Rwanda’s Untouchable Tribe

Why you should care

Because despite all you’ve probably heard about Rwanda, there’s a third tribe you’ve missed out on.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, there’s been endless study devoted to the history and animosity between two of the nation’s tribes: Hutus and Tutsis. Yet little is ever said about Rwanda’s little-known third tribe: the Batwa. Despite the fact that anthropologists say these are the region’s original forest-dwelling inhabitants, the estimated 34,000 Batwa (also known as Twa, or Pygmies) make up just 0.4 percent of the population and exist at the margins of society.

While Rwanda turns into a prosperous nation with a fast-growing economy, the Batwa are being left behind — by extreme poverty and a lack of public services. A staggering 77 percent of them are illiterate — more than twice the national average — and 30 percent are unemployed, compared with the national average of 3.4 percent. Those who do work are primarily potters, a trade long associated with the Batwa but for which they earn almost nothing.

The Batwa culture could completely disappear in years to come.

Jolly Kemigabo, Africa regional manager of Minority Rights Group International

Several reasons explain the Batwa’s marginalized status within Rwandan society, and negative stereotypes form the root of the problem. The tribe has been socially excluded by Tutsis and Hutus for being an uncivilized and uneducated minority. “They are being systematically marginalized and disrespected for not having resources. Still, today members of other tribes will even refuse to touch them,” says Susan Thomson, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Colgate and author of Ethnic Twa and Rwandan National Unity and Reconciliation Policy.

Batwa women use their shoes to pour water on clay they collected in the marsh for pottery production.

Batwa women use their shoes to pour water on clay they’ve collected in the marsh for pottery production.

Source Dai Kurokawa/Corbis

And the economic engine that is boosting the lives of Rwandans at large is threatening the Batwa’s traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and forest-dwelling customs. Many were displaced from their homes and stripped of their land without compensation during the creation of Rwanda’s world-renowned national parks, leaving 47 percent of Twa without farmland or the means to earn a living.

Sadly, while the Batwa have not shared in the economic growth that benefits so many of their fellow Rwandans, nor were they spared the brutality of the 1994 genocide. Many fled, some joined the killing mobs and others became victims (an estimated 30 percent of all Batwa died during the civil war). After the tragedy, Rwanda’s National Unity and reconciliation policies were set in place to heal tribal wounds and ease tensions. Today every citizen is identified as Rwandan, regardless of ethnicity. Still, this well-intentioned social program has not been particularly helpful for the Batwa. Banning the mention of ethnicity makes it extremely difficult to design policies that address the specific needs of this community — namely access to land and education — and prohibits international organizations from supplying them with aid by virtue of being an indigenous group. Their response? Choosing to bypass some of the restrictions by organizing themselves under associations with euphemistic names like the Rwandese Community of Potters.

2 Batwa children in the Cyamudongo village on Rwanda.

Batwa children in the Cyamudongo village in Rwanda

Source Eric Lafforgue/Getty

The Rwandan government may acknowledge the tribe as a “historically marginalized community,” but not being able to call themselves “Batwa” poses serious cultural identity issues for this small community. One solution, some say, would be to resort to consciously preferential treatment: “There need to be affirmative-action policies to help them preserve their heritage and culture,” says Jolly Kemigabo, Africa regional manager of Minority Rights Group International, pointing out that most Batwa have abandoned their traditional spiritual practices and no longer speak their native language. She warns that integration — or assimilation — is a threat: “The Batwa culture could completely disappear in years to come.”

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