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Spotlight on minorities

16 February 2011

Claire Thomas, MRG’s Deputy Director, visits Rwanda as part of her work with our Street Theatre programme.

If a tin roof has enough holes in it and the sun is at the right angle, the light pours through the holes exactly like a spotlight. This particular spotlight frames circles of muddy floor and mattresses that sleep 8 in a hut so small that I can’t imagine how they all manage to lie down at the same time. The sunny spotlight makes for a striking image that sticks in my memory, but as it has rained quite a lot here in Rwanda recently, it also makes for a lot of lost sleep, wet blankets and a very muddy floor inside the hut.

batwa/twa in rwanda, minority rights group
Members of a Batwa community in Rwanda, 2010. Photo: Dave Hampson

The spotlight image strikes me particularly as I am here in Rwanda to work on an MRG project that will use street theatre performances to challenge discrimination against Rwanda’s poorest and most marginalised ethnic group – the Batwa. So I am attuned to all things theatrical – quite a change for me from strategic plans and budgets!

When you arrive in Rwanda, you are struck by how orderly, clean and well organised the place seems, but as the days of my visit go by it becomes very clear that this country still faces many serious problems. It is still a very tense place owing to the genocide that took place 16 years ago; Hutu and Tutsi divisions are still very much at the fore front of people’s minds even if the subject is very rarely mentioned. For my role in Rwanda though, the problems of the Batwa community today far outweigh the wider ethnic divisions.

As economic growth in Rwanda powers ahead at 7% (a rate that many other countries, north as well as south can only envy), and as more and more Rwandans live in houses with many “mod cons” that would not look out of place in much of Europe, the Batwa communities live in fragile and rudimentary shelters, with no electricity and no water – not even a communal standpipe. They have been thrown off their land, most have no jobs, and many can’t afford shoes, decent clothes, exercise books or pens for their children, who then drop out of school.

Because the genocide pitted Hutu against Tutsi, all mention of a person’s ethnicity is officially banned in Rwanda. However it is still common to hear jokes broadcast on the public radio that start “A mutwa [Batwa person] walked into a pharmacy …..” and which end with an insult or a negative stereotype. Otherwise very sensitive staff in organisations doing excellent work in Rwanda told me that even within their own families children might be told “You’re so dirty, you look like a mutwa!”

batwa/twa in rwanda, minority rights group
Members of a Batwa community in Rwanda, 2010. Photo: Dave Hampson

We discuss whether we might include a parent saying this to a child as part of a street theatre performance to nudge audiences into reflecting on what they are saying and the impact that this will have on others. We might even have the child repeating this to a fellow pupil at school to show how casual racism destroys lives, hopes, opportunities for a family to break out of poverty.

I return to London more knowledgeable about the issues faced by minorities in the country and convinced more than ever that MRG’s street theatre programme is very much needed in Rwanda. Despite the fact that I feel slightly depressed by the poverty I have witnessed, I am buoyed up by the memories of smiling men, women and children, who, regardless of living in desperately poor communities, are still cheerful and optimistic.

Click here to read more about MRG’s Street Theatre Programme.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.