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The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region, Central Africa

30 April 1999

By Jerome Lewis

Among those who suffer from the most severe types of discrimination in Africa are hunter-gathering and former hunter-gatherer peoples. In almost all instances, these former and contemporary hunter-gatherers are tiny minorities who are recognized by themselves and by their neighbours as being indigenous, as descendants of the first inhabitants of the areas in which they live. Typically this discrimination is most severe, as is the case for the Batwa Pygmies, when the hunter-gatherers have lost almost all possibilities of living by hunter-gathering and have largely adopted the way of life of their neighbours.

A colonized people

The Batwa of the Great Lakes Region inhabit parts of Burundi, Rwanda, southern Uganda and the Kivu Region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They make up less then 1 per cent of the nations in which they live. Batwa see themselves as a colonized people, first by agriculturalists, then by pastoralists and finally, by Europeans. Each colonizing group put increasing pressure on the original forest of the area turning most of it into farmland, pasture for cows, commercial plantations and, more recently, protected areas for conservation and military exercises. The Batwa became incorporated into the dominant society at the very lowest level, sometimes likened to the Dalits (former ‘untouchable’ caste) in Indian society. This lowly status, their small numbers and the dispersal of their communities have contributed to their extreme political weakness and the serious difficulties they have had in asserting their rights or resisting expropriation and violence.

The Batwa have been dispossessed of almost all of their land and do not enjoy security of tenure for what remains. Most Batwa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were unable to live from hunting and gathering because of large-scale deforestation. Deprived of farmland they became tenants and clients. Pottery, a low status craft traditionally reserved for them, became their main occupation. By the early 1970s the last forest-dwelling groups were forced out of the forest and denied further access to it. The Batwa were increasingly dependent on pottery and other marginal subsistence strategies, like casual labour and begging. In 1993, begging was a major activity for 70 per cent of Rwandan Batwa.

The insecurity of Batwa subsistence strategies has contributed to their increasing poverty and marginalization from main-stream society. In all places they are discriminated against. Their neighbours will not eat or drink with them, allow them in their houses, or accept them as marital or sexual partners. They are not allowed to fetch water from the same wells as other people. Their communities are segregated from other groups, forced to live on the boundaries of population centres, or on marginal land unwanted by others. These practices are less rigidly adhered to in urban contexts, but many underlying biases against the Batwa remain.

Many other communities hold extremely negative stereotypes of the Batwa, despising them as an ‘uncivilized’ and ‘subhuman race’, without intelligence or moral values. In recent years the Batwa have been stereotyped as poachers by the Northern media – most notably of gorillas, as in the film Gorillas in the Mist – and by conservation agencies who wish to justify denying them access to the forest they traditionally exploited.

The impact of conflict

In the context of the conflict in the Great Lakes Region, all belligerents hold negative stereotypes of the Batwa. Batwa commun-ities and individuals are therefore vulnerable to attack from either side, or risk being forced to take up arms. They have few resources to fall back on during a crisis, the marginal areas they occupy are popular with armed groups seeking to avoid detection, and their lack of political patronage and extreme poverty makes them vulnerable to manipulation or coercion. Little is known by outsiders about the impact of contemporary conflicts on the Batwa. Only the consequences of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 have been documented.

Up to 30 per cent of the Rwandan Batwa died or were killed between October 1993 and June 1995. Those left in Rwanda were predominantly poverty stricken women and children with few sources of income and inadequate land. Batwa men had been killed during the massacres, while others had participated. Due to the stereotyped views of the Batwa, whole communities became labelled as supporters of the Tutsi, or conversely, as their murderers, and often as both. The implications of this for the future of the Rwandan Batwa are profoundly distressing.

Batwa organizations in Central Africa have started to mobilize and have urgently requested MRG’s support and collaboration.

This article was first published in the 53rd edition of our ‘Outsider’ newsletter on 1 May 1999.