June 10, 2019

“Are We Batwa or ‘Historically Marginalized People’?”

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Members of same family living in Kabuga village, Bubazi cell of Rubengera sector in Karongi district. All their neighbours identify themselves as “Twa” queitly, but as ‘Abasigajwe inyuma n’amateka’ in public. (Photo by UMUSEKE)

A government policy referring to the Batwa as “Historically Marginalized People” is “damaging and unhelpful” both for the Batwa themselves and to the government’s aim for a unified country of Rwandans, a new study says.

Following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, ethnic labels were removed from identification papers and criminalized as a basis to claim access to services or political positions.

However, Article 80 (2) of the 2003 Constitution provides for one senator to be named among the 8 appointed by the President to represent ‘historically marginalized groups’ or HMP.

Now, findings of a study presented in Kigali on May 23, show that there is “no clear official definition of the HMP label”.

Based on an extensive review of official government documents, interview with officials and responses from focus group of 272 “Batwa” from 9 districts, the researchers got what they described as “ambiguous” answers.

“…nowhere during the field research period could the origins of the label or its meaning be located,” writes Richard Ntakirutimana and Bennett Collins.

Ntakirutimana is co-founder and executive director of African Initiative for Mankind Progress Organization (AIMPO); an organisation that campaigns to “improve the standard of living of Batwa people in Rwanda”.

Bennett Collins is a research fellow at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and co-founder of the Third Generation Project, a Scottish think tank dedicated to collective human rights.

Their study is among about a dozen others on various other subjects that were presented at a two-day AEGIS Trust Research and Policy Conference which took place in Kigali, May 23-24.

The researchers say there is official and unofficial explanations of the meaning of ‘Historically Marginalized People’.

From a previous study conducted in 2014, representatives of international organizations in Rwanda and Rwandan civil society organizations interpreted the ‘Historically Marginalized People’ label as referring to all groups that have experienced historical marginalization – including women, the disabled community, Muslims, and the Twa – which echoes the government’s designation.

However, in responding to the concerns of the UN Human Rights Council about the situation of the Twa, the representative of the Rwandan government have stated that the Batwa are allotted one Senate seat to represent their concerns.

“…if the Twa have been allocated their own Senator then they must be officially considered as a ‘Historically Marginalized People’” say the researchers.

“Unofficially, however, the term takes on a different meaning. Government policy to rid the country of ethnic loyalties for the purposes of fostering post-ethnic national identity – and hence preclude the possibility of a return to ethnically based violence -leaves the Twa as the only group under the umbrella of the ‘Historically Marginalized People’ label that bears no other name considered acceptable in official terms.”

Before 1994, the “Batwa” lived in forests and separated themselves from other communities. They exclusively hunted for food and are also known for pottery.

As a result, just a handful were able to go to school – leaving them excluded from the mainstream society.

Government has since assisted them out of the bushes to live in villages or umudugudu. They have been given free cows and land for farming.

In some places, their pottery products have been supported to find markets – to give them incomes.

However, despite these government interventions, the Batwa themselves feel different. In the focus group 272 from different districts, they were asked: ‘Do you know the meaning of HMP’ or in Kinyarwanda as ‘Abasigajwe inyuma n’amateka’?

67% of respondents either did not know the meaning of the ‘Historically Marginalized People’ label or were unsure of its meaning.

The study calls the responses advanced by the focus group members as “ambivalent, confused, and often critical”.

For example, they gave responses like: A people cursed by God; A word showing that people should not have a seat at the table; An English word that means “Twa”; A person who has been discriminated against for a long time; A person is physically short; Impoverished; and Left behind.

The researchers propose that government “revisits” the use of the HMP label.

“Otherwise, socio-economic assistance, without nuance and consultation with the Twa, will likely continue to show few positive results; the result of this being strained relations between the Twa and their non-Twa neighbors who view such HMP programming as wasted resources.

The research paper was titled – ‘Am I Twa or HMP?’: Examining the ‘Historically Marginalized People’ Label and the Acculturation of the Twa in Rwanda.

At the same conference, Dr Phil Clark, from the SOAS University of London, launched his book – Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics.

Dr Clark raises key questions about whether, after nearly 17 years of consistent shortcomings and mounting frustration even among some of its most ardent supporters, the Court can survive into the future.

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