The home of a Batwa family in the Rwandan northern province of Ruhengeri. Out of the 130 Batwa families living in this area, most of them are landless laborers working for their Bahutu and Batutsi neighbors for less than US $ 1 a day.
Credit: Siegfried Modola/IRIN
On a bumpy, dusty road 15 km north of Kinenge town, in the Rwandan northern province of Ruhengeri, one reaches the slopes of the Virunga Mountains. It is a place of dramatic beauty, with stacks of phosphorous smoke escaping from underground volcanic activity and making their way out of a steaming forest that is now part of Volcano Park. This area is home to one of the most endangered apes in the world, the mountain gorilla.
On the edge of the park, in huts scattered along cultivated hills, live some of Rwanda's forgotten community, the Batwa. They once inhabited the forests of the Virunga Mountains, but by the 1970s, after legislation outlawed hunting and gathering and introduced national parks, all Batwa communities were driven off their ancestral lands.Landless labourers
Today, there are approximately 130 Batwa families living in this area. Most of them have become beggars or landless labourers working for their Bahutu and Batutsi neighbours for less than US $ 1 a day.
"Sometimes a Mutwa [singular form of Batwa] will work on someone's else’s land for free. In return, he will just earn something to eat. He will not complain for that, as he knows that he's receiving more than other fellow Batwa," said Benon Mugarura, executive director of the African Indigenous & Minority Peoples Organization, a Rwanda-based NGO. Mugarura has been involved in promoting and developing the Batwa way of life at a socioeconomic level since 2002. The organisation, which is in partnership with the UK-based Minority Rights Group International (MRG), has introduced programmes to encourage the Batwa community to get involved in agricultural activities and also sponsored Batwa families in buying uniforms and textbooks so their children can attend school.
"We have given plots of land to groups of Batwa, which they can farm collectively. But we are at a young stage. These people have to learn how to utilise the land that has been given to them. At the moment, they lack the skills and tools for farming," Mugarura said. "One has to understand that farming does not come natural to the Batwa. They are hunter-gatherers by nature."
In Rwanda, land is a big issue. Being the most populated country in Central Africa, with around 340 people per square kilometre, pressures on the available land are becoming intense. It is estimated that by 2020, the population will double from 8 million to 16 million. In addition, land distribution is unequal. The Batwa, being a minority and representing only 1 percent of the overall population, have little or no say in the government’s decision-making concerning land rights and distribution.
In the Ruhengeri district, many Batwa families have been incorporated in the government policy known as “imidugudu”, in which small plots are combined to create larger fields and farmed communally by participating families. However, their incorporation seems more a symbolic gesture on behalf of the government: Large Batwa families are given parcels so small than only a tiny hut can be built on the plot. The government does not seem to recognise that the Batwa need sufficient land to reside in and to farm. As a result, the majority of Batwa have become underpaid labourers on lands that don’t belong to them. In many cases, they are forced to travel long distances to beg in towns - or steal as a last resort, just to get through the day.
Casualties of conservation
Ntamuhanga and members of his family sitting outside their home in Rwanda. As the chief of the Batwa community in the area, he explained to IRIN how his entire village was driven out of the their ancestral land in the 1970s because of legislations outlawing hunting and gathering.
Credit: Siegfried Modola/IRIN
Ntamuhanga, chief of the Batwa community in the area, recalled when his entire village was removed from the forest three years after Dian Fossey, the controversial American primatologist, started her campaign to preserve the mountain gorillas. His people were one of the first Batwa communities living in the Virunga forest to pay the high price of Fossey’s success in lobbying the Rwandan government to use military force to crack down on poachers.
“We were taken away by people in military clothes. They arrested me, and I spent five years in jail because I was the leader of the hunting group. I think the government wanted to make an example of me. I was a young boy at the time,” Ntamuhanga said. “Today, I still think of the forest as being our home, and there is no place like it. We used to hunt antelopes, rabbits and at times big animals, such as buffalo. There was nothing that the community lacked. We used to come back after a hunting expedition with enough meat to feed the all village. The women used to collect fruits and medicinal plants for the sick ones. Together, we respected and lived in the forest that gave us so much."
Today, Ntamhuanga lives on a tiny piece of land with his wife Nyarama Jyambere and three other family members. His property measures approximately 4 x 5 metres, with just enough space for his modest hut and a pit latrine outside. Making the situation even harder to bear, Ntamhuanga has given permission for a landless Batwa family to stay on his plot. In compensation, the family helps him out when working on the fields belonging to Bahutu and Batutsi neighbours.
"I wake up at five in the morning, and by six, I'm in the fields. I work until late afternoon. In these days, I bring home 500 Rwandan francs, the equivalent of less than a dollar," Ntamhuanga said, adding that he nevertheless felt lucky that he and his family were able to stay on the little land that they own and earn a living doing casual jobs.The Rwandan genocide
According to MRG, the 1994 mass killings resulted in the death of nearly 10,000 Batwa, equivalent to 30 percent of the entire Batwa population in Rwanda. The majority were men and children.
Today, in Kinenge town, groups of women and children beg in the streets, their eyes registering pain and desperation, their thin bodies showing signs of malnutrition. “All the beggars that you see in this town are Batwa, and the same goes for the beggars of Kigali,” said Charles Uwiragiye, executive director of the Rwandan Cultural Conservation Act (CCA) and secretary of the Central African region of the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Tropical Forests, a Thailand-based NGO. “That girl with the child, she can’t be more that 16 years of age. Many Batwa girls who live on the streets of towns and cities will at one stage or the other get involved in prostitution.”
Today, Rwanda’s poverty-reduction schemes and land policies do not seem to take into account the situation of the Batwa, and their group is never mentioned in any government legislation. With no land and living in absolute poverty, the Batwa continue to live on the fringe of Rwandan society.