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Great Lakes Twa

Mutwa with traditional bow and arrow
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, Uganda
Rundi, Kiga, French, English
7% Christian[1]
Related ethnic groups
Hutu, Tutsi

The Great Lakes Twa, also known as Abatwa or Ge-Sera, or in English Batwa, are a pygmy people who are generally assumed to be the oldest surviving population of the Great Lakes region of central Africa, though currently they live as a Bantu caste. Current populations are found in the states of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2000, they numbered approximately 80,000 people, making them a significant minority group in these countries.[2]

Apart from anthropological literature, the term "Twa" generally refers to the Twa of the Great Lakes region. There are a number of other Twa populations in the Congo forest, as well as southern Twa populations living in swamps and deserts where there has never been forest, but these are little known in the West.


  • History 1
  • Current situation 2
  • Support 3
    • Groups working with the Twa 3.1
  • Distribution of the Twa 4
  • Language 5
  • See also 6
    • Other pygmy groups 6.1
    • Researchers who studied pygmy culture and music 6.2
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Batwa women with traditional pottery

Traditionally, the Twa have been a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers of the mountain forests living in association with agricultural villages, much as other Pygmy peoples do.

When the Hutu, a Bantu-speaking people, arrived in the region, they subjugated 'bush people' (hunter-gatherers) they called Abatwa, which are generally assumed to be the ancestors of the Twa today, though it may be that the Twa arrived alongside the Hutu, and either were a distinct people from the original inhabitants, or have mixed ancestry.[3] Around the 15th century AD, the pastoralist Tutsi arrived and dominated both the Hutu and the Twa, creating a three-caste society with the Tutsi governing, the Hutu the bulk of the population, and the Twa at the bottom of the social scale, simultaneously despised, admired, and feared. For several hundred years, the Twa have been a small minority in the area, currently 1% in Rwanda and Burundi, and have had little political role, though there were at times Twa in the government of the Tutsi king.

Unusually for Pygmies, who generally trade meat for agricultural products, iron, and pottery, the Twa are themselves potters.[4]

The Twa are often ignored in discussions about the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis, which reached its height in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.[2] About 30% of the Twa population of Rwanda died in the violence.[5]

The Twa of Uganda lived in the mountains of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until 1992, when it was made a World Heritage Site for the endangered Mountain Gorilla. At that time they were expelled from the forest and placed in settlements.

Current situation

A traditional dance of the Batwa

Due to clearing of the forests for agriculture, logging, development projects, and the creation of conservation areas, the Twa have been forced to leave the mountain forests and establish new homes. As they seek to develop new means of sustaining their communities (such as agriculture and livestock development) most are currently landless and live in poverty. The ancestral land rights of the Twa have never been recognized by their governments and no compensation has been made for lands lost.

Twa children have little access to education and their communities have limited representation in local and national government. Due to their pygmy ancestry, they continue to suffer ethnic prejudice, discrimination, violence, and general exclusion from society.[6][7] Batwa men struggle with alcoholism, known to occur in communities facing cultural collapse as men can no longer carry out traditional roles and provide for families.[8] By 2007, begging was the primary source of livelihood for 40% of the Batwa in Rwanda.[9]

While the Batwa adapted to the changes in their environment by adopting new economic activities and thus traditions and identities, they continue to face challenges to their survival. Today, much of the available land, apart from areas reserved for wildlife conservation and environmental protection, is under cultivation. Unable to access their ancestral lands and practice traditional cultural and economic activities, the Batwa now perceive their pottery as an expression of their identity. Although it is no longer profitable since industrialized pottery became cheaply available, the Batwa cling to the activity for its cultural and social significance. Not only do they consider it an ancestral tradition, but also it carries a social importance in their current day society.[4] The process of digging the clay and carrying it to their settlements allows for socialization and a sense of community among Batwa potters.[10] However, in Rwanda the shared access marshes where Batwa harvest clay under an informal communal tenure system are fast becoming collectivized rice-growing plantations due to a 2005 land policy change.[11] They face another crisis as they lose another occupation that defines Batwa identity and provides social livelihood.


Groups working with the Twa

Distribution of the Twa

The northern Twa. The east-most group are the Great Lakes Twa.
  • Volcano National Park, Rwanda (resettled, 1970's–1980s)
  • Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda (resettled, 1970's–1980s)
  • Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda (evicted 1991)
  • Mgahinga National Park, Uganda (evicted 1991)
  • Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Congo (evicted)
  • Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo (evicted)
  • Gishwati Forest, Rwanda (evicted for forest plantation and dairy production, then as refugee lands)[12]
  • Mfangano Island, Kenya (prehistoric only)


The Twa speak distinct dialects of Rundi and Kiga.

See also

Other pygmy groups

Researchers who studied pygmy culture and music


  1. ^ Johnstone, Patrick, and Jason Mandryk. Operation World. Waynesboro, Georgia Paternoster Lifestyle, 2001.
  2. ^ a b Minorities Under Siege: Pygmies today in Africa IRIN In-Depth [This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]
  3. ^ Blench, Roger. 1999. "Are the African Pygmies an Ethnographic Fiction?" pp 41–60 in Biesbrouck, Elders, & Rossel (eds.) Challenging Elusiveness: Central African Hunter-Gatherers in a Multidisciplinary Perspective. Leiden.[2]
  4. ^ a b Jackson, Dorothy (2003). Twa women, Twa rights in the Great Lakes region of Africa. University of Michigan: Minority Rights Group. pp. 6, 12.  
  5. ^ "Minorities Under Siege: Pygmies today in Africa". UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  6. ^ Forest Peoples Programme.
  7. ^ CAURWA (Communauté des Autochtones Rwandais).
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Central Africa: Nowhere to go; land loss and cultural degradation. The Twa of the Great Lakes". World Rainforest Movement. October 2004. 

External links

  • Pygmies of Central Africa with photos and ethnographic notes
  • The Right to Learn: Batwa Education in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Minority Rights Group, 2008
  • Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region, Minority Rights Group, 2000
  • Twa Women, Twa Rights in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Minority Rights Group, 2003
  • BURUNDI: The Batwa quest for equality : Pygmies today in Africa IRIN In-Depth
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