The Batwa of Rwanda

Supporting the Neediest of the Needy


Kids of Kagina

Isaiah 58:10 - " … if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday."




INTRODUCTION

Officially the Republic of Rwanda, by African standards Rwanda is a very small country. However, with a population of over 12 million people, Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in Africa. Located in east-central Africa, Rwanda is bordered by Uganda to the north, Congo to the west, Burundi to the south, and Tanzania to the east. It is not rich in minerals, so the economy is mostly based on subsistence agriculture.

Rwanda in Africa

Unfortunately most people know of Rwanda as a result of the genocide that occurred there in 1994. During a 100-day period in 1994, estimates as high as 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered. The genocide was ended by the victory of the Tutsi-led army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame.

When the war ended, approximately 2 million Hutu fled the country, fearing retribution for their actions. Since the genocide ended, Paul Kagame has heavily influenced government policy. He assumed the office of President in 2000, and was twice since elected as President. Instead of seeking revenge, he pursued an aggressive policy of reconciliation and healing. Under his leadership, the country has prospered, and the resulting security has led to an increase in tourism, now the leading foreign exchange earner. Most of the Hutu exiles were eventually repatriated back to Rwanda.

To avoid future ethnic flare-ups, President Kagame made it illegal to identify anyone by their ethnic origin. There are no ethnic groups or tribes … only Rwandans. He also cracked down on corruption, which was rampant prior to the genocide. Rwanda now has some of the lowest corruption ratings in Africa.

Though the electrical and transportation infrastructure still lags that of more developed countries, Rwanda has a business-friendly climate and is making aggressive efforts to attract new businesses. Only lingering violence near the western border with the Congo threatens Rwandan security. This violence is less ethnically motivated, and is more due to the fact that the eastern Congo is rich in minerals.


THE BATWA OF RWANDA

Largely forgotten, and unknown to much of the world, are the Batwa (the plural name, Twa is singular). The Batwa of Rwanda are pygmies, and are part of a larger group known as the Great Lakes Twa, who once ranged over a large part of central Africa. Generally thought to be the original inhabitants of Rwanda, the Batwa now represent a minority of less than 0.5%. In the days when the country was ruled by Tutsi kings, Batwa were favored and were often present in the royal courts.

Traditionally the Batwa were hunter gatherers in the forested mountains. They traded meat and fruit from the forests for other food grown by the farmers, and other items they needed. They claimed no land as their own, and moved their villages from place to place, as dictated by the conditions and their needs, much like the Native American Indians. Because of this, they had no legal claim to territory as other ethnic groups gradually cut down the forests and converted the land to agricultural use. During the 1980's and 1990's, due to the publicity given to the mountain gorillas, most mountainous areas became protected gorilla reserves, and the Batwa were forced to leave the forests.

From Land Rights and the Forest Peoples of Africa, published in 2009:

So with the land deforested in favor of agriculture, and the remaining forests off-limits to the Batwa, most families were relocated to small villages scattered around the country. Those with land had no training or experience in growing crops. Many families took up pottery making, an ancestral tradition of the Batwa. However, when industrialized pottery became cheaply available, the prices they could realize for their pottery were much reduced.

Then came the genocide. Perhaps because of their previous association with the Tutsi monarchs, but more than likely just because they were caught up in the bloodbath, it is estimated that 30% of the Batwa were killed during the genocide. However, the Batwa are rarely mentioned in discussions of the genocide, nor are they included in reconciliation discussions.

Due to their pygmy ancestry, the Batwa continue to suffer ethnic prejudice, discrimination, violence, and general exclusion from society. They are facing a cultural collapse, as men can no longer carry out their traditional role as family providers. Progress in the rest of the country has not benefited the Batwa. On the contrary, they have suffered many unintended consequences of otherwise progressive policies.

Overall, the Batwa, with a population in Rwanda now estimated at 30,000-40,000, form an isolated and marginalized group in Rwandan society and often face discrimination. They have little access to representation in government, they are marginalized in education and health care, and are discriminated against in the job market.

As is evident in this 2011 UNPO Study, and in this earlier 2007 Utrecht University study, in a country where nearly 45% of the population still lives in poverty, the Batwa are clearly the neediest of the needy, as evident in the following statistics:

The Batwa people themselves are not asking for special treatment. They desire just to be considered Rwandans, as government policy promotes for all ethnic groups in Rwanda, with the same rights and priviledges as everyone else. When considered as a group, most prefer to be called "potters", which is a trade they have traditionally been involved with, and most villages actively practice at present. This is also the politically correct term used by the government, when there is a need to refer to the Batwa as a group.


 

How You Can Help

In February 2020, the Evangelical Free Church of Butte, MT became aware of the plight of the Batwa, and members of the congregation have been contributing to the support of the Batwa by supporting the ministry of Pastor Charles Uwiragiye and his wife Penninah. Both Pastor Charles and Peninnah are enthnic Batwa. Their ministry GRACE is dedicated to bringing the gospel message to the Batwa living in the remote, rural villages in Rwanda, to connecting them with local churches, and to helping them become more self-sufficient.

If you would like to get involved, even if you can't contribute anything right away, contact Dave Nims of the Butte Efree Church. He will keep you abreast of plans, progress and future opportunities to get involved..