• 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 2020: Rwanda

The population of the Batwa in Rwanda is estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000,1 which is less than 1% of the approximately 12.4 million people in Rwanda as of 2019 (National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda). Post-genocide law prevents the collection and dissemination of disaggregated data by ethnicity and therefore exact numbers of the Batwa cannot be calculated. Although the Rwandan government has attempted to target extreme poverty, the Batwa remain the most marginalised and socio-economically disadvantaged group in the country.

In Rwanda, the Batwa are also known as: “Potters”, an occupation historically associated with them; the “Historically Marginalised People,” a non-ethnic reference to their second-class status throughout Rwandan history; 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 that led up to the genocide. The Batwa are therefore not officially recognised as an Indigenous group nor 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 UNDRIP or ILO Convention 169.2

The Batwa are widely recognised as the Indigenous or autochthonous people of the Great Lakes Region of Africa and their ancestral territories are 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 three of the country’s national parks – Volcanoes, Gishwati-Mukura and Nyungwe – depositaries of a majority of Rwanda’s biodiversity and which generate significant tourism revenue. 

Lack of recognition, exclusion and marginalisation

The Rwandan government has 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;3 however, for the Batwa these laws preclude any opportunities to claim Indigenous status and associated rights, resources and representation. Lack of official Indigenous recognition has made it difficult to counter discrimination and dispossession or to protect their land, livelihoods and distinct culture. The Batwa have very little political representation, especially at lower levels of government, which means they are largely excluded from the decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Problems of inequality for the Batwa in Rwanda persist despite attempts by the government and civil society to eliminate them. In 2019, many Batwa continued to face marginalisation, 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, under/un-employment and landlessness. 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.  

Documentation of the situation of the Batwa 

In 2019, a large-scale assessment was carried out by Batwa-supporting organizations African Initiative for Mankind Progress (AIMPO), Women’s Organization for Promoting Unity (WOPU), and Minority Rights Group International (MRG), with funding from the European Union,4 in order  to understand the inclusion and involvement of Batwa in various socio-economic and political programs and to gauge their understanding of human rights. Some of the key findings of this report indicate that the Batwa’s knowledge of human rights is very basic and violations of these rights are rarely reported. This is due to their belief that no proper action will be taken. The assessment demonstrates that the Batwa are less integrated into the government’s social and political programs and benefit less from them than their non-Batwa counterparts. Another finding demonstrates that Batwa women face double marginalisation and have little recourse to justice, education or economic opportunities. Finally, lack of land and poverty continue to be key and ongoing issues facing the Batwa.

On 5 April 2019, the Washington Post published an article detailing the exclusion of Batwa survivors from genocide commemoration events.5 Twenty-five years after a devastating genocide, the Batwa’s experiences are never mentioned in commemoration events even though roughly one-third of the Batwa people in Rwanda were killed. Further, they cannot access any funds or opportunities meant for survivors. This is yet another example of the erasure Batwa people face in Rwanda. 


Unand under-employment continued to be a significant  problem in Rwanda in 2019 but Batwa people suffer disproportionately due to discrimination and a lack of education and land. One common income-generating activity that is historically associated with the Batwa is pottery making. Handmade clay pots are often used for cookware and décor; however, now that plastics and metal are ubiquitous, clay pots are purchased far less frequently. Further, obtaining the clay needed to make pots has become increasingly difficult as many of the valleys where clay is found are now being used to cultivate rice or for other development projects. On top of this, cooking pots then only sell for around 50-150 FRW, equivalent to USD$0.10 or USD$0.15. Despite these obstacles and low prices, many Batwa communities throughout the country continue to make pottery.

One potential benefit to maintaining this traditional activity is the ability to form cooperatives or associations to make and sell pottery collectively in a known and accessible location. Pottery making experiences with Batwa communities are also beginning to form part of cultural tourism enterprises whereby foreigners can come and make a pot with Batwa potters, who often also showcase their unique singing and dancing. This has been done in the capital city of Kigali successfully for several years now at a large pottery cooperative. This cooperative has been successful largely because of tourism, local and foreign customers, a nearby source of clay, and a grazing area for livestock, which generates additional income. Unfortunately, as high-end tourism becomes more popular in Rwanda, new attractions threaten to displace the Batwa potters. In Kigali, this cooperative is currently vulnerable to the large-scale expansion of the Kigali Golf Club, which will likely require the removal of this cooperative to make way for a brand new 18-hole golf course.6 At the time of writing, it remains uncertain when the cooperative will be removed and if it will be relocated.

Conservation and tourism

Beginning in 2018, the Rwanda Development Board’s (RDB) tourism revenue sharing (TRS) program increased its investment back into surrounding communities from 5 to 10% of tourism revenue. The basic premise of TRS is that access to quantifiable benefits from tourism will encourage local communities to support conservation and that this will help alleviate poverty as well as promote and sustain biodiversity conservation. While this is an important and generous gesture, many Batwa living around the parks fail to benefit from TRS because TRS money is designated for cooperatives and associations, which have costly and often prohibitive start-up and membership fees.

The cultural tourism industry is also growing in Rwanda alongside high-end tourism venues. Singing, dancing and craft-making are becoming more popular stops on the tourism circuit but, again, these are often operated at the cooperative level leaving Batwa artisans without access to funding. TRS at the cooperative rather than household level disadvantages Batwa communities living around the park and prevents them from accessing TRS funds. Given that the forests, which have now become national parks visited by thousands of tourists each year, are the Batwa’s ancestral territories, these exclusions are especially grievous. 

Housing and landlessness exacerbated by climate change actions 

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 people. Further, the 2009-2011 Bye Bye Nyakatsi initiative destroyed all thatched-roof homes of 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, inadequate construction and/or no roofing materials for many Batwa communities. This change left affected families more vulnerable to cold weather and rain damage or destruction of their new homes.

2019 saw few signs of progress or benefits in terms of housing and landlessness for the Batwa in Rwanda. In addition to their long-standing discrimination and marginalisation, recent climate change mitigation strategies implemented by the government have evicted Batwa and many other poor people from their homes in valleys and other areas prone to flooding or landslides. Heavy rains have made some of these areas dangerous, so relocation is necessary; however, the relocations were extremely poorly executed. Many families were only given a very short amount of time from a few minutes to a few hours to remove their belongings from their homes before they began to be destroyed and were provided with no compensation or alternative accommodation as required by law, forcing many to sleep outside in bad weather. While these climate-related policies were not directly targeted at the Batwa, they suffer disproportionately from them as they are an already very poor and vulnerable group. 


As a part of the rigorous development goals of Rwanda’s Vision 2020 program, primary education has been free to all families for several years. While this is a generous investment in Rwanda’s future, this goal remained difficult to realise for many Batwa families in 2019. Uniforms, books and school supplies have to be purchased for each child by his or her family and school children must be adequately fed to be able to perform in school. Chronic poverty in many Batwa communities continued to prevent children from remaining in school in 2019. Dropout rates among Batwa in primary and secondary school remained high due to financial insecurity, lack of adequate food and supplies, and discrimination.

Civil society organizations 

Several grassroots organizations led by Batwa people have continued to support the Batwa in 2019 in terms of education, agriculture and integration into broader society, although there is still much to be done to improve their conditions. These organizations have benefitted from relationships with larger international and non-governmental organizations, some of which 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 organizations must be extremely cautious in their activities. On several occasions in the past, the Rwandan government has prevented organizations from explicitly targeting Batwa with workshops or training on the grounds that it is divisive and exclusionary and not in line with the promotion of ndumunyurwanda – pan-Rwandan identity. 

Batwa and the “Historically Marginalised” label

Constitutional laws that prevent the use of certain identity labels have prevented the Batwa and those who aim to help them from claiming Batwa ethnic and Indigenous identity. “Historically Marginalised People” (HMP) has been used widely for several years to identify the Batwa, although this label is often contested by some Batwa. In Nyaruguru district, Batwa villagers conveyed their wish to stop being called HMP because it still identifies them as different and highlights the discrimination they have faced for generations.7 In 2019, Batwa communities were surveyed about the “Historically Marginalised People” label and it was found that the meaning and usefulness of this label was unclear to many Batwa communities.8 Some have argued that this label singles them out as different from others while others say that they are still marginalised, and not just historically. Many would just like to be called “Batwa” but understand that doing so does not conform to the government’s wishes for a non-ethnic Rwanda.


Notes and references

  1. The African Initiative for Mankind Progress Organization (AIMPO), “About Us”. Accessed 18 February 2020: http://aimpo.org/spip.php?rubrique2
  2. African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA): Report of the African Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities, Mission to the Republic of Rwanda. December 2008: https://www.iwgia.org/images/ publications/0474_randa_2-engelsk.pdf
  3. Nsanzimana, Germain “Are We Batwa or ‘Historically Marginalized People’?”. The Chronicles, 10 June 2019: https://www.chronicles.rw/2019/06/10/are-we-batwa- or-historically-marginalized-people/
  1. Minority Rights Group International, African Initiative for Mankind Progress Organization and Women’s Organization for Promoting Unity: Report on the Status of Inclusion and Involvement of Historically Marginalized People (HMP) in Various Socioeconomic and Political Programmes and Promotion of their Human Rights in Rwanda. May 2019: https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Final-Baseline-Study-Report-AIMPOWOPU-MRG-May-2019.pdf
  2. Bearak, Max “25 years after genocide, Rwanda commemorates those killed — but omits one group that was almost wiped out”. The Washington Post, 5 April 2019: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/25-years-after-genocide- rwanda-commemorates-those-killed--but-omits-one-group-that-was-almost- wiped-out/2019/04/05/afabebb4-557d-11e9-aa83-504f086bf5d6_story. html?noredirect=on
  3. Muhinde, Jejje “Kigali Golf Club set to become 18-hole course”. The New Times Rwanda, 12 September 2019: https://www.newtimes.co.rw/sports/kigali-golf- club-set-become-18-hole-course
  1. “Aba bumva batakomeza kwitwa ‘Abasigajwe inyuma n’amateka’”. Umuseke, 17 January 2017: https://ar.umuseke.rw/aba-bumva-batakomeza-kwitwa- abasigajwe-inyuma-namateka.hmtl
  2. Op. Cit. (3)


Anna Kamanzi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology  at  the  University  of  California,  Irvine.  She  can  be  reached  at  mail-t to:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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



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