Born in the United States, I grew up believing that the children who lived next door or the boy who sat across from me in class had it all. Even as an adult, there are bits of me that occasionally envy the family with the perceived “perfect life;” church every Sunday, home office with a big window, stain-less carpets, and children with perfect hair. But, I know better. Life in the United States is something I take for granted. I knew this and needed to remind myself just how truly grateful I should be for the life I live in the great states. How do I do this? What do I need to see in order to really understand life outside America? I needed to leave my country and visit a place that has many struggles; where people live humbly. What I didn’t realize was that I would leave the country I chose to visit, wanting to go back and make a difference.
Rwanda is rich with many things; culture, diversity, and land. Rwanda has also perfected the art of discrimination. When my plane landed, I could not have grabbed my luggage and left the airport more quickly. I was excited for what the change in culture would bring me. What I would take home to teach my own family and friends. Some were excited to see me and others were less than thrilled to see me traipsing my way through their lands. I did what I could to respect the people and their cultures, as I did my research before coming to Rwanda. The population there is made up of mostly Hutu; traditional farmers. The rest of the population, mostly consist of Tutsi (or warrior people) and the Batwa. Though I would have enjoyed getting to know all the different people and ethnicities of Rwanda, I spent most of my time with the Batwa (Whitelaw, 2007).
The history of the Batwa is something that I came to hold close while traveling with some who are conflicted with the fear of the past and the uncertainty of their future. The Batwa were former Central Africa residents who lived their lives hunting and gathering in the rain forests. Though the lives they lived were not ideal for all, they were happy. But as time went, so was the expectation that they left their homes in order for the rainforest to be used for forestry and conservation. You may say, “So, were they compensated for the land they had to give up?” Well, no. The Batwa were physically removed from their homes and their land and were never given a red cent to live elsewhere. Kicked out of home, with no money, no good explanation, and expected to build a life in an area unfamiliar to most.
The Batwa had no idea what this was going to do to their lives. They knew they did not want to leave but because of their naïve understanding of the modern world, they would face some struggle ahead. This was a disaster in the making. It didn’t help that many of people, already living in the areas the Batwa were forced to move, did not accept them as people. They were and continue to be discriminated against. The Batwa live in poverty in what is supposed to be a more modern society than what they were founded on.
Yet, the population continues to deteriorate. How is this possible? It is possible because they have no land to live on, they eat the farming scraps left after a harvest, they are shunned from the education system because of illiteracy and a lack of money, they are allowed to vote but not allowed to be part of government, and they find it almost impossible to find a job that can support their needs because of discrimination and lack of education (New African, 2010).
The Batwa’s situation sounded eerily familiar to me. I equated their situation to the Native American’s situation when the Europeans came to America. Pushed out of their land and forced to live a different way of life in a place that was “approved” by the rest of the people. I can imagine that the way the Batwa live is similar to the way the Native American’s are forced to live. The difference is that the Native Americans feel forced by lack of education of the rest of Americans, where the Batwa’s are forced because they are still not accepted in today’s Rwandan society. Another big difference I see is that the Batwa are a part of Africa and are being discriminated by their people. Yes, they are a different ethnicity and would live their lives differently, if not forced into another. But, they are still from the same country. After spending time with this amazing group of people, I have realized that I could not accurately explain the difference between ethnicity and race.
Six months ago, I lumped those two terms together. Though they have similarities, they are different. I am a Caucasian, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to assume my ethnicity. My great friend is Caucasian, but that doesn’t mean her and I have the same ethnicity. I was born and raised in a small town out of Minnesota and she was raised in Ireland. The two terms are different. Her family traditions around the holidays are different than mine. Really understanding the differences between race in Rwanda and their ethnicities was important when trying to understand why there is and was so much discrimination. Though the race may be nearly the same, each group of people lived completely different lives. The Batwa’s lived in a rainforest and Hutu’s ran farms in a more modern lifestyle.
Even the way each culture enjoys dancing is either accepted or it is not. The Batwa were forced to study Christianity, eat the foods of the modern people, and even had to learn how to wear clothing differently. The way the Batwa chose to live their lives in the rainforest would not be acceptable in the eyes of the rest of Rwanda. Ethnicity and race are different and this is why discrimination exists in Rwanda (New African, 2012). * Learning the history of how the Batwa live, by choice or not, begged the question, “what has this done to them as a people?” The discrimination of the Batwa and other small groups of people, have made it difficult for them to thrive much less survive. They impact they have on the government is nil, so seeing a dramatic change through government representation is unlikely.
There are groups such as the Organization of Rwandan Potters (COPORWA) who consider the Batwa and their situations. The Batwa are value their culture and ways of life, but have lost touch because of highly encouraged religions and lack of acceptance of their culture. The Batwa do and will continue to struggle to be recognized as a minority group who needs help (Ingelaere, B., 2010). * The Batwa have lost their land, they are losing their culture, the people are not surviving, and the idea of maintaining hope is slowly slipping away. Spending time with my new found friends made me want to bring them all home with me. But, as I have learned, moving people from their homes and lives can create more problems than intended. Though, I would see to it that they were treated with the respect they deserve, it does not fix the bigger problem.
The human race has much to learn about what the true meaning of love, life, and respect is. Unfortunately, discrimination and a lack of understanding is a natural course of nature. There are some things out of our control and others in which we can only influence. If I could change anything about my visit to Rwanda, it would have been to spend more time there to understand more about why the other cultures see the Batwa the way they do. Though the discrimination against the Batwa is moving at a snail’s pace in the right direction, at least it is moving that way. Until then, I send my prayers and well wishes to the Batwa people. I would also challenge those of you reading my article to take some time to travel to a place similar to Rwanda to learn about another culture; what it has to offer is far more than money can buy. *
Batwa A people under threat. (2010). New African, (497), 38.
Ingelaere, B. (2010). Peasants, power and ethnicity: A bottom-up perspective on Rwanda’s political transition. African Affairs, 109(435), 273-292.
Whitelaw, Kevin. (2007). Rwanda Reborn. U.S. News & World Report, 00415537, Vol. 142, Issue 14