his own small children who he desperately hoped would be able to escape his fate.

He showed me his small house and family and told me what he did to survive. His last job involved carrying stones for a family that was building a house in this area. This work lasted two months and he earned just three thousand Rwandan shillings or about three pounds. That was at around Chistmas and he has had no regular work since. He relies on what little his wife can earn for making pots, something the Batwa are famed for, and from the odd times he got agricultural work. ‘Often’, he tells me ‘my wife is forced to go and beg our neighbours for a few scraps of food so that we can at least give something for our children to eat.’

There are many thousands of Batwa living in conditions like Miheto and his family. CARE is working to improve their situation. Part of that solution is making the local government more aware of the plight of such marginalised minorities and to ensure that they act to address the needs of these citizens who to date have been without a voice. It is encouraging that the Rwandan government has done so much to move its people on from the legacy of the genocide, but there are now acute problems such as the poverty and marginalisation of the Batwa which should no longer be overlooked."