The Twa or BaTwa are pygmy peoples who live in the forests and savannah plains stretching from Uganda in the north down along the Lakes Region of Central Africa to Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). In addition, there are BaTwa populations scattered in Botswana, Angola, Zambia, and Namibia, where they have adopted to living conditions in deserts and swamps as well as their more familiar forests. In 2000, BaTwa numbered around 80,000 in total, and in some of these countries, they represent signiﬁcant minorities.
Like other pygmies, the BaTwa have been dominated by their Bantu and Cushitic neighbors and speak their languages. Most BaTwa speak Kirundi and Kinyarwanda, the languages of the Hutu and Tutsi.In Rwanda and Burundi, the BaTwa make up 1 percent of the population in each country and, due to the heavy demands for farming and grazing lands, much of the natural forest habitat has been lost over the last sev-eral centuries. Like other pygmies, little of their own culture still exists.
The BaTwa are thought to be among the oldest living groups connected to the Tschitolian culture dating back some 25,000 years ago. They seem to have lived in a widespread area before the Bantu expansions starting in the second millen-nium BCE and lasting, with different waves and patterns, into the ﬁrst centuries CE.
The BaTwa, as hunters and gatherers, helped provide meat and honey to the Bantu in trade for iron goods and agricul-tural products. In some situations, the two were able to develop a symbiotic relation-ship, and the Kuba of Angola and southern Democratic Republic of Congo have brought BaTwa into their mask societies. That is, among the masks made and worn at special occasions are those that represent BaTwa with a noticeably large head, large, bulging forehead, and wide nose. Called a bwoon mask, they are worn at funerals of important men who belonged to the initiation societies.
In the colonial period, BaTwa society began to unravel in a number of places. Their hunting and gathering skills were less and less needed, and their natural hab-itat was quickly cut down. BaTwa began to gather on the outskirts of Bantu towns and villages and became a source of menial labor, in often very abusive terms. They were generally ignored in the post-colonial developments, and their com-munities still suffer today from the lack of schools, electricity, water, and medical treatment.
Missions did not seek them out, and today it is estimated that only some 7 percent of BaTwa are Christians. The largest number of them adheres to syn-cretic Apostolic forms that combine Chris-tian belief with indigenous systems of belief or still follow indigenous (mainly Bantu) forms of belief. BaTwa have been able to preserve some of their speciﬁc cul-tural practices such as dances and songs during social gatherings. Hunting was banned in the 1970s, and though BaTwa men still know how to make bows and arrows, they have been persecuted and jailed for continued hunting.
In the ﬁghting between the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, the BaTwa suf-fered greatly, and some 30 percent of the BaTwa in Rwanda died at the hands of the Hutu Interahamwe.Accordingtothe UN Ofﬁce of Unrepresented Nations and Peoples, some 10,000 BaTwa were killed in the Rwandan Genocide and another 8,000 to 10,000 ﬂed to nearby countries (“Batwa”).
BaTwa communities suffer from prob-lems of alcoholism and are treated with contempt by their countrymen. In 2007, it was reported that with no source of income, over 40 percent of the BaTwa in Rwanda earned a living through begging. The majority are illiterate, and many BaTwa children drop out of school due to harassment by other students in the classes, and the UN Ofﬁce of Unrepre-sented Nations and Peoples states that 91 percent of BaTwa have no formal edu-cation (“Batwa”).
BaTwa women are sub-ject to harassment, including sexual harassment from Bantu men. A source of income and of cultural identity is pottery making; however, the swamp lands where the BaTwa have enjoyed joint land rights for centuries with Hutu farmers came into danger starting in 2005 when plans to develop rice plantations emerged. In both Rwanda and Burundi, the BaTwa are not legally recognized, have no represen-tation in government, and have no land rights.
In 2009, Burundi began the process of bringing the BaTwa into the govern-ment in an attempt to ﬁnally deal with the situation. In addition, a number of different organizations have taken up the cause of not only the BaTwa, but other pygmy peoples in Africa such as Act and Empower, based in Washington, D.C., and Uganda; Communautedes Autochtones Rwandais, (CAURWA) in Kigali, Rwanda; and Pygmy Survival Alli-ance, Seattle, Washington.
John A. Shoup
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