Traditional Batwa dancing in the Rwandan northern province of Ruhengeri. Many human rights groups have argued that indigenous groups like the Batwa must distinguish themselves from the population at large in order to fight marginalisation by ethnic majorities and preserve their way of life.
The government of Rwanda has threatened to stop any form of funding to the Batwa, including assistance provided by nongovernmental organisations, if the community continues to consider itself a separate ethnic group.
The government maintains that such ethnic self-identification is unconstitutional and undermines the reconciliation process of a country that has just emerged from a period of civil strife. "Such ethnic divisions have only caused conflicts between the people of this country,” said Johnson Busingyie, secretary-general of the Rwandan Ministry of Justice. “It is now time to pass over these petty differences and pursue the goal of national unity that will benefit everyone in Rwanda."
Many human rights groups have argued that indigenous groups like the Batwa must distinguish themselves from the population at large in order to fight marginalisation by ethnic majorities and preserve their way of life. Cultural distinction is vital because the problems they face as traditional hunter-gatherers are unique. However, Busingyie said that the government’s policy of assimilation is vital to including everyone in Rwanda’s future. The integration of the Batwa into all levels of society, he said, is an inevitable process necessitated by changing times.
Times may be changing for some, but in rural Rwanda, the Batwa continue to live in absolute poverty. Organisations like the Community of Indigenous People of Rwanda (CAURWA) are fighting to improve the standing of the Batwa community. As the smallest ethnic population in the country, the Batwa have seen their status and rights diminish since colonial times. Integration with the rest of society seems a remote possibility. Over the last 10 years CAURWA has worked with over 120 Batwa organisations in eight of Rwanda's 12 provinces to improve livelihoods through increasing food security and income. With the organisation’s support, the Batwa have been able to contest their marginalised status in Rwandan society.
CAURWA, however, has a battle of its own to face. On 28 June 2004, the justice ministry declined to grant legal status to the organisation unless it stopped identifying the Batwa as Abasagwabutuka, or the first inhabitants of the land. As a result, CAURWA carried out a nationwide consultation with the Batwa on whether to comply with the government’s demand to remove all forms of ethnic identification from its statutes. Those who responded wanted to be allowed to identify themselves as Batwa and indigenous, and for CAURWA to continue supporting them and advocating on their behalf.
CAURWA agreed to stop using the terminology Abasagwabutuka, but it told the government that it would continue to identify its members as Batwa. The ministry found the concession by CAURWA to be insufficient. It stated that to be accorded legal status by the government, the organisation would have to change its name and statutes to remove all references to the words “indigenous” and “Batwa”. "This will not change anyone,” said Busingyie. “Their cultural identity will remain intact. The government is pursuing a successful development of this country through the goal of national unity. We are all Rwandans."
Amadee Kamota, head of human rights at CAURWA, disagreed. "The Batwa's difficulties, such as access to education, health, work and land rights, do not apply to the rest of the population of Rwanda,” he said. “Getting rid of the identity of the Batwa is not the solution of the problem. If this happens, how will local and international NGOs know who they are targeting?" Facing unique challenges
In June 2005, legal frictions between CAURWA and the government reached the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) African Peer Review Panel, which advised the Rwandan government to begin an intensive dialogue with the Batwa, who as a minority group face different political, social and economic challenges.
The collection of clay for pottery. Sixteen Batwa artisan groups have increased their incomes though CAURWA’s dancing Pots enterprise, which develops the economic potential of traditional Batwa pottery.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
“We are now continuing certain activities that will strengthen our relationship with the government. As long as we don’t have legal status, CAURWA and other partnership organisations will not be able to fully operate in the country,” Kamota said.
A national socioeconomic survey published by CAURWA estimated that of the 33,000 Batwa now living in Rwanda, only 7 percent were members of health insurance schemes, which provide the essential means for a population living below the poverty line to access healthcare. Fifty-one percent of the Batwa population had never attended school, compared with a national average of 25 percent. The primary school enrolment rate of Batwa children was only 48 percent, compared with the national figure of 78 percent. Only 23 percent of Batwa adults could read and write, compared with a national average of 52 percent.
CAURWA is working to improve these statistics. Sixteen artisan groups have increased their incomes through CAURWA’s Dancing Pots enterprise, which develops the economic potential of traditional Batwa pottery and music. The increased incomes are allowing Batwa families to send their children to school, enrol in rural health insurance schemes, increase their livestock capital and improve their housing. CAURWA runs 19 literacy centres, which have taught hundreds of people to read and write. The organisation is currently supporting 60 children to complete their secondary education.
As the legal wrangling continues, problems persist for the Batwa community. In rural areas, they face further marginalisation as a result of the latest land-use policies, which seem to support most farming communities and ignore the hunter-gatherer traditions of forest groups.
On the positive side, the government is increasingly acknowledging the impoverished status of the Batwa by including them in housing schemes and sponsoring a number of Batwa families to send their children to school. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has recently appointed a member of the Batwa community to one of eight senate seats reserved for “representatives of historically marginalised communities”. Still, appropriate measures to address the vulnerability of minority groups have not been mainstreamed in the country’s policies. The dilemma for the Batwa lies in the government’s stance that any form of action in favour of one ethnic group is unconstitutional.
“Every country has its original inhabitants,” said Charles Uwiragiye, executive director of the Rwandan Cultural Conservation Act (CCA) and regional secretary of the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Tropical Forests, a Thailand-based NGO. “In Rwanda, these are the Batwa, and the government should recognise this and help us to improve our lives.”