In Langscape Magazine Articles

“They call me Umusangwabutaka”: My People Were the First to Reach This Land, but Today We Don’t Own Any of It

Story by Marie Michelle Hirwa, age 32, Rwanda

biocultural diversity

Marie around the time she finished high school. Photo: 2006

I am Marie Michelle Hirwa, born on September 12, 1986. I was born into a family of seven children in the Kacyiru commune, now called Gasabo, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Both my mum and dad passed away when I was 9 years old. Most of my siblings have also since passed away and now my brother and I are the only ones left alive.

I was born into a family of Batwa, the Indigenous people of Rwanda. The name “Batwa” is also how we are known in the neighboring countries of Burundi and Uganda. According to Rwandan tradition, the Batwa were the first people to come to what is now Rwanda; we were here before any other ethnic group. That is why we many in Rwanda called usAbasangwabutaka (“the first to reach this land”).

We may have come here first, but today the Batwa do not own any land. Legally, people are supposed to be equal and the same in Rwanda, but in reality the Batwa still experience some discrimination: in community life, in schools and work places. Our people can’t afford a bank loan, have no access to a passport, and struggle to get our children access to education. Briefly, we suffer socio-economic stigma and are among the poorest people in Rwanda.

The current government of Rwanda has the political will and good policy of maintaining all Rwandans as the only ethnic group (Ndi Umunyarwanda), as we all speak the same language and share the same history and culture. But we do believe that we have a different story and history from the rest of Rwandans, therefore we should have a special treatment in order to catch up. The government calls us “historically marginalized people,” but we really feel we don’t have a proper name or identification. However much the government is doing, we still face stigma and discrimination as many people still distance from us in social life: in schools; work places; churches; etc. Socially, people are slow to have relationships with us, and even if they try, they seem to be sacrificing their reputation in the society.

Sometime after Rwanda gained its independence, the government wanted to focus on conservation and big commercial projects, as well as on tourism development in the forests, and so took away the Batwa’s ancestral lands with little or no compensation. This was in the 1970s and 1980s. As the elders in my community told me, “We were kicked out and told to hit the road and deal with our own problems. And this was not easy as we had to start a new life in a new environment with no land and no financial means.”

It used to be that Batwa were hunters, but nowadays most of us live by making pottery, such as cooking pots, mugs, and flower pots, and by low-pay, rubbish jobs like removing a dead cat or dog, digging a toilet hole, etc. We are portrayed as a people who live only for the present and don’t care about the future: no saving, no investing, and no long-term projects or plans. Most Rwandans see us as a stupid people with no values, or at least no civilized ones — a people who deserve to go live in the forests.

I do feel like we were treated like objects, not human beings. For example, my grandparents told me that in pre-colonial times, if somebody’s field was producing less than expected, they would hunt down a Batwa and cut his or her finger off and plant it in that unproductive or non-arable land, and they believed that doing so would help it to become fertile.

Until now, people say that when a man has a back pain, he needs to have sex with Umutwakazi (a Batwa woman) as a treatment.

In my own life, I have experienced a great deal of the discrimination all Batwa face.

My family was very poor. Growing up, we could hardly find enough food or clothing, or meet any other basic need. The whole family of seven children and mum and dad lived in a very tiny thatch hut. We were sleeping and cooking in one muddy room. We suffered stigma from the rest of the community, who called us silly names just to discriminate against us. People would not share food or drink with us; certainly none of them would marry someone from our community. Every single time there was something stolen in our neighborhood, Batwa were the first to be suspected.

Access to education was a very big issue. I went to a primary school, but there were just a few of us Batwa and other children would just insult us and call us nyaritwa, a meaningless human being. Even when someone other than Batwa said some nonsense thing, people would say that she or he has an ubwengetwa (a “Batwa brain,” which means they think wrongly like a Batwa). I know many children who quit school because of the stigma.

I nearly quit too, but luckily I carried on and managed to reach secondary school. Unfortunately, I was the only Umutwakazi there, and other students would hardly accept to sit with me either in a class or share the same table in the refectory, or share a room in a dormitory.

My schoolmates would make fun of me: “Ask your mum if maybe your dad does not come from some tribe other than Batwa, because you look clean and beautiful, there is no way you can be Umutwakazi” — as if someone from Batwa community can’t be clean and beautiful. I have been told that other people have said, “We didn’t know that she was Umutwakazi, oh, she is so cute — she could be a contestant in the Miss Rwanda Competition!” I have had many friends with whom I thought I was getting on well, but once they found out that I am Umutwakazi, they ran away. I am quite sure that many men do not want to date me because I am Umutwakazi.

It was not easy to pay school fees, but thanks to support from a Catholic charity called Caritas Rwanda I was able to remain. I did well in secondary school and managed to qualify for university.

I was not able to afford the costs until, miraculously, I got a scholarship and enrolled in a UNILAK (Secular University of Kigali). I started in 2008 but couldn’t finish out the year because my sponsor stopped paying for me. I took a normal job to support myself and went back to my studies in 2010. Then, in 2013, which was to have been the last year of my studies, I fell in love with a man who promised to marry me after he got me pregnant. But as soon as he found that I was Umutwakazi, he changed his mind. He is not from the Batwa community and did not want anyone to find out because it would be a big shame to him and his family. I painfully went through all of this and missed my studies and suffered as a stigmatized single mum after I had my baby in January 2014.

biocultural diversity

Author Marie Hirwa with her son. Photo: 2015

Today, I am still struggling to find ways to finish my studies and write my dissertation. The father of my son sometimes arranges to meet him — but not me. He does not want people to know that he had any relationship with an Umutwakazi. I struggle when my son asks me why we do not live with his dad, knowing that this will never happen. It’s a shame that I can’t find a way of explaining it to him, and I am sure other children make fun of him and tell him that his mum is an Umutwakazi.

Kinyarwanda is indeed the language spoken by all citizens of Rwanda, including us Batwa. But we speak it with a particular accent of our own called urutwatwa. People make fun of us because of this. (As with me now, some Batwa people may lose this accent if they have lived for quite some time in a different social environment). We also have our own traditional dance and song, which is called Intwatwa and people highly enjoy it. People often invite us to perform at their events, but they still think our payment is only food and drinks, which is not helping us to transform our socio-economic lives.

We continue to live with bad housing, however much the government does to provide modern houses for us. People make fun of us, saying we do not deserve that kind of housing, as some of us take off the sheet metal roofing and sell it. This makes the rest of the community, including some local leaders, think that all us do not want to live a good life in good housing.

Yes, we have had some Batwa people in the political sector, but still we are not fully involved in political life and decision-making.

At work places, you may not easily discover discrimination or stigma, but access to jobs is not easy for us, as Batwa do not have the capacity to compete with other Rwandans because we did not have access to education before and our living conditions did not allow us to study well.

It’s up to the government to think about motivating policies aiming at empowering Batwa, such as affirmative action. Even today, people would think it funny if a Batwa were to hold a high leadership position, and I am sure any mistake or failure of that organization or institution would be attributed to it being led by a Batwa.

Many churches have special community outreach programs and projects and try to really work with the community spiritually. But it looks like the Batwa are left behind.

Even with the many programs and policies in place, and with the laws and the Rwandan constitution stipulating that all Rwandans are equal, we Batwa still have in our minds that we are stigmatized, and this must be so in the minds of other Rwandans because they continue to behave in a way that stigmatizes us.

biocultural diversity

Author Marie Hirwa with her son. Photo: 2015

As for me, I accept that I am Umutwakazi but still I do not feel not comfortable, as I belong to a group that not everyone respects. Now, I consider myself lucky, as I went to school and got opportunity to somehow be integrated in other groups. I feel sorry for my people, especially when I see that there is a long way to go in order to catch up on the rest of Rwandans. Honestly, I accept who I am, but I am not comfortable to be called that (a Batwa) when I am with other people. I know who I am but do not feel proud, and many of us, especially those with advanced education, also have that feeling. I wish I could run a project to integrate my people into other communities and help them to change their mindset, and empower them both socially and economically.

Looking at the pillars of the government of Rwanda, which are social equality, economic improvement good governance, and justice, we really feel we are not fully socially integrated. Economically we are the weakest community in Rwanda and cannot position ourselves in good governance programs. It is the discrimination and stigma we still face that prevents us from achieving our full measure of justice. That’s what most of us feel, but with the government’s effort and campaign, we will get there however long this might be.

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Marie Michelle Hirwa is a single mother of one boy. Together they live in the capital city of Rwanda, Kigali. She was born into a family of seven children in the Kacyiru commune, now called Gasabo, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.


The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!

An Invitation to Young Indigenous People Ages 18–30

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from people ages 18–30 who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:

  • reaffirming cultural identity;
  • breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
  • reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
  • reclaiming ancestral links with the land.

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.

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If you are an Indigenous person aged 18–30 and would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!

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