“Before, we had no dignity. Now we can afford proper clothing, make a decent living, and hold our heads high,” said the leader of a Batwa community outside of Bujumbura.
A couple weeks ago, I visited a village that is home to the Batwa, a traditional, hunter-gatherer community of pygmy origins, which comprises 1% of Burundi’s population. The Batwa are spread across Central Africa, from Uganda in the east to Angola in the west. They were the first to inhabit the land that today comprises Burundi. They are also the most marginalized, vulnerable community in the country.
Burundi’s heavy dependence on land has resulted in massive deforestation and reduced availability of land. Such conditions have made it difficult for the Batwa to continue their traditional hunter-gatherer life. The typical Batwa today struggles to put food on the table by either tilling land that belongs to others (read: indentured servitude) or selling clay pots used for cooking at a rate far cheaper than the amount of labor that goes into making them.
However all is not lost for the Batwa. Several have “made it,” achieving a university education and holding steady, well-paid jobs in Bujumbura and the larger towns. A handful even hold high-level posts in the government.
The reception my team received when visiting the Batwa community was exhilarating and humbling. The women of the village sang and danced their hearts out. It was a moving expression of gratitude for how far they had come. Here is a video of the reception they gave us:
This community has ameliorated their living conditions and has been relatively successful in earning a living through agriculture and small-animal husbandry. Unlike many other Batwa, this community was not trapped in feudal farming, nor struggling to eat. But they reminded us that there remained dozens of other communities scattered across Burundi that still lived in destitution and should not be forgotten.