"People dream what they see," is one of the many statements that stuck with us, during our conversation with Richard Ntakirutimana, the Executive Director of AIMPO (African Initiative for Mankind Progress Organization). These words possess a weighty significance for the Batwa in Rwanda, for whom the realization of basic Human Rights—such as access to clean water, education, and healthcare—has remained frustratingly elusive. But the potency of these words also emanates from Richard's unwavering commitment, spanning over two decades, to nurture and bring these dreams to life: dreams of a life where the Batwa are no longer marginalized in Rwandan society, where the painful history of their forced eviction from ancestral lands is acknowledged by all Rwandans, and where they can thrive rather than merely survive.
For millennia, the Batwa inhabited the forests of the Great Lakes Region in Africa, leading a harmonious and sustainable way of life. As Richard aptly puts it, the Batwa "lived a good life." However, this history was abruptly disrupted by their eviction from their lands in the name of conservation, tourism, or profit. Suddenly relegated to the fringes of society, their way of life was not only disregarded but often subjected to ridicule, condemning the Batwa to abject poverty.
In this disheartening landscape, Indigenous-led organizations like AIMPO play a crucial role in the development of these communities, grounded in the respect for their history, culture, and distinct needs. These organizations stand unwavering and resilient, enduring the challenging journey towards empowerment and the full recognition of individual and collective rights. Richard, undeterred after two decades of unyielding commitment, perseveres in his mission to secure the Batwa's inclusion and respect within Rwandan society while preserving the uniqueness of his People.
On the heels of a recent grant from Azimuth, which AIMPO is leveraging to construct an innovative Sanitation and Hygiene Education Community Center in Byumba-Gicumbi, we had the privilege of interviewing Richard. We hope that his story will inspire more individuals to stand as allies alongside the Batwa on their path towards a brighter future.
Play the video version below, or scroll down to read a transcript.
I'm Richard Ntakirutimana. I have been serving as executive director of African Initiative for Mankind Progress Organization since 2012. AIMPO was founded in 2001 by Batwa community Indigenous People. Our organization is a local organization within Rwanda, and for over 20 years we have reached several key milestones, in our mission to improve and uplift the rights of all Indigenous People in Rwanda.
Some of our significant achievements include supporting 1074 households in the districts of Nyagatare, Gicumbi, Bugesera, Musanze and Burera. We have also made progress in raising awareness about the challenges faced by the Batwa, advocating for their rights, and providing them with opportunities for sustainable development.
Our economic empowerment initiatives, such as small scale enterprise training and agriculture projects, helped families generate income and become more self-sufficient. In the realm of education, our advocacy efforts and sensibilization campaigns have increased school enrollment among Batwa children. And we have seen this improving literacy rates and educational opportunities for them. We've also been working for a long time on Human Rights advocacy, which has helped raise awareness about the lives of the Batwa and contributed to greater inclusion and acceptance within Rwandan society.
I always tell people that I want to see a Mutwa graduating from Harvard University. I want to see a Mutwa doing business, contributing to sustainable development goals, contributing to the development of the country. I want to see a Mutwa employing people, giving jobs to other people. Those are my wishes. How do we reach them? It means we need a hand, from different people. I want to see Batwa kids staying together, living together, studying together with other kids from different families.
People dream what they see. That's why we want people to help us make our dream a reality.
The Rwandan government categorized the Batwa as "Historically Marginalized People", which is a positive step towards promoting inclusivity and unity in our society. However the name "HMP", "Historically Marginalized People," doesn't fully address the challenges that the Batwa still face. Of course we understand it prevents future conflicts and fosters a sense of Rwandan identity, but it doesn't automatically translate into improving living conditions or equal access to resources.
One of the main challenges is that the Batwa still lack recognition and understanding from the broader society. When you call people "Historically Marginalized," you have to explain. There is a history, which happened to them. So as a government, you have to define that history and make it clear to society. And put in a guidance of how you are going to address that history that has been negative to them.
In this case, their unique needs and vulnerabilities are often overlooked, which affects their ability to secure support and funding. Because the Batwa were not recognized, anyone who is even willing to come and help them lacks data.
Another issue is limited accurate data and information about the Batwa's living conditions. This hinders policy-making and planning, making it difficult to allocate resources effectively. It's illegal to conduct any census that is based on a single state or identity.
As an Indigenous organization, we found that there were 36,000 Batwa. This number has been used since 1994. We don't know whether we are declining or we are increasing. We don't know whether there is a growth of the Batwa population or a decline. From my point of view, 36,000 is a big number. I think we are declining instead of growing.
To our understanding, the marginalization started when we no longer had access to our traditional homeland, which was the forest. Because when we were in the forest, we used to live a good life. We had opportunities to access food, to access medicine. Even to access some financial means. But after eviction, that's when the marginalization started. Because we came out of the forest and we started living with people who don't want us. And they would just treat us as sub-human beings.
We are not represented like other Rwandans in the decision-making organs. We have challenges in access to food, education and health. That is exactly the evidence that we have been left behind. And the government, instead of understanding our issues, always insists that we are all Rwandans. Of course, we are all Rwandans. But we benefit differently.
In Byumba and other areas where we work, access to proper sanitation facilities and clean water is limited. This leads to usage of unsafe drinking water, which has immediate consequences, like the spring of diseases. These include waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea, desentery and high risk of malnutrition due to poor sanitation, and waste disposal practices that are directly related to undernutrition in children.
As for long-term consequences, they include a cycle of poor health, as well as limited economic opportunities and limited social inclusion. Lack of proper hygiene and sanitation facilities also impacts children's education. When our children look poor, look hungry, they can't go to school. They have no uniform, no shoes. The majority of them suffer from jiggers. Those things, a consequence of poor hygiene, limit our children's access to education.
And access to medicine is also a problem for the Batwa. Poor hygiene leads to situations that demand high-end treatment. If you're from a Batwa community, you don't have the capacity to go to the hospital, you don't have health insurance. Basically, you die.
The Sanitation and Hygiene Education Community Center, we see it as a critical component of our project. Its primary goals are twofold. The first is infrastructure, to provide the Batwa with access to clean and safe sanitation facilities, including toilets and clean water sources. This is essential for improving the community's overall health and well-being.
The second component is about education. We have seen that education is key for development. This includes teaching water verification techniques, waste management, and teaching the community about proper hygiene practices.
Addressing both infrastructure and education is crucial, because it will create a holistic approach to tackle hygiene and sanitation challenges. Providing facilities alone is not enough. People have to understand how to use them correctly, in order to achieve lasting improvements in health and living conditions.
I cannot generalize and say that all non-Indigenous-led projects lack cultural sensitivity. There is a risk that they won't fully understand the culture, laws and specific needs of the Batwa community. Cultural sensitivity is important in addressing the challenges faced by the Batwa, as their way of life, traditions and values are distinct.
Currently, a lot of organizations who have been working with our community seem to have given up, because of a lack of understanding of the Batwa's culture and needs. Me, I can't give up. I can't start criticizing my community, and complain that they are not changing. Change is a long process.
I am from the Eastern Province of Rwanda. But if I reach Batwa communities in Northern Province, I can communicate with them easily, even if other Rwandans can't understand what we are saying. That is the uniqueness of culture. When I reach Gicumbi, I see the community members as my grandfathers, as brothers and sisters. I feel sad, seeing them suffering from jiggers, while other neighbors are OK.
So when non-Indigenous people are there, they may say, "It seems that these people are complicated, they behaved badly," or something like that. It's like they're undermining them. Sometimes the non-Indigenous-led projects, they lack a holistic approach that understands the community needs and the community norms.
I cannot end this without appreciating organizations like Azimuth Foundation, and the other partners who have been on our side since 2001. Without those organizations, without friends, I couldn't even be here and talk to you. Because it's not easy to find partners like Azimuth World Foundation, sitting in the United States of America and thinking about the Batwa condition. This is really something we call "Ubuntu," helping without any return, helping just from the bottom of your heart. When you take your time to discuss how we can improve the Batwa condition, that's something I really appreciate.
I have never met you. I have never met with other organizations that have been supporting us. But their grants have contributed a lot, in terms of improving the condition of our beneficiaries. Otherwise, without friends, without donors, maybe no one would know that one day there was a Batwa in Rwanda. But because of that support, that kindness, we're still alive.
We are an ally to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities dealing with matters of access to Health and Water and the protection of the right to maintain traditional ways of living in harmony with Nature.