In-depth: Minorities Under Siege - Pygmies today in Africa

AFRICA: Liberate Nicayenzi, Member of parliament in the Transition National Assembly of Burundi

Photo: IRIN
Liberate Nicayenzi, Member of parliament in the Transition National Assembly of Burundi
NAIROBI, 3 April 2006 (IRIN) - Liberate Nicayenzi is a Mutwa woman, and member of parliament in the Transition National Assembly of Burundi, whose legislature is ending to be replaced by an elected assembly in July 4. In addition, she is chairperson and legal representative of the NGO “Unions Nous pour la Promotion des Batwa” (UNIPROBA).

Being a member of the ethnic minority, the Batwa pygmies, and a woman, Nycayenzi explained to IRIN the challenges that she had to face in order to integrate at a social and political level with the rest of the Batutsi and Bahutu ethnic population.

QUESTION: Were you married to a Mutwa or a Hutu?

ANSWER: In spite of many other proposals, I married a Mutwa. I had a Tutsi fiancé, but I refused him because I was determined to marry a Mutwa. I wanted to have typical Batwa children so that I serve as an example to other Batwa. I wanted to show them that a Mutwa can study, live in a beautiful house, own land, raise cattle and live just as any other Burundian.

Q: As a woman and a Mutwa, you had two handicaps to succeed in Burundi, especially in politics. How did you manage?

A: I relied on UNIPROBA, which provided me an adequate framework to plead for the rights of Batwa. The organisation mobilised other Batwa from university and secondary schools. I advocated Batwa rights, as we are submitted to different forms of exclusion. It carried my voice within and outside the country, which is how I got appointed member of

Q: Has your social milieu not played a role?

A: It helped a lot. I grew up in a very favourable environment, starting with my family, which was convinced of the importance of school. So, my parents sent me to school. My elder sister was working with the nuns and was friendly with my teachers, and this also facilitated my integration in school. As I was performing well, I did not have any problems.

Q: Did many of your childhood Batwa friends grow up to succeed in one way or another?

A: In my region, everybody - girl or boy - had to go to school. They all attended primary school, but they dropped out soon afterwards. But this is not specific to Batwa children. I don’t know where the problem was, but they all dropped out after primary education.

Q: What forms of exclusion are Batwa now facing?

A: I will begin with economic exclusion, the major handicap to Batwa development and integration in society. If you look throughout Burundi, the Batwa have no land, whereas Burundians rely on agriculture. To own land and cattle was considered prestigious. The Batwa never had that. With no land, the Batwa face permanent food shortage. The lack of land and, therefore, a source of income hinder Batwa from sending their children to school. How can a Mutwa buy a pen for his child, let alone school uniforms, with a pot sold at 50 francs [less than US 5 cents]?

Similarly, Batwa shelters are not fit for keeping livestocks. The Batwa were in the past interested in pottery and hunting, but all those activities are outdated. Pots have been replaced by durable and more aesthetic objects.

In addition, other Burundians have access to jobs, but even in humanitarian nongovernmental organisations, you can’t find a Mutwa. On the social level, customs and taboos maintain us in our own circles, barring us from integration in society. People were told not to eat or socialise with Batwa, under threat of rejection of those who violate these taboos. Even a man who had sex with a Mutwa woman pretended that he wanted to get his backache cured. Even if interethnic marriages are starting now, all those Batwa children who do not attend school will not be integrated.

At the political level, Batwa are absent from decision-making bodies, where they could have influenced some laws in favour of the community. I am the only one at the national assembly. There are also three senators, thanks to the Arusha accord.. One would think we are not Burundians. It is a pity. They could have given us 10 percent, 20 percent, or even less - but put in a percentage, as they did for other ethnic groups. We have several ministries - for environment, animals - but we always requested a ministry for the rights of minorities in vain. We are still waiting.

Q: How do you explain this discrimination?

A: It is historical. I don’t know which legal grounds people use to exclude others when we are created alike, speak the same language, worship the same God. But, on the other hand, there are people who think they are superior to others. I blame the leaders, who only put forward their own interests.

Q: How, as a Mutwa leader, will you correct that?

A: We will continue to raise our voices and show, through media and our organisation, UNIPROBA, how our rights are violated. We would also use the presence of the few Batwa in the country’s institutions to plead the case. That is the reason why we talked the Batwa into joining political parties, so that we get more than the three seats provided by the Arusha accord. But we also want a minister’s position, because our absence from the government is a serious handicap.

Another major axis of our struggle is the mobilisation of Batwa families for the schooling of their children, since school is the starting point for social integration. I noticed, for example, that with educated Batwa youths, things start to change a little. Tutsi and Hutu girls start to socialise with them. If a Mutwa is educated or can access land, a Tutsi or Hutu girl will not refuse to marry him, as she will be sure of getting whatever she would have found elsewhere.

Q: Coming back to the question of education, how many Batwa are getting a primary, secondary or university education?

A: UNICEF [the United Nations Children's Fund] has recently carried out a survey in the whole country. The results were similar to our figures. We have six at the university, 200 in secondary schools and many in primary schools.

Q: The figures seem low in secondary schools.

A: Wherever Batwa have been mobilised for the schooling of their children, they have started sending them to school. For others, there is still a need to educate them first.
However, even for those in school, with the problem of hunger affecting Batwa families throughout the year, children drop out of school easily, as they cannot go to school without eating. Nevertheless, compared with other countries, the situation of the Batwa is better in Burundi. In Rwanda, there is only one student in university and 40 in secondary schools.

Q: We talk much about the discrimination against Batwa. Are they not discriminating themselves after all?

A: I would rather call it surrendering. They have been left to themselves, excluded from everything. They have given up trying to socialise with other Burundians. When the colonial rule started sending children of princes and other Burundians to schools, they excluded the Batwa, saying they were good for playing tricks, amusing people at the courts, or just good for hunting. This is where everything started. This did not change throughout the years, and the Batwa community has surrendered. This is making our task
difficult, as they do not consider themselves as Burundians, with rights but also obligations.

Q: What are the challenges to Batwa integration now?

A: The lack of land remains a serious challenge. But I can say the ignorance of Batwa who do not know their rights and what to fight for is also a big challenge. This even hinders them from sending their children to school, as they believe they are no good for schools.

Q: What was the Batwa stand during Burundi’s 11-year civil war?

A: It all depended on the environment in which they lived. Some were following Hutu; others were recruited by Tutsi. But whatever the milieu, the factors of hunger and terror played a great role.

Q: Any last comment?

A: The Burundi government should take its responsibility to solve the problem of the Batwa community, especially the problem of land. The Batwa are already mobilised to change their fate and would favourably welcome government projects.