The Twa people (or Batwa) can be considered the forgotten victims of the Rwandan war and genocide; their suffering has gone largely unrecognised. Twa can claim to be the original inhabitants of Rwanda, being related to other forest peoples of Central Africa. The Twa are not readily distinguishable from their compatriots, whose language and religious beliefs they share.
However, Twa maintain a rich and distinctive cultural tradition centred on songs, dance and music. Of the 33,000 Rwandan Twa in an estimated 600 households, as estimated by CUARWA in 2004, none are thought to maintain a traditional existence as forest-dwellers. Twa are dispersed throughout the country in small groups. Most work as potters, though others earn a living as day labourers or porters. Almost none own land or cattle.
Before independence a small number of Twa obtained a privileged position at the Tutsi royal court as entertainers (and in a few cases as executioners).
Traditionally, the Twa were forest-dwellers. As farming and herding Hutu and Tutsi encroached on and cleared their ancestral forests, Twa were increasingly forced to abandon their traditional lifestyle and culture. On the margins of the new society, some survived by making and selling pottery. By the 1970s agriculture and conservation schemes created ever-greater pressures on the Twa, rendering many landless – without consultation or compensation. In the late 1980s, all remaining forest-dwelling Twa were evicted from Volcanoes National Park, the Nyungwe Forest Reserve, and the Gishwati Forest. As a result of this land confiscation, Twa have lost much of their traditional forest knowledge. Increasing poverty brought on by the loss of their livelihoods in turn led other Rwandans increasingly to stigmatize Twa as social outcasts.
Despite the limited numbers involved, there is a widespread Hutu perception that Twa are sympathetic to Tutsis, reinforced by the involvement of some Twa in Burundi with the overwhelmingly Tutsi army. Very many Twa were killed in the 1994 war and genocide. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) estimates that about 10,000 people, more than a third of the Twa population of Rwanda, were killed and that a similar number fled the country as refugees. The situation varied considerably from area to area. In some places Twa were killed as Tutsi sympathizers or allies; in others Twa participated in the massacres of Tutsis. UNPO reported discrimination against Twa in the distribution of food and other supplies in the refugee camps. The Batwa population were not recognized in post-conflict reparations frameworks in Rwanda.
Twa remain widely stigmatized by both Hutus and Tutsis – the Impunyu above all. Taboos surround eating together or even using utensils used by Twa. Social and economic integration of Twa in Rwandan society is extremely limited; these indigenous people can be characterized as a disadvantaged and marginalized caste.
Twa also remain disadvantaged in education, healthcare, and land rights. While recent historical evidence has suggested that the Hutu/ Tutsi ethnic differentiation was the product of a colonial perspective, the Batwa maintain that their case is different, arguing that Batwa identity cannot be conflated with Hutu and Tutsi identity, and that their distinct history and culture sets them apart.
The government of Rwanda, bent on denying ethnicity, has threatened to cut off all assistance to the Twa and their organisations if they continue to consider themselves as a distinct people. In 2004 the Rwandan Justice Ministry refused to grant legal status to the Twa-rights NGO Communauté des Autochtones Rwandaises (CAURWA, Community of Indigenous People of Rwanda) unless it stopped identifying the Twa as Rwanda’s first inhabitants, and stopped referring to Twa people. In April 2006, the Secretary General of the Rwandan Ministry of Justice explained to IRIN News, ‘Such ethnic divisions have only caused conflicts between the people of this country… It is now time to pass over these petty differences and pursue the goal of national unity that will benefit everyone in Rwanda.’ In 2007, CAURWA was forced to change its name to COPORWA (Community of Rwandese Potters), as the government refused to budge on the issue of the renewing the charity licence, until it had dropped the word ‘indigenous’ from its title. This was a setback for activists, and they subsequently reported continuing discrimination. COPORWA particularly noted discrimination in rural schools, which lack the policy of non-discrimination and tolerance found in some Kigali schools.
Though Rwanda has made impressive progress in combating poverty and inequality, with improved indicators in areas such as health and education, reports indicate that through discrimination and difficulties in accessing services, Batwa communities have largely been missed out from these benefits. As a result, they have higher infant mortality rates, shorter average lifespans and higher rates of disease and malnutrition than their neighbours. Traditionally forest-dwelling hunters and gatherers, over past decades they have been expelled from their ancestral lands without compensation to make way for agriculture or conservation.
Among other challenges, access to education remains difficult despite the government’s investment in reducing barriers such as distance and affordability through subsidies and construction of new facilities. Hunger and poverty in particular continue to affect the ability of Twa children to engage effectively in education, resulting in missed attendance and dropouts. Until these issues are addressed, it is likely that the educational exclusion faced by previous generations – some estimates suggest that up to 90 per cent of Twa adults have never been to school – will persist.
In 2011, a landmark visit by the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, as well as examinations by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, highlighted key concerns about treatment of the Batwa community. The Batwa number around 33,000, or roughly 1 per cent of Rwanda’s population; according to the Independent Expert, they live ‘in conditions of great hardship and poverty on the margins of mainstream society’. In the aftermath of the genocide, the government undertook to promote reconciliation between the ethnic groups by constitutionally outlawing ethnic distinctions. However, experts noted in 2011, and again during a CERD review in 2016, that the government’s refusal to recognize the existence of minority or indigenous communities has had a negative impact, contravening international standards by which ethnicity can be recognized on the basis of self-identification and undermining official efforts to address inequalities.
Rwanda’s Constitution rejects ethnic classifications; it commits itself to ‘fighting the ideology of genocide’ and to ‘the eradication of ethnic, regional and other divisions and promotion of national unity’. New laws have prohibited ‘divisiveness’ along ethnic lines. The Rwandan state has recognized the particular challenges facing what it terms ‘historically marginalized peoples’; however, experts have expressed concern that the non-recognition of ethnicity contravenes the individual’s right to identify with a specific ethnic group, and ignores such groups’ specific needs and situations.
One area of controversy in late 2010 and 2011 was the official ‘Bye Bye Nyakatsi’ programme for replacing traditional thatched roof houses with iron-roofed ones. While the government described the programme as an effort to ensure adequate housing for all, experts argued that it affected Batwa disproportionately due to their frequent use of traditional building methods, and that it had in the short-term appeared to leave many without shelter.
In addition, concern persisted about issues such as Batwa children’s ability to access their right to education across the region, due to socio-economic obstacles, lack of community support networks, discrimination and the impact of conflict and the situation of Batwa women and girls, including in terms of exposure to violence. In both 2011 and 2016 CERD voiced concern at the weak impact of government measures to help Batwa, who continue to suffer poverty and discrimination with regard to access to education, housing, social services and employment; and at the failure to replace lands expropriated from them for the creation of nature reserves, disrupting their traditional lifestyles. In 2017 the UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women expressed concern at ongoing marginalization of and discrimination against Batwa women as well as at the impact of the government’s denial of ethnicity on efforts to address their situation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored and reinforced the extreme marginalization of the Batwa community. Representatives report that a general lack of washing facilities, soap and disinfectant mean that many Batwa struggle to implement preventative measures. Moreover, almost half of Rwanda’s Batwa population no longer have access to farmland of their own, leaving them dependent on the sort of informal employment that has become scarce as a result of the pandemic.
Updated October 2020
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