Indigenous World 2020: 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 missionaries 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 1930s 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, the Twa were gradually expelled from their forests following different waves of deforestation and forestry protection over the centuries. 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.”
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. 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.
2019, towards greater mobilisation of the Twa in Burundi
2019 was marked in particular by the appointment of the former Twa Senator, Vital Bambanze, to membership of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, nominated by the African governments.1 The appointment of an Indigenous Burundian representative by the UN’s African governments confirms the progress that has been made in recognising Indigenous Peoples’ rights on the African continent and shows the dynamic interactions taking place between the Twa movements in Burundi and the international Indigenous movement.
This convergence of local Twa mobilisations and international Indigenous Peoples’ events is well illustrated by the holding of celebrations for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, an event which is now organised each year in Burundi by local associations. In 2019, it took place on 9 August in Zege, Gitega province, and was focused on the preservation of Indigenous languages, echoing the United Nations’ proclamation of 2019 as “International Year of Indigenous Languages”.2 In Burundi, all nationals share the same language, Kirundi, but the associations organising the event nonetheless decided to focus on this issue despite the lack of an Indigenous language in Burundi. This was both to coincide with the focus of the international movement and to highlight the particular accent3 the Twa have when they speak Kirundi.
The cultural features that make up the Twa’s collective identity have also formed the object of a UNESCO-funded project on Twa intangible heritage, in partnership between the association UNIPROBA4 (Uniting for Batwa Promotion in Burundi) and the University of Burundi. Surveys were fed back into the process5 in Bujumbura in September 2019 with the aim of producing an inventory of the particular features of the Twa’s intangible heritage.
Finally, the prospect of elections in May 2020, particularly for the presidency, encouraged a discussion to be held in August 2019 in Bujumbura between the different Twa associations and government members.6 The aim was to inform the Twa representatives of how to vote and also how they could stand in the coming elections.
Mixed balance for the year overall
The desire to better integrate the Twa into the 2020 electoral processes does, however, need to go hand in hand with improved access to their civil rights. As Emmanuel Nengo7 – UNIPROBA’s current legal representative – explains, many Twa households around the country still do not have the necessary documents to be able to vote, such as identity cards and electoral registration cards.
While the events that took place during the year helped raise awareness of the Twa situation both nationally and internationally, most Twa households still suffer from serious economic insecurity. This has an effect on the school attendance of Twa children as they are particularly susceptible to dropping out of school.8 In fact, a 2018 study9 coordinated by UNIPROBA shows that 82% of Twa have never been to school. The low school enrolment rate among the Twa is primarily due to the marginalisation they have long faced in the country. This does, however, need to be seen in the context of changes in Burundian society generally with regard to education. While the Twa are clearly disproportionately excluded from the education system, they are not the only group affected by low school enrolment rates due to household economic insecurity.
Along similar lines, the impact that climate change is having on (primarily rural) Twa households cannot be seen independently from the environmental disruption being suffered by Burundian society as a whole (increased annual rainfall, changes in temperature, changes in agricultural seasons, etc.). In Burundi, the population is not geographically distributed according to ethnic belonging and so there are no areas inhabited solely by Twa, something that could make them more vulnerable than their neighbours to climate change. Their economic insecurity is, however, a factor likely to exacerbate the effect climate change has on them.
2019 was marked by different events held both to improve Twa integration into Burundian society and to preserve their cultural features (specific accent in Kirundi, songs and dances, etc.). Despite this, however, most Twa households still face social stigma and economic insecurity and are only partially represented in the political arena.
Notes and references
- Félix Nzorubonanya, “Interview exclusive avec Vital Bambanze: ‘Nous devrions être un exemple pour la réconciliation de notre pays’”, Iwacu, les voix du Burundi, 05 June 2019
- UN web site, “Peuples autochtones, héritiers d’une grande diversité linguistique et culturelle”, last accessed 07 January 2020
- It is commonly thought in Burundi that the Twa have a particular pronunciation when they speak Kirundi. In actual fact, this is only really the case among rural Twa households.
- For more information on the association, see the official website: http:// uniproba.ifaway.net
- Mariette Rigumye, “Uniproba: ‘Certaines valeurs des Batwa sont en voie d’extinction’”, Iwacu, les voix du Burundi, 12 September 2019 https://www. iwacu-burundi.org/uniproba-certaines-valeurs-des-batwa-sont-en-voie- dextinction/
- The advisor to the Ministry of Justice, in particular, was present
- Burundi Press Agency, “Burundi Batwa communities called on to awake and participate in the 2020 elections”, Region Week, 26 September 2019 https:// regionweek.com/burundi-batwa-communities-called-on-to-awake-and- participate-in-the-2020-elections/
- Lionel Jospin Mugisha, “Burundi: éducation des Batwa, un saut dans le vide”,
- Yaga, 09 August 2019 https://www.yaga-burundi.com/2019/burundi-education- batwa-saut-vide/
- Publication of Presse Burundaise, “UNIPROBA: entretien sur la scolarisation des Batwa au Burundi”, last accessed 07 January 2020 https://www.ppbdi. com/index.php/extras/economie-sciences-education-formation/10592- uniproba-entretien-sur-la-scolarisation-des-batwa-au-burundi
This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here