Burundi, a Mutwa man with his children. Today, there is almost a total lack of representation of Batwa pygmies in the civil service and other visible well-paying occupations in the country.
In Burundi, land is a source of power. Many members of the Batwa pygmy community blame their subordinate status on the fact that they do not own property. "Frustration at our state of landlessness is increasing, especially when we remember that in school we were called abasangwa, meaning the people who were the first to settle in Burundi," said Liberate Nicayenzi, a member of parliament and president of the association Unissons-nous pour la promotion des Batwa (UNIPROBA, United for the Promotion of the Batwa).
Having once enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the rainforest environment, most Batwa today have been squeezed out of their hunter-gatherer existence and work as casual labourers on other people’s land. Some are engaged in menial domestic labour, for which they are paid in food, never wages. They are powerless and poor, and discriminated against because they are an ethnic minority. Lost identity, lost opportunities
Batwa in Burundi also suffer from a loss of their cultural identity. Their once-respected hunter-gatherer lifestyle is no longer allowed because of governmental concerns about the destruction of the rainforest environment. Artisanal pottery, which enabled some Batwa to earn a bit of income or barter with other communities, is no longer viable because the basic raw material is now being used to produce bricks. People who used to buy their pots now use plastic containers. Even the Batwa monopoly on traditional healing practices has been usurped by the ethnic majority. "The Bahutu and the Batutsi stole our craft," Nicayenzi said with a sigh of regret.
Want of education is another obstacle to integration and success. Batwa children miss out on schooling for a variety of reasons. First, there is a lack of positive Batwa role models to show families the value of an education. Culturally, schooling is not a priority. Those parents that would like to educate their children cannot afford to do so. Schools are either nonexistent or too far away, requiring children to walk impossibly long distances.
"We need at least the first two classes of elementary school to educate our children in order to have opportunities later on in the job market,” said Tharcice Kanyamaguru in Kiyange, a Batwa settlement in Bujumbura's northern commune of Buterere. Uneducated, he works as a brickmaker, earning 400 Burundi francs (US 50 cents) for the 200 bricks he makes each day. It is barely enough to sustain his family of eight children, let alone educate them. "They are compelled to drop out of school and hunt birds in order to eat," he said.
Without an education, job prospects are limited. As a result, there is almost a total lack of representation of Batwa people in the civil service and other visible well-paying occupations in Burundi. For example, UNIPROBA has recorded only four Batwa working for NGOs in Bujumbura, the capital. In Kiyange, not a single member of the Batwa community is in the civil service.
The Batwa are also denied access to healthcare and clean water. Costs of even the most basic medical services are prohibitively expensive. Batwa women have died giving birth at home. Daniel Budidiri, an elected local leader who is a member of the Batwa community in Mwaro province, said that even though piped water passes near where he lives, the area was not served with clean water. This has had dire health implications, as people have been exposed to waterborne diseases from open ditches. "We often have belly aches, and our children release heaps of worms from their ballooned stomachs," Kanyamaguru said.
In Burundi, Batwa pygmies are often denied access to health care and clean water. Costs of even the most basic medical services are prohibitively expensive.
Credit: Margaret Wilson/Survival
Home for the Batwa is rudimentary, at best. Charles Kaburambonetse, 51, has lived in Kiyange for 44 years. His home is a dark and dingy, 2 x 3 metre, leaky shelter made of rusted iron sheets. "When it rains, my wife, children and I move from corner to corner to avoid the dirty, greyish drops of rain coming through the roof. It is unbelievable that this is urban life," he said. It is common for rainstorms to destroy such flimsy shelters, forcing people to sleep under trees, exposed to lightening and disease.
Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, the Batwa have gone to the government for help. In Buterere commune, a northern suburb of Bujumbura, the government has loaned each member of the Batwa community a 5 x 10 metre plot of land that barely accommodates their families. Although they have complained to the authorities, members of the community said that government officials had failed to listen and never investigated their concerns. "The people at the top do not talk about our problems, yet we voted for them. Only UNIPROBA leaders come to see us and bring some aid," Kaburambonetse said.Rays of hope
There have been signs of change for the better. The new Burundian constitution set aside three seats in the senate and three seats in the national assembly - the two chambers of parliament - for members of the Batwa community. "It is a step forward, though the posts were not given on the basis of quotas, as was done for the other ethnic groups," said Nicayenzi.
The Batwa were also optimistic that the government had legalised their association. UNIPROBA supports the formal education of Batwa children and adult literacy. It also raises money for the community through the sale of handicrafts, bricks, baskets and fish. Leaders of the association have lobbied for the government to open public debate on the problems of the Batwa and asked the ministries of national solidarity, education and health to budget for initiatives to improve the lives of the Batwa, just as they had done for destitute or disabled people, as well as refugees and internally displaced persons.
"The problems of the Batwa are being dealt with in the framework of a policy to support destitute persons like bereaved persons, the handicapped and orphans," said Béatrice Ntahe, the private secretary in the Ministry for National Solidarity. She said there was no specific policy in place for the Batwa because it might provoke jealousy among other ethnic groups. Odette Kayitesi, minister for environment and land management, said her ministry was committed to providing land to the landless wherever arable land was available. "We are carrying out field visits in the move to provide land to destitute persons - among others, the Batwa," she said.
Other bodies, such as the Christian Association for Peace and Development, are providing housing, helping with livestock and raising awareness of human rights to help the Batwa adapt to modern life and integrate into mainstream society. The results are beginning to show. Some Batwa have legalised their marriages. UNIPROBA is also carrying out a census of Batwa who have land-related problems so as to mobilise donors for intervention. The Batwa are gradually realising that being included in Burundi’s development will ultimately raise them out of "bondage". That inclusion means working together with majority ethnic groups that traditionally have excluded them. "We are three brother ethnic groups and should together manage the riches of the country, or else it would be an infringement of human rights," Budidiri said.
Leaders such as Budidiri, who is Batwa but was elected by other ethnic groups as well, are a beacon of hope for the community’s bid at national recognition and fair treatment. "I succeeded in the elections because I have not just been siding with the Batwa group. I was chosen for my courage, honesty and sense of leadership," Budididri said.