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The People Who Don't Exist

Banana leaf ashes float in the haze of charcoals still red from the pottery firing. With long sticks, one man and two women move scorching pots to the side to cool. I was with a group of 40 Batwa watching the pottery firing, close enough to feel the radiant heat on this humid, overcast day. The three potters smiled, happy to show off the work the community had accomplished together.

Sitting on the side of the hill overlooking the community’s enhanced homes of stucco and metal sheeting, I could see the tops of a few banana trees just below the houses, leading to the valley below. One of the homes had a pile of greenish unfired pots outside, waiting for the next firing. The community would use the same smoldering ashes to build the next earthen kiln, which they would build up using grass and banana leaves to cover the stacked pots.

We had driven nearly four hours south from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to this Batwa potter community in Kibingo district in the southern province to learn how Cultural Survival might help the Batwa, also known as Pygmies. An elderly Twa woman (“Batwa” is the plural noun, and “Twa” is singular) explained that men would later stack the pottery in enormous baskets and carry them on their heads into the town we passed miles before on our drive. Men typically walk to town once a day to sell their pottery. An average cooking pot sells for 30 Rwandan francs—approximately six cents.

Unlike many indigenous groups, Batwa do not have a collective land base. Instead their communities are scattered throughout the country’s rural hillsides. (Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills, and nearly every one is carved into neat agricultural plots.) Traditionally, Batwa practiced hunting and gathering, and their culture is based on the forest. Some anthropologists have characterized Batwa and other hunter-gatherer cultures as living by “immediate return,” meaning that they immediately spend any money they earn or eat any food they acquire. It’s an appropriate philosophy for a mobile people in an abundant forest, but it does not fit well with long gestation period and food-storage necessities of an agriculture-based economy.

Today, only a very small percentage of the Batwa still rely on the forests for their subsistence. The rest, like the people I was visiting, have been pushed to the outskirts of towns, where they practice the only economic activity left to them: pottery. For generations, Batwa used their pottery—utilitarian, with basic decorations—for trade with agricultural neighbors, who depended on Batwa for their pots. Over time, however, with the advent of metal pots and now plastic bowls, their work has become devalued, to the point where an estimated 30 percent of Rwandan Batwa do not practice any type of income-generating activity. Many Batwa are reduced to begging on town streets.

The dire poverty of the Batwa was immediately clear as we drove into another Batwa pottery community in Nyakizu district in the southern province, flanking the embankment of a road between two hills. Children, excited by the prospect of visitors, greeted us, chattering in Kinyarwanda, the national language. But their smiling faces were in stark contrast to their physical condition. Most of their clothing was tattered rags, and some of their hair was spotted yellow—a sign of severe malnourishment. Their tiny, ramshackle homes—about six feet wide and constructed with sticks, salvaged wood scraps, dried grass, and old clothing—may be shared by eight people.

Here, as in other settlements, the Batwa live literally on the edge of the village, where land is too steep and rocky for proper agriculture—land no one else would take. One man, roughly 30 years old, showed me a communal agricultural plot that appeared to be a desperate attempt at farming on this barren and trampled land. It was nearly impossible to differentiate the wilted and stringy plants from the grass and weeds. He pointed to an adjacent hill and said that they once lived in that area, which was more fertile, but that other Rwandans had pushed them out.

Even the Batwa’s one mode of self-support is under siege. The draft land policy for Rwanda calls for the exploitation of Rwanda’s marshland, which is critical for providing the Batwa with clay for their pottery. Chris Huggins, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Rwanda, said the government is exploring rice cultivation in the marshes that this Batwa community uses, and in some cases they are denying Batwa access to clay.

“In some villages, women only eat once every two or three days,” says Alphonse Kanyamasoro Muhire at the Université Libre de Kigali, who has worked with Batwa communities for many years. “It is common that young women die in childbirth, and the infant mortality rate in some areas is around 80 percent.” The Batwa are the least of the least, unimaginably destitute even by the standards of a country where 70 percent of the population is impoverished.

But their situation is even worse than the statistics suggest, because in Rwanda, it is against the law to be Batwa, or even to recognize that such a people as the Batwa might exist. And while that may sound outrageous to us in the West, in the context of Rwanda, there is a certain logic to it.

Consider the country’s racial history: According to Tutsi folklore, Tutsi pastoralists began migrating into Rwanda in the 1400s and set up a complex feudal system with a monarchy. Under this system, Hutu farmers—Bantus who had been living in the territory since the a.d. 1000—essentially leased land from the local Tutsi lord, pledging their allegiance and services to the king. The inherent injustices of that system came to the fore when European colonists moved in, favoring the lighter-skinned Tutsi for leadership roles and promoting the idea that Hutu were mere peasants (the Batwa were even lower on the scale, seen by many colonists as less than human). When Rwanda became a United Nations Trust territory following World War II, Tutsi continued to hold the majority of the seats of power, and Belgium, the administrative authority for the territory, instituted a national identification card system based on ethnicity. (It was an ethnicity largely determined by the cards themselves, as Hutu and Tutsi shared religion, language, lifestyle, and appearance.)

With racial tensions thus exacerbated, it was only a matter of time before the situation devolved into violence. The Hutu majority revolted against the colonial government in 1959, driving nearly 160,000 Tutsis from Rwanda to neighboring countries. Tutsis in exile inevitably built a strong sense of resentment, and in 1990 launched an attack on Rwanda that sparked an ever-more-violent conflict.

The notorious Radio Libre des Milles Collines (Liberal Radio of the Thousand Hills) spread its message of hate against the Tutsi for causing Rwanda’s problems and for subjugating the Hutu for generations. Hutu extremists promoted the idea that the Tutsi were not “indigenous” to Rwanda. They sought to exterminate the Tutsi from Rwanda and send them back to Ethiopia, where they were believed to have originated.

On April 6, 1994, the situation reached the boiling point when a land-to-air missile shot down President Habyarimana’s plane—killing him and the president of neighboring Burundi. Most experts speculate that this was the work of a Hutu extremist looking to blame Tutsi rebels to ignite the “final solution” of Tutsi extermination.

It worked. The fire of hatred engulfed the nation, and the Rwandan genocide began. Within four months, close to 1 million people were slaughtered with garden tools, machetes, automatic weapons, and grenades. Twelve years later, you can still feel the weight of the horror Rwandans witnessed. You can still smell the blood-soaked clothes and decay at memorial sites. We visited one of these sites, a church on the outskirts of Kigali where more than 10,000 people were brutally massacred within its walls. Among the seven or eight piles of unidentified bones still waiting to be buried behind the church—like massive rock piles at a construction site—someone had neatly displayed 30 or so skulls, broken and smashed. One smaller skull, probably a child of eight or nine, clearly had been hit with a machete—a neat dented line showed across the side. A special skeleton had been preserved in a small catacomb: a woman, the caretaker told us, whose body was found with a pole lodged from her vagina to her neck, killed because of her identity.

Approximately 14 percent of the total Rwandan population died in the genocide, the majority of them Tutsi. The Batwa, who compose no more than 0.4 percent of Rwanda’s population of 8 million, suffered disproportionately: They lost an estimated 30 percent of their population. Batwa, like many marginalized groups during conflicts, were stuck between factions. They were killed by both sides—and co-opted by both sides to participate. One local informant told me that Batwa were used as “human shields”—forced to act as a barrier between the warring Hutu and Tutsi.

The genocide ended in July 1994, when the Tutsi exile rebels managed to overthrow the president and military. To avert such atrocities on Rwandan soil in the future, Rwandans in 2002 passed a new constitution outlawing ethnicity entirely. Even talk of ethnicity is divisive—the government has legislated that all Rwandans need to shed their ethnicities in the pursuit of a national identity.

“This country has seen the worst,” Busingye Johnston, the Secretary General of the Republic of Rwanda Ministry of Justice says. “If we can resolve an issue without a special code name, we will do a better job at alleviating the problem. It is not necessary to call [the Batwa] indigenous to help them.”

Instead of using the term “indigenous” the Rwandan government has proposed identifying the Batwa as “historically marginalized” or “vulnerable,” and equating their needs to the special rights of women and children.

The Batwa, however, are not quiet about this situation. In 1995, various Batwa organizations banded together under an umbrella group called Communaute des Autochtones Rwandais (“Community of Indigenous Rwandans,” or CAURWA) to press the government for their rights and their identity as indigenous people, and to ameliorate Batwa living conditions. After consulting Batwa villages across the country, CAURWA has asked the government for several fundamental changes. Among those are a recognition of the organization, promotion of Batwa rights, government programs to provide better education and healthcare for Batwa, and land redistribution schemes and a plan for Batwa to share profits from the development of their former forest home.

The government recognizes the Batwas’ plight, but it cannot get past the horror of the recent past. The only solution they offer is eradicating ethnic categories. Benjamin Ndahirwa from the Rwanda Ministry of Local Affairs says, “Don’t think of Rwanda like any other country. Every group in Rwanda has been marginalized at one point, and terminology has been used to highlight divisions. We can categorize people according to their socioeconomic conditions and not in name [of ethnicity].”

But even as Ndahirwa defends homogenization, he acknowledges the discrimination that the “historically marginalized group” faces. “It is against the law to make ethnic jokes in Rwanda,” he says. “If another person overhears you make a joke about the Hutu or Tutsi, you can be reported to the authorities and tried for promoting genocidal ideologies.” But, he says, no one cares if you make Batwa jokes. “It is common if someone does something stupid to say, ‘Oh, you are becoming Batwa.’”

One Twa we talked to in the village confirmed the discrimination and prejudice they face on a regular basis. He said that his children don’t like to go to school because other children throw things at them and call them dogs. When there is a community celebration, like a wedding or a funeral, he said, the Batwa are invited but they are not allowed to drink banana wine out of the communal pot because they are “dirty.” Most other Rwandans view the Batwa as animals, he said.

Sylvie Kayitesi Zainabo, the president of the Rwandan Human Rights Commission, says the Batwa should be more integrated into the mainstream. Noting their absence from school and from farming, she says, “Ninety percent of the Rwandan population is agricultural, but the Batwa only know how to do pottery.” In the new program of Economic and Social Rights, she says, the Human Rights Commission will support training in agriculture for marginalized groups, like the Batwa, to improve their economic condition.

“Their poor economic status is not about the Batwa, it is about 70 percent of the population—and the Batwa are about two percent,” Johnston says. “We need to level the playing field for everyone. The Batwa have lived with everyone else for 1,000 years and now they are integrated.”

In 2004, the government applied this logic to CAURWA itself. The group applied to the Ministry of Justice for official legal status as an organization, but the ministry rejected the application and ordered CAURWA to cease all of its projects to help Batwa increase literacy and gain access to education, housing, and healthcare. The ministry said that the use of the word “autochtone” (“indigenous” in French) and the word “Batwa” violated the Rwandan constitution. The government could not put their stamp of approval on CAURWA’s organizational mission and objectives because it has “Batwa” written all over it.

The rejection of CAURWA’s legal status has had ramifications beyond the wording of their mandate and mission. Trocaire, an Irish Catholic organization that has supported CAURWA’s poverty-reduction strategies and microfinance projects since 1997, was forced to suspend its funding. Moreover, Trocaire was specifically mentioned in the Rwandan parliamentary report on groups promoting genocidal ideology.

“CAURWA is indispensable for reducing the level of poverty that characterizes the Batwa in Rwanda,” said one Twa man. “Why is our government looking to shut down this organization instead of encouraging [it] to work to our advantage?” A great irony is that the government, despite their best efforts, has not been successful talking about the Batwa without calling them Batwa. Calling them “historically marginalized groups” just doesn’t fit the bill. Accordingly, says Sive Bresnihan at Trocaire, the government might let CAURWA keep their identification with Batwa, but without the word “indigenous.” “Women have not come up [in society] by saying that they are not women,” remarked Bresnihan.

Indeed, the Ministry of Local Affairs is still working with CAURWA, despite their official cessation of development projects, to gather data about the Batwa and better understand their problems at the local levels. CAURWA is hoping that after this process, they may obtain some political acceptance in the government, said Jurenal Sebishwi, CAURWA’s president.

The overall problem remains, however. As the Batwa’s situation makes all too clear, you cannot eliminate racism by banning race. As one Twa told CAURWA, “No matter whether I am rich, poor, short, skinny, educated or illiterate, I remain Twa.”

Lisa Matthews is the Program Officer for Cultural Survival.

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