The secretary-general of the Rwandan Ministry of Justice explained the importance of Batwa integration into the country's socioeconomic mainstream as a voluntary but inevitable process necessitated by changing times. He maintained that the government's policies of assimilation would not necessarily lead to the obliteration of cultural identities, as this would be comparable to "sociocultural genocide". Johnson added, however, that the Batwa could not distinguish themselves as indigenous people of Rwanda, as the government rejects ethnic separation on the grounds that such divisions caused conflict in the past, such as the 1994 genocide, in which nearly one million Rwandans were killed.
QUESTION: Since coming to power, the Rwandan government has pursued the goal of national unity. What efforts have been made to unify the three ethnic communities - the Batutsi, the Bahutu and the Batwa - into a single national group?
ANSWER: The genocide that happened in this country in 1994 was a failure on behalf of past successive regimes, since independence, to unify the population of Rwanda. The differences between us should not mean failure to live in this country as nationals of this country. If you fail to unify a country into a singular political unity, the country will disintegrate, and the consequences could be as terrible as what happened in 1994.
In the last 12 years, we have concentrated in physically coexisting in the same country, learning that we can all share this already small land. We have legislated against divisionism, against passing negative judgments simply because one is short, tall, Mutwa [Batwa], Tusti or Hutu. Either you are fit to do the job or you aren't. If you have the appropriate education and skills, then you can be part of whatever sector of society you want, no matter which ethnic group you come from.
We have completely changed identification procedures. Before 1994, identity cards showed from which ethnic group you came. Today, this is not the case; identity cards only show that you are a Rwandan national. Rwandan citizenship comes first.
Q: After the 1994 genocide and ensuing war, how did the newly established government deal with the redistribution of land and property to all the returnees, and what difficulties did you encounter?
A: Approximately 90 percent of the displaced population got their property and land back; 10 percent of them are still outside of Rwanda. There were also the ones that fled the country during 1959 and 1960 that came back with the wave of returnees during and after 1994. All of a sudden, there was a large number of people claiming their rights to land and property. The government had to set its priorities in securing land to the displaced returnees due to the genocide and ensuing war of 1994. In some provinces of the country, we implemented programmes for different families to share plots of land, so that the ones that left the country more than 50 years ago got a share of the land that they claimed their families owned before.
Q: The Batwa, who are the minority in this country, have been losing their ancestral lands and livelihoods for reasons such as the introduction of conservation areas in the late 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Have these communities been compensated by the government for the loss of their lands and livelihoods?
A: First of all, I don't believe in the theory that there were Batwa communities living in the forest and high mountainous areas that have become national parks. There is no historical evidence about this. On the other hand, there is historical evidence that Batwa, Batutsi and Bahutu have coexisted side-by-side in the hills of this country for more that 500 years.
The Nyungwe Forest Reserve, not far from Kigali, is simply uninhabitable. There are non-edible plants; the forest is simply too dense to live in. I just don't think that any Batwa group could have lived in this place. The Virunga National Park, where the famous mountain gorillas live, approximately 100 km north of Kigali, is an extremely cold place. Temperatures often reach 0°C. During the war, we tried to hide and survive in the forests of the Virunga Mountains. It was simply too hard. We were adequately clothed, and still some lost parts of their limbs due to frostbite. It is hard to imagine that any Batwa community could have lived in this environment, bare chest. The other one is the Kagera National Park. This area was occupied by cattle-herding communities before the 1940s. When the Germans arrived, they removed these communities and made the area into a national park. To the best of my recollection, there is no Batwa community that was removed from this park and resettled anywhere else.
With the advent of development, it is not advisable to keep communities living as they were 200 years ago just because we want tourists to come and have a look at these people. People have to have access to education, health and industrialisation.
Q: Many Batwa representatives believe that their community is vulnerable and being discriminated against. What is your view on this?
A: I think that in all this, there is an international level of influence, where the Batwa representatives of Rwanda identify themselves as being the voice of all indigenous groups, such as the indigenous people living deep inside the Amazon tropical forest. It is fictitious to start referring to the Batwa of Rwanda or the rest of Africa as being the indigenous groups of this continent. All Africans are indigenous; we have all lived on this continent since time immemorial. Before, there were no borders preventing people from migrating in search of resources. Africans were moving from one place to another, from the Sahara to the southern African tip, including Batwa. In the scramble for Africa, the border concept was introduced, and people began staying in one place.
So the argument that my ancestors were wrongly displaced from this land thousands of years ago because a group of invaders came and kicked me out does not really work within Africa. Yes, some of the movements of ethnic groups were by force, but this is a fundamental law of nature, where one will try to seize the resources of another.
In the development of a country, roads, airports, dams and factories have to be built. In these cases, if a Batwa family was displaced for a piece of land because the Rwanda government had to build a road, then the family would be located somewhere else and be given appropriate compensation. The government is concentrating on improving the quality of the society of this country. Our mission is to improve the socioeconomic life of every citizen, including the Batwa. We are not talking about improving hunting techniques, gathering or living conditions in forests. We are talking about improving health, infrastructure, education, improving access to markets.
After 1994, we went on a course of decentralising power, dissolving power to the last level of the community, so that everybody has a say in what's going on. Decision-making on behalf of the Batwa has to start in the Batwa community, but so far I don't see this happening. Batwa are a very small community and scattered throughout the country. They don't seem able to form a body and speak for themselves. How can the government know who, where and why people are vulnerable and being discriminated against if no one comes forward in a real manner to give light to the problem?
Q: Why is it that today so many Batwa children are not attending school?
A: Primary education in this country is free, and there is a law that will soon be implemented that will make school attendance compulsory. There are sufficient numbers of schools in this country for every child to go to. Many parents of the Batwa do not mobilise their children to go to school, as they do not see the benefits that an education will give their children. Another argument that Batwa parents bring forward is that their children are mistreated and discriminated against by other students, and so they are better off not attending.
Q: The new law on land tenure published by the Rwandan government in 2005 seems a positive step in guaranteeing Rwandans the right to own land, but is it true that the law also grants the government far-reaching powers over land use, potentially subjecting owners to loss of land without compensation?
A: No, this is not true. The constitution states that the government can only take land away if the individual residing is properly compensated. However, you have to keep in mind that land is not individually owned by anyone in this country. The land belongs to the state and to all Rwandans. Compensation is given on whatever is planted or constructed on the land. If the government needs to make a road that passes through a piece of land where there is no sign of development whatsoever, then the individual may not be compensated in cash. He will, however, be allocated another piece of land somewhere else.
Q: Are there any specific poverty-reduction schemes and land policies aimed at promoting the well-being of the Batwa population?
A: Education is one. Access to health is another. The government is concentrating on a health scheme that will benefit the whole country. Everybody will be asked to pay a certain amount. Following this scheme, if one gets sick, he will go to hospital and he will be treated for free.
We are concentrating in persuading the Batwa communities to improve and industrialise to a certain level their artisan skills in the making of pottery.
Q: It is estimated that by 2020, the present population of about 8 million people will double to 16 million. Knowing that land is already a big issue today in Rwanda, is the government planning new land strategies?
A: Agriculture is the main economic activity in Rwanda. The population still depends on large plots of land for a living. We still have to learn how to get the best out of the little land that is available. We have to build large cities with tall buildings where everyone can live in close proximity to each other. Today, we are promoting family-planning strategies. In addition, we are concentrating on educating the population to utilise and get the highest income possible from small pieces of land.