• Indigenous peoples in Rwanda

    Indigenous peoples in Rwanda

    The population of the Batwa in Rwanda is estimated at between 25,000 – 30,000,1 which is less than 1% of the approximately 12 million people in Rwanda as of 2018 (National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda). Post-genocide law prevents the collection and dissemination of data disaggregated by ethnicity, and so exact numbers of the Batwa cannot be calculated. Although there has been an increase in political focus on the problems faced by the Batwa in Rwanda, they remain extremely socio-economically disadvantaged.

Indigenous World 2019: Rwanda

The population of the Batwa in Rwanda is estimated at between 25,000 – 30,000,1 which is less than 1% of the approximately 12 million people in Rwanda as of 2018 (National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda). Post-genocide law prevents the collection and dissemination of data disaggregated by ethnicity, and so exact numbers of the Batwa cannot be calculated. Although there has been an increase in political focus on the problems faced by the Batwa in Rwanda, they remain extremely socio-economically disadvantaged.

In Rwanda, the Batwa are also known as: “Potters”, an occupation historically associated with the Batwa; the “Historically Marginalised People,” a non-ethnic reference to their second-class status throughout Rwandan history; abasangwabutaka (original inhabitants of the land); and abasigajwe iynuma n’amateka (the ones who have been left behind by history). Outside of Rwanda, the Batwa are known as Twa, “Pygmies” (a pejorative term), forest people, and (former) hunter-gatherers.

The Batwa lack robust representation in governance structures and currently have only one Senator officially representing them in the national senate. This position is one of eight appointed by the President to represent “historically marginalised” groups. Transitional justice efforts implemented by the government of Rwanda after the 1994 genocide have eliminated ethnic designations, rejected the recognition of special categories of the population, and criminalised any speech or action deemed “divisionist” given the history of divisive policies and rhetoric which led up to the genocide. The Batwa are therefore not officially recognised as an indigenous group or given rights and protections as such. Rwanda is a State Party to the following charters: ACHPR, ACRWC, ICESCR, ICCPR, CERD, CEDAW, CRC and others; however the country has not ratified the UNDRIP or ILO Convention 169.2

The Batwa are widely recognized as the indigenous or autochthonous people of the Great Lakes Region of Africa and their ancestral territories lie in the forests surrounding Lake Kivu in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They were evicted from the forests of western Rwanda in waves of transnationally-influenced or mandated fortress conservation and development efforts throughout the 20th century aimed, in part, at protecting the region’s endemic and endangered species – especially the famed mountain gorillas.  Before  full  eviction  from  the  forests  in  the 1970s–1990s, the Batwa relied on the resource-rich forests for their sustenance, livelihoods, spiritual activities and identity. Much of their traditional territory has now been turned into the country’s three national parks – Volcanoes, Gishwati, and Nyungwe – which hold the majority of Rwanda’s biodiversity and generate significant tourism revenue.

Lack of recognition, exclusion and marginalisation

2018 saw some small signs of progress for the Batwa in the form of increased political attention, although these signs are complex given the political context of post-genocide Rwanda. The Rwandan government previously banned the use of ethnic references and identities in an attempt to prevent a return to ethnic violence and in order to promote national citizenship as the only necessary identity in Rwanda today. The government also refuses to recognise special categories of the population, including indigenous people, as a part of unity and reconciliation efforts. Speech or action deemed “divisionist” is criminalised and potentially carries heavy fines and/or lengthy prison sentences if convicted. Various constitutional laws dating back to 2001 support these policies and continue to be enforced in many spheres of public life.

The implications of Rwandan identity laws have been widely debated; however, for the Batwa they preclude any opportunities to claim indigenous status and rights. Lack of official indigenous recognition has made it difficult to counter discrimination and protect their land, livelihoods, and distinct culture. Insufficient political representation, particularly at lower levels of government, means that Batwa are often excluded from decision-making processes. It is imperative for the local authorities to include their Batwa constituents in all decisions that affect their lives.

Problems of inequality for the Batwa in Rwanda persist despite attempts by the government and civil society to eliminate them. Today, many Batwa face marginalization, poor health and living conditions, a loss of land and livelihood, and a lack of education. There are noticeable differences in the lives and conditions of urban and rural Batwa, although both face challenges in terms of meeting basic needs. Many Batwa in rural areas face inadequate housing, outright discrimination, a lack of food security, lack of access to potable water, difficulty attending school, and under/un-employment. Their urban counterparts face many similar challenges but gain from having greater access to modern conveniences and resources, increased employment opportunities, increased access to education and educational support, and greater integration into society.

Recent events

  • In June 2018, a Batwa community in the southern province was reportedly attacked by a neighbouring village for unknown reasons.3One person was killed, and several were injured. A similar attack in the same area took place in 2012 and the 2016 Rwanda article in The Indigenous World details another violent incident in the same
  • The Japanese Embassy has agreed to fund a school for Batwa children but land needs to be purchased first. AIMPO, a Rwandan NGO dedicated to the Batwa community, has started a GoFundMe campaign4 to raise money to purchase the land for the
  • Twenty-seven hectares of land were donated by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to the Rwandan government in order to expand the habitat of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in north-western Rwanda.5 The expansion of the park will force thousands of people to relocate, some of whom are Batwa resettled there after being evicted from the forest many years


A lack of sufficient income-generating activities is prevalent throughout Rwanda but Batwa struggle with this to a significantly higher degree due to discrimination and a lack of education and land. Batwa people have been making and selling or trading clay pots for generations. Now that plastic and metal cookware is ubiquitous, clay pots are no longer desired. Only poor people continue to use these for cooking, and few are sold by potters each month. Obtaining clay has become increasingly difficult as many of the valleys where clay is found are now being used to cultivate rice. Pottery making is a time-consuming task and requires additional materials, such as firewood or charcoal, for it to be completed. A single pot can take days to be ready for the market because of the drying and firing processes. That pot will then sell for 50150 FRW, equivalent to USD 0.10 or USD 0.15. Despite these obstacles, many Batwa communities throughout the country continue to make pottery.

One potential benefit to maintaining this activity is the ability to form cooperatives or associations to work and sell pottery collectively in a known and accessible location. This has been done successfully in the capital city of Kigali for several years now. Pottery cooperatives in Kigali benefit from tourism, local and foreign customers, and a plot of land for clay collection and livestock. Support for various kinds of cooperative formations (including agricultural, pottery making and other crafts) should be prioritised in rural areas in particular, and Batwa communities would benefit from being targeted in this way. Another common income-generating activity among Batwa is day labouring on other people’s land. This does not generally pay well enough to feed a family for the day but generates more money than pottery making. This activity highlights the ability and willingness of many Batwa to learn and practice cultivation techniques and should be seen as a positive indicator that granting much-needed land to Batwa families would be immensely beneficial to them.

Housing and landlessness

Eviction from the resource-rich forests and subsequent forced relocation into cash-poor village settings has had detrimental effects on the social and physical health of the Batwa. Furthermore, the 2009-2011 Bye Bye Nyakatsi development initiative destroyed the thatched-roof homes of many Batwa families. The government’s intention was to replace all thatched-roof huts with mud-brick, tin-roofed homes but irresponsible action on the part of some local authorities led to periods of homelessness and inadequate construction for many Batwa communities. This change left affected families more vulnerable to cold weather and rain damage or destruction of their new homes.

Batwa throughout Rwanda face the extreme challenge of landlessness as a result of their uncompensated removal from the forest, extreme and chronic poverty, and unfair land transactions. In addition, crises of land scarcity and depletion, returning refugees, and the need to support rapid population growth and urbanization have led to a radical restructuring of the landscape, which has contributed to the dispossession of the Batwa.

In 2008, a community of Batwa were relocated to Kayonza district and, since 2014, 43 families have sold their land and homes because of a dire need for money. The properties were sold for a fraction of what they were actually worth, and the Minister of State for Local Government travelled to Kayonza in 2018 to survey the situation. The community expressed great regret and are now more aware of property ownership and management. Local government is also taking measures to prevent vulnerable communities from being taken advantage of in this way again and other families who are given land from the government will now not be allowed to sell it.6


As part of the rigorous development goals of Rwanda’s Vision 2020 programme, primary education has been free to all families for several years. While this is a generous investment in Rwanda’s future, this goal is difficult for many Batwa families to achieve. Uniforms, books, and school supplies all have to be purchased for each child and schoolchildren must be adequately fed to be able to perform at school. Chronic poverty in many Batwa communities prevents children from remaining in school. Dropout rates among Batwa in primary and secondary school remain high due to financial insecurity, lack of adequate food and supplies, and discrimination. Unor under-educated Batwa should be targeted for vocational training and funding should be available to Batwa families to access the supplies needed for children to attend school.

Civil society organisations

Several grassroots organisations have emerged to support the Batwa in education, agriculture and integration into broader society, although there is still much to be done to improve their conditions. These organisations have benefitted from relationships with larger international and non-governmental organisations, some of whom offer the Batwa links to transnational indigenous and minority advocacy networks. However, because of the constraints on political speech and action surrounding ethnic and indigenous labels, these organisations have to be extremely cautious in their activities in order to maintain political correctness. On several occasions in the past, the Rwandan government has prevented organisations from explicitly targeting Batwa for workshops or training on the grounds that it is divisive and exclusionary and not in line with the promotion of ndumunyurwanda – pan-Rwandan identity. Local organisations supporting the Batwa must tread lightly but they are committed to improving the lives of Batwa people. The Rwandan government needs to support them in facilitating their work.

Batwa and “Historically Marginalised” labels

Constitutional laws that prevent the use of certain identity labels have prevented the Batwa and those who aim to help them from claiming Batwa or indigenous identity. “Historically Marginalized People” (HMP) has been used widely for several years to identify the Batwa; recently, however this has been contested by some Batwa. In Nyaruguru district, Batwa villagers conveyed their wish to stop being called Historically Marginalized People because it continued to identify them as different and highlighted the discrimination they had been facing for generations.7 Other Batwa communities have also contested this label, arguing that they are still marginalized. Many would like to simply be called “Batwa” but understand that doing so does not conform to the government’s wishes for a non-ethnic Rwanda. The Rwandan government should consult with Batwa communities and civil society as to the use and purpose of the “Historically Marginalized” label.

Notes and references

  1. See AIMPO – Kigali at http://bit.ly/2N2qYFj
  2. See IWGIA, “Report Of The African Commission’s Working Group On Indigenous Populations/Communities” http://bit.ly/2N2DDbm
  3. See UNPO, “Batwa: Recent Attacks Wake Memories of Ethnic Conflict” at http://bit.ly/2N2me2s
  4. See GoFundMe, “Help Kwizera & Others Go to School” at http://bit.ly/2N4DIvl
  5. See Volcanoes National Park, “AWF Donates Land to Expand Volcanoes National Park” at http://bit.ly/2N5z5Ro and African Wildlife Foundation, “AWF Donates Land to Rwanda to Protect Mountain Gorilla Habitat” at http://bit.ly/2N4fe5h
  6. See IGIHE, “Kayonza: Abasigajwe inyuma n’amateka mu marira nyuma yo kugurisha amasambu bahawe na leta” at http://bit.ly/2N2uFuz
  7. See Umuseke at http://bit.ly/2N7YLx6

Anna Kamanzi is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand