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Twa Growing Together Project

As one of the group of those who have been left behind by history, I used to be in isolation. No one took care of us. We couldn’t think that there could be someone thinking of us, but there are people who think of us and the difficult time we passed through. Now they know how much we are traumatized. I feel comfortable after this [HROC] workshop. I am taking the decision now of approaching other people who are not from our group and share with them what I have learned in this workshop. Hamissi from the Twa ethnic group

In Rwanda there is a marginalized group call the Twa. They are less than 0.5% of the population and are despised by other Rwandans and treated as ‘untouchables’. Another name for them is abasizwe inyuma n’amateka which means “people whom history has left behind”. During the 1994 genocide, some were implicated in the killings, others were killed, and many were swept up in the mass exodus to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where they were harshly treated in the refugee camps. The Twa live in isolation in their own villages; many are illiterate as they can’t afford to send their children to school; they avoid contact with local or central government officials. They formerly lived in the forests as hunter-gatherers. Hunting was prohibited in the 1970s. Then in 1998 the remaining small areas of tropical forest in overpopulated Rwanda were designated as national parks and military training areas. The Twa were expelled and can no longer live there in their traditional way. They were also the potters of the country but, in an age of cheap plastic and metal vessels, their clay pots are no longer in much demand. They have no history as cultivators, no land, and are among the most destitute and malnourished of the rural poor.

While no single event has precipitated a crisis, as the rest of Rwandan society takes steps towards improvement, the Twa are left further and further behind. The government does not recognize their particular problems and the policy of not naming groups within the Rwandan population – an attempt to see all citizens as Rwandans and not as a member of an ethnic group – means their plight cannot be publicly addressed. Amidst rapid increase in the general population, Twa numbers have fallen to around 20,000 according to fairly recent estimates from the Minority Rights Group (MRG) and Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO).

Origin of the project

This project, funded by a grant from Quaker Peace and Social Witness of Britain Yearly Meeting, is an innovative one, bringing together the interests and expertise of Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) and Growing Together.

HROC-Rwanda did some initial work with Twa in 2008 and judged that a group of workshops conducted close together would enable the building up of a big enough group of “graduates” to have a significant effect on attitudes, encourage participation in wider Rwandan society and breaking down prejudice.

Growing Together is a kitchen gardening project devised by Elizabeth Cave from England, teaching sustainable organic methods of growing vegetables near the house and spreading information about the role of compost/humus in restoring exhausted soils and slowing erosion. “Growing together” has a double meaning. Growing food together improves nutrition, while working co-operatively provides opportunities for people and groups to grow closer together, building community cohesion. Food security is an essential component of individual well-being and thus of peaceful social relations. Acquiring the ability to provide more nutrition for one’s family builds self-esteem. Better nutrition provides a better range of micro-nutrients, leading to improved physical and mental development. People with better mental development find it easier to accept new ideas.

After Elizabeth visited Rwanda with the Friendly Folk Dancers in 2008, she returned as a volunteer with the African Great Lakes Initiative. In 2009 she worked in Rwanda for four weeks in February and another four weeks in October conducting Growing Together workshops. Being open to how the work may develop, she expects to continue her involvement until the end of 2012.

During her month’s work in Rwanda in October 2009, Elizabeth suggested to Solange Maniraguha, the senior HROC facilitator in Rwanda, that there might be a possibility of combining the two types of workshops. They thought at first that a pottery project would be their goal, using a traditional occupation of the Twa to help them develop a marketable product. After further thought and discussion with Dave Zarembka, AGLI co-ordinator, it was agreed that vegetable growing would be a more appropriate practical component of the first project combining HROC and Growing Together.

Since the Twa, due to their poor status, are reluctant to come to meetings or workshops, it was decided to have initial one-day “debates” where the Twa would be allowed to give their thoughts and opinions in an accepting, positive environment. This would then be followed by basic HROC three-day workshops. When these were completed, Growing Together two-day workshops would teach vegetable gardening skills. Each of these elements has been shown to work successfully. The combination is new and the whole may be more than the sum of the parts.

With the increased self-confidence acquired during both of these workshops, Twa may lose their habitual suspicion of all authorities. They can then send their children to school, and accept help and advice offered through Rwandan government initiatives to teach sustainable kitchen gardening throughout the country.

At the time of this writing, the four debates and ten HROC workshops have been completed. In October Elizabeth, with a Rwandan under-study who can take over the program after she leaves, will hold six two-day Growing Together workshops. Then a community celebration day will be held bringing raising the visibility of the Twa in their local communities. Lastly, follow-up days will assess the project and plan for the future. It is intended that ten Twa graduates of the HROC workshops will be paired with ten Hutu/Tutsi in 2011 for an advanced HROC workshop so that Twa can begin to feel integrated into the larger Rwandan society. Ideas for helping Twa engage in productive activities include making ceramic “refrigerators” to keep food cool and cement bio-sand water filters. We will see how way opens.