• Indigenous peoples in Burundi

    Indigenous peoples in Burundi

    There are 78,071 indigenous individuals in Burundi, or around 1% of the national population, according to the last census conducted in 2008.

Indigenous World 2019: Burundi

The term “Twa” is used to describe minority populations historically marginalised both politically and socially in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. It has replaced the name “Pygmy”, which was coined by the colonial missionaries1 and which is offensive to these groups.

In Burundi, the Twa are considered one of three components of the population (Hutu, Tutsi and Twa). They are estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 individuals although it is difficult to establish a precise figure. There has, in fact, been no official ethnic census since the 1930s2 and, in any case, particularly in the case of Burundi, such figures are inaccurate (mixed race marriages, porous borders between the different population groups…). Moreover, most Twa do not have a national identity card and are thus not included when drawing up the census.

Former hunter/gatherers,3 the Twa were gradually expelled from their forests following different waves of deforestation and forestry protection over the centuries.4 This phenomenon has redefined this people’s way of life: “As the forest was turned into pasture and fields, so many Batwa came to depend on pottery that this replaced the forest and hunting as a symbol of Batwa identity.”5

During the first part of the 20th century, emerging industrialisation in Burundi, the gradual opening up of the country to international trade and greater access to clay products resulted in a considerable weakening of their pottery trade. The main economic activity of the Twa was thus again undermined, turning them into some of the most vulnerable people in Burundi.

The term indigeneity takes on a particular dimension in the Burundian  context  given  that  identity-based  claims among the different population components have resulted in numerous conflicts and massacres over the last decades. These conflicts, all too often analysed as ethnic divisions, in fact arise more from a reconstruction of identities and political tensions.6 In this context, recognition of Twa indigeneity has been the subject of discussion, even controversy, particularly in the early 2000s. Burundi abstained, for example, from adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007.

The end of the Burundian civil war (2005) and the gradual emergence of an international indigenous peoples’ movement have both, however, contributed to placing the issue of the Twa on the agenda. Since 2005, following the establishment of ethnic statistics, the Twa now enjoy representation in the country’s main decision-making bodies.

The events that have affected this community over the past year demonstrate, however, that despite the dynamic nature of local and international associations aimed at defending the Twa, and a relative desire for their political integration, they remain highly vulnerable in both economic and political terms.

The issue of identity documents

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was postponed from 9 August, and celebrated on 24 August 2018 in Bujumbura Province.7 8 This event enabled the people of Burundi, and in particular the Twa, to take stock of the progress in and challenges facing indigenous peoples’ rights in Burundi. Focus was placed particularly on the lack of identity cards issued to the Batwa, as this severely restricts travel and forces a part of their population to remain sedentary.9 Evariste Ndikumana, President of the Hope for Young Batwa Association (Association Espoir pour les Jeunes Batwa / Assejeba) explains: “Indigenous people are fundamentally nomadic. In Burundi, however, due to a lack of identity cards, the Batwa are deprived of this aspect of their tradition.”

The lack of identity documents (national identity cards, marriage or birth certificates, etc.) prevents some Twa households from accessing the rights that are guaranteed, by ministerial order,10 to all Burundian citizens, such as free health care for the under-fives. Indigenous rights defenders have focused on ensuring that these documents are more widely issued. With the support of the US Embassy, the Hope for Young Batwa Association distributed more than 1,000 national ID cards and birth certificates to Twa in Kayanza Province last July.11

Land problems and gender issues

The action of national and international indigenous rights organisations has resulted in an acceptance of the need for more Twa representation in political spheres. Most Twa households still suffer from serious economic vulnerability, however. This situation can be explained by a lack of land to cultivate combined with a lack of dynamism in the pottery market.12 In September 2018, households in Muyinga Province mobilised in order to raise these economic difficulties, particularly in terms of the land problems facing them: “Forty households living on one hectare. [...] Given the size of this plot, it is scarcely even possible to build decent-sized brick houses.”13 14

The Inabeza Centre, in Buterere, organised a day of information and discussion on the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) on 7 December 2018.15 Established in 2014, the centre is a transit point for victims of gender violence, offering medical and legal assistance to victims of GBV. This day was specifically devoted to the region’s Twa communities.


Local associations, individual initiatives and international mobilisations have all contributed to highlighting the specific issues of the Twa in Burundi over the last year. Despite these efforts, however, the vast majority of Twa households continue to face social stigma, severe economic vulnerability and are only partially represented in the political arena.

Notes and references

  1. Bahuchet Serge. “L’invention des Pygmées”, Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 33, n°129, 1993; Laroque Aude, “Historiographie et enjeux de mémoires au Burundi”, doctoral thesis in history, under the supervision of Pierre Boilley, Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris I, 2013 Lewis Jerome, “The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes region”, Minority Rights Group International, 2001
  2. Saur Léon, «‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’: des mots pour quoi dire?», Histoire, monde et cultures religieuses, vol. 30, n°2, 2014
  3. Meyer Hans, Les Barundi: une étude ethnologique en Afrique orientale. Translated from the German by Françoise Willman, Critical and annotated edition by -P. Chrétien, Paris, Société Française d’Outre-mer, 1984
  4. Lewis Jerome, “The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes region”, Minority Rights Group International, 2001
  5. Ibidem
  6. Chrétien Jean-Pierre, Burundi, la fracture Logiques de violences et certitudes ‘‘ethniques’’, Khartala, Paris, 2002
  7. Ministry of Rights, Social Affairs and Gender, ‘‘Célébration de la journée dédiée au peuple autochtone (Batwa) au Burundi’’, 27 August 2018 at http://bit.ly/2IoJxVs
  8. International Day of the World’s Indigenous People was established in 1994 by the United Nations and is celebrated on 9 August. In Burundi, it is celebrated every This year, however, the celebrations were postponed to 24 August 2018. The official celebrations were held in Nyabiraba commune, Bujumbura province, in the presence of the Minister in charge of human rights, the provincial and communal administration, parliamentarians, the World Bank representative, the Independent National Human Rights Commission, human rights defenders and a multitude of Twa people representing indigenous people in Burundi.
  1. Nkurunziza Édouard, “Les autochtones burundais sont privés de leur droit de migration’’, Iwacu, les voix du Burundi, 10 August 2018 at http://bit.ly/2IjZg8b
  2. This right is guaranteed by Ministerial Ordinance No. 630/848 on the implementation of Decree 100/136 to grant care to children under five years of age.
  3. Nkurunziza Édouard, ‘‘Muhanga: plus de 1000 Batwa bénéficient des pièces d’identité’’, Iwacu, les voix du Burundi, 18 July 2018 at http://bit.ly/2Imfjmb
  4. Kaburahe Antoine, ‘‘Les fils de la terre’’, Iwacu, les voix du Burundi, 21 August 2015 at http://bit.ly/2IoKn4y
  5. Ndabashinze Rénovat, ‘‘Muyinga/L’inacceptable vie des Batwa de Rutoke’’, Iwacu, les voix du Burundi, 24 September 2018 at http://bit.ly/2IoKXPM
  1. Ibidem
  2. ‘‘Buterere: Le PNUD et le Centre INABEZA décidés à oranger les communautés Batwa’’, Iwacu, les voix du Burundi, 11 December 2018 at http://bit.ly/2Ioptm7

Zoé Quétu is a doctoral student in political science at the LAM (Les Afriques dans le Monde/Africans in the World) research unit of Bordeaux University. Her research focuses on indigenous mobilisation in sub-Saharan Africa and the construction of collective identities in Burundi.



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