Forgotten people: the Batwa 'Pygmy' of the Great Lakes region of Africa

Report
from Refugees International
Published on 12 Aug 2003
Intern Tara Golden and Advocate Anne Edgerton prepared this report.
"We are truly the forgotten people of Rwanda, having been there for the longest, having lived for thousands of years in the rainforests of Africa before the Hutu and the Tutsi arrived. We have been forgotten by all those who have come to use our forests, ignored by the European colonists and we are again forgotten by all those who would help to resolve the chaos that Rwanda is in today." -- Charles Uwiragiye, Executive Secretary, Association for the Promotion of Batwa, 1994.

The Pygmies of Africa: Exclusion Legitimized

In 1751, Edward Tyson published a book entitled, The Anatomy of a Pygmy Compared with that of an Ape and a Man, which effectively introduced the Western world to the Pygmies* as a subhuman entity.

In 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed its newest addition to the gorilla cage, a Pygmy man named Ota Benga. The New York Times touted the exhibit by calling it "the most interesting sight in the Bronx." The animal-like perception of Pygmies penetrated the Western consciousness. Unable to return home, Ota Benga committed suicide ten years later.

The 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist presented the Pygmy as savage gorilla poachers, a concept that has never been largely questioned, despite the fact that Pygmies lived with gorillas in the forests of Central Africa for centuries without the gorilla becoming endangered, as it is today.

These misrepresentations of the Pygmies have had devastating effects upon their populations. The popular perception of them as barbaric, savage, wild, uncivilized, ignorant, unclean and above all else, sub-human has seemingly legitimized their exclusion from mainstream society and left them with little support or outside resources in their current state of forced displacement.

Forcible Displacement of the Batwa

A group of Pygmies, the Batwa, face particular challenges. The Batwa, who live in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), number an estimated 70,000-87,000, according to Minority Rights Group International

Starting in the late 1960s, with the establishment of the Kahuzi-Biega Forest in South Kivu, DRC, and still continuing today, international conservation groups have joined with national governments to forcibly expel Pygmies from newly declared game parks and forest preserves. They are evicted from their homelands and offered neither compensation nor recourse. Homeless, they take up a marginalized status on the periphery of local communities.

The opening of several conservation parks, including the Bwindi and Mgahinga in Uganda, succeeded in displacing the Batwa still living in forests. In 1991, forest life essentially came to an end for the remainder of Batwa. Before the opening of large parks in Uganda, the World Bank required an assessment of the challenges that would be faced by Batwa. Four years later, Uganda reported on those challenges and made several suggestions to aid the Batwa in transition. Among these suggestions was compensation for Batwa land and integration programs for Batwa. There are provisions for citizens who were displaced by parks to receive compensation but, as Batwa are not members of local governmental institutions, compensation or profit-sharing schemes did not include them.

It is a social taboo to share food, occupy the same bench and socialize with Batwa in public spaces. While other citizens are issued birth certificates and identity cards free of charge, Batwa must undergo an involved bureaucratic process. Without these cards, it is difficult to enroll in schools and receive government-funded health care, which are otherwise guaranteed to other vulnerable people in the country.

Today, the large majority of Batwa live in and around cities. Most produced pottery as a source of income after their displacement from forests. The pots were used for farming and in other industries for storage and transport. Eventually, though, as foreign goods were more readily available on the market, plastic and metal containers replaced Batwa pottery.

Without the resources of the forests and the ability to sell their once popular pottery in a highly competitive market, Batwa now work as day laborers, servants, and tenant farmers or in other unskilled menial jobs. However, an estimated 80% of Batwa earned capital from begging. Batwa are most able to support themselves when they mold themselves into the stereotypes expected of them. To remain docile, submissive and animal-like reaffirms the social hierarchies to which other groups have assigned them. While people do give money out of pity, it also serves to concretize the marginalized status of Batwa.

Batwa occupy the role of second-class citizens. They lack marketable skills, having neither access to their traditional forest economy or to any public services. Education, healthcare, landownership, and equal treatment by the justice system are all less accessible to the Batwa than the general population. Without the availability of traditional or state resources, the Batwa became the most vulnerable and the most easily exploited population during the conflicts that began in the 1990s.

Conflicts and the Batwa

Exposure to conflict has jeopardized the Batwa way of life. Violent conflict has spilled into all the countries of the Great Lakes since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. International attention has focused on the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis, who together make up 99% of the populations of both Rwanda and Burundi. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Batwa were both killers and victims.

Batwa tenant farmers defended to the death their non-Batwa landowners, as did Batwa guides and guards. Batwa who were indentured to or employed by Hutu would take up machetes to kill Tutsi and moderate Hutus; while those Batwa who remained loyal to their Tutsi providers were killed. Innocent, impartial Batwa were also killed for fear that they were Tutsi sympathizers. Thirty percent of the Batwa population in Rwanda was killed during the genocide, the largest percentage of any ethnic group.

A similar situation is now transpiring in the DRC, where many more Batwa are able to maintain their lives in the forests than in any other country in the Great Lakes region. However, these forests are popular among rebel groups and are often the battleground for the conflicts raging there today. The Batwa have been accused of exchanging information, becoming spies, or joining an opposing side, and so often become victims of violence. Amnesty International recently reported cannibalistic incidents of armed groups killing the Batwa and forcing prisoners to eat the flesh. While some Batwa do join with rebel and government forces that can provide subsistence, many more are innocent victims of armed conflict.

What has been done so far?

A few grassroots organizations have formed to aid the improvement of the lives of the Batwa. These organizations are dedicated to bringing social awareness to Batwa causes. Some organizations focus on the land that was taken from the Batwa and insist on giving Batwa access to conservation parks. Others seek to aid assimilation of the Batwa into mainstream society. These organizations demand that access to education, health care and job opportunities, and a voice in local, national and international decision-making be given to Batwa as they are to other citizens.

There have been some positive changes for Batwa in recent years. UNESCO has taken an active role in promoting land rights for Batwa in areas of conflict. In Uganda the dependence on Batwa as park guides has raised respect for them.

However, there has been no concrete effort to improve the standard of living for the Batwa. They still have no access to their original forests, nor have they been compensated for the land or received reparation payments. The Batwa have been forgotten by local governments, development programs, national government institutions, conservation groups, censuses, public services, and by the international community in its response to the humanitarian situation in the region. It is still difficult for Batwa to receive an education or to benefit from modern medicine. Fewer than 2% of the Batwa population are landowners. Discrimination in both attitudes and policies continues today.

Refugees International Recommends:

  • Donor governments encourage governments of countries in which the Batwa live to extend citizenship rights to them and monitor compliance with these measures.

  • Forest conservation efforts take into account the traditional guardianship role the Batwa have played and incorporate into all current and future forest conservation efforts.

  • Peace and reconciliation programs created in response to the conflicts in the Great Lakes region take into account the need to reconcile Batwa populations with other citizens and include them in reconciliation efforts.
*Due to the invented, popular image of the 'Pygmies' the name has taken on a negative connotation. However, the name is actually a broader term for the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups of the forests of Central Africa. As recorded by Survival for Tribal Peoples, the 'Pygmy' peoples in Africa, numbering approximately 250,000, comprise a number of different nationalities, and are located in Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. It is in this vein that we use the term in this report.