Marie Anne DUSHIMIMANA
Etienne Nziragira grew up in the forest together with his family and lived on hunting and pottery until in the 1970s when the government relocated them to live normal life with other Rwandans.
Nziragira is one of a group of Historically marginalized people (HMP), also formerly known as Batwa (the name no longer applies as it insinuates ethnicity).
The father of 3 children lives in Kanyinya sector, Nyarugenge district.
The move to relocate the historically marginalized people was to help them live better lives and avail space for parts to be developed and to ensure that the environment is protected.
However, over thirty years down the road, the journey has been tough and lives have hardly improved for the majority of such a group.
People like Nziragira affirm that they still experience bad living conditions, mostly linked to the lack of education and lack of the land to cultivate.
“When a person struggles even to get food, no education, or no technical skills just because we come from this bad history, life continues to get harder. We have the will to work, but we don’t have any basis to start from,” he said.
Nziragira, who is considered the wealthiest among his fellow Batwa in Kanyinya, is a gatekeeper at someone’s property, and he makes Rfw1000 ($1) per night, which makes $30 per month.
As he doesn’t have any land for farming, all family needs are covered from this low monthly stipend, including renting a house, food, and education of the children to mention but a few.
“This is why most of our children drop out of school as they don’t even have food and other basics for education,” he said.
Besides pottery which was the prime handcraft of HMP, they say they also face challenges as it is hard to get clay in marshlands where most of the land is currently protected or owned by individuals.
“When we go there to get clay, it is like intention to commit suicide because the owners are the ones with the rights to use their lands,” he said.
No more market for their hand-made products
Because of technology,Nziragira says that Rwandans no longer use pots and other products made from clay.
“We make them but they are no longer sellable. Today, people use plates from modern industries and they are cheap and accessible,” he said.
Muhammed is a member of Abakomezamwuga, a cooperative of HMP practicing pottery in Gasabo District, in Kacyiru sector in Gasabo District. He says they get clay from Southern Province, approximately 70 kilometers from where they work.
“Before, we used to get it from Kacyiru marshland, but recently, they turned it into a golf playground. For now, we rent a car and run miles to get the clay, from some few public reserved marshlands. It is very hard for us,” he testified.
Besides, their products are not sold as before. The place from where they operate is inaccessible to the client.
“Red Cross Rwanda gave us this place and Gasabo leadership supported us with this kiln to make our clay products. Before we used to get clients but now, they are not even allowed to stop here as there is no car parking or bus station. A police officer always comes here to monitor the road security,” he said.
“We have children who have to go to school, we need to eat and pay rent, for now, we are not capable. We need support so that we can get the market of our products or find something else to do,” he added.
The study by the Rwanda Senate of 2019 showed that Over 90 percent of (historically marginalized) adults never went to school and their children don’t go to school as well due to extreme poverty and ignorance in their families.
The study also stated the issue of poor mindset, which makes all efforts generated by the government and different parties useless.
Nziragira said that compared to the previous period, today HMP are supported by the government. However, nothing changes because mindsets are still the same.
“Today our youth get technical skills and at the end, they even receive basic materials to help them start working and make money but most of the time they sell them and they return to their normal lives of poverty. There is a need to focus first on working on their mindset and support them after,” he said.
“If a tree shows signs of illness, you can do nothing to cure the leaves, instead focus on the roots. It is the same case with us, we need to change our minds to be able to benefit from any support allocated to us,” he added
Vincent Bavakure, the Executive Secretary of Community of Potters of Rwanda (COPORWA), a non-governmental organization striving for the rights of HMP said the traditional way of living of this population doesn’t coincide with environmental conservation programs and policies.
“We try to speak to authorities on their behalf to negotiate the right to access the clay, and we teach them how to restore it so that they can get it again next time. However, pottery is no longer a job which can make income on its own, given other competitive and cheap products on the markets,” he said.
Besides, COPORWA sets out programs aiming at handling all these issues, Education programs at the forefront, he said.
“We started a program of promoting literacy by teaching adults to read and write. After getting these basic skills, the mindsets also changed slightly and they started to send their children to school,” he said.
Call for a systematic way of supporting them
Furthermore, COPORWA conducts an advocacy program to analyze government policies to see to which extent they reach the HMP community, and the impact they might have on them.
“These people have double vulnerability; they have to be taken into consideration in all social support programs and make follow up to see if they reached the needed changes. Leaders have to know that history is still hunting this community and giving them support is not enough. A systematic follow-up is needed to change their mind and reach the level of other Rwandans,” he said.
“We saw some who have been given modern houses but they removed everything sellable from them like doors, windows, sheets and they went back into their huts in the forests,” he says.
“The reason behind this is that there was no induction to this new life. They were obliged to shift from the job they used to live on to another kind of job they were not even used to. They have to be involved and try to change their minds,” he added.
“Instead of giving them cows, which are expensive to grow, give them goats or pigs, or even try to help them where they are, where they can gain their living easily,” he concluded.
According to official figures, before 1994, there were 45,000 people in this category across the country. The number has since dropped to between 34,000 and 38,000 people.
According to the Ministry of Local Government, this translates into two marginalized persons per 1000 inhabitants (2/1000).
THIS STORY HAS BEEN PRODUCED TO THE SUPPORT OF SIRI- SOCIAL IMPACT REPORTING