Cultivating Confidence and Wisdom among the Twa in Rwanda
By Elin Henrysson and Nyiramana Solange
This project was made possible by a grant from Quaker Peace and Social
Witness of Britain Yearly Meeting.
April, 2010 and March 2011, Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities-Rwanda
(HROC-Rwanda) conducted a set of trauma healing workshops and vegetable
garden trainings among the Twa. An assessment of this project was carried
out by the authors in early March 2011, revealing positive and hopeful
are the third ethnic group in Rwanda. There are around 20,000 of
them making up only 0.2% of the population. They used to
the forests around the volcanoes where tourists now flock to get
a glimpse of some of the last remaining gorillas. However, the Twa
seen little benefit from these visits. Like many other indigenous
minority groups throughout the world, they have been forced to leave
and their way of life as hunter/gatherers. They were given houses
and small pieces of land by the government on the outskirts of what
to be their home. At this time, the Twa had no culture of or skills
in cultivation and continued to value meat very highly. Because of
this, many Twa have sold their land. Traditionally they also make
pottery but because of modern replacements to these storage containers,
now cultivate other people’s fields for 50 cents or 1 dollar
a day. Like almost all Rwandans they have been severely affected
by the genocide in 1994.
also face additional challenges. In today’s Rwanda, it
is forbidden to talk about ethnic groups — everyone is simply
Rwandan. Despite this enforced egalitarianism, the Twa are now
referred to as abasizwe inyuma n’amateka — “those
who have been left behind by history.” They have been consistently
discriminated against institutionally and socially. They have not
been given the
same opportunity to attend or succeed in school; they are not represented
in local or national decision-making, own very little land and
are routinely passed over for jobs. Discrimination against the
other Rwandans is not considered taboo; rather is generally accepted.
fact, one Rwandan said “We know them as people who do not
want to wash, who fight and speak a bad Kinyarwanda. They say bad
and always quarrel among themselves.” This marginalization
has been largely internalized by the Twa who are often afraid to
other Rwandans or begin to claim their rights as citizens.
and Rebuilding Our Communities project usually brings together
a diverse group of people to learn about and deal with
trauma and to
create a forum for reconciliation. But because of the marginalization
of the Twa participants, this project brought together only Twa
for basic trauma-healing workshops to allow them to build their
The workshops were followed by training in vegetable sack gardens — teaching
participants how to use a sack to create a kitchen garden with
multiple layers. This methodology is particularly appropriate
for the Twa as
they have very little land. The project included 200 participants
and took place in two communities. One project site was in Ruhengeri,
to the volcanoes, and the other was in Kayonza on the outskirts
of a national wildlife park.
was based on 18 in-depth interviews with participants from both project
sites and an interview
with Elizabeth Cave
from Britain, one of the trainers in the project. The most
striking results of the
project were the increased confidence levels, trauma healing
increased community cohesion, the wholehearted implementation
of the vegetable
sack gardens and the improved status of the Twa in their communities.
Many of the participants confirmed their sense of marginalization,
giving specific examples of discrimination:
I felt discriminated
against in the class. Other children used to beat us saying, ”she is Twa” — they
would not include us in any activity in school.
My uncle was killed by being cut with a panga [machete]. After we
buried him, we reported it to the police and the killers were arrested
but now we see them walking around here.
I was cut with
a panga [on the head] and everyone shouted “he
is a thief!” when I was innocent.
Very few of those interviewed had ever been invited to a workshop
or training before. Perhaps because of this isolation, the HROC workshops
have had a dramatic effect on their sense of self.
HROC trained me that I have potential and skills. HROC wiped away
the idea that I was not like other Rwandans. Now people don’t
stop talking when I come and I feel welcomed. Before I had not recognized
myself as the same as others.
Before we got this
training we feared other people and we had no confidence. We are
now very ok. Before we used to despise ourselves; now, people
don’t even know that we are those who were left behind by history.
Before HROC we used to not want to talk to other people but now I
feel that we are people like them. Through HROC I have learned not
Trauma Healing and Increased Community Cohesion
The project also provided a much-needed forum for trauma healing and
reconciliation. The trauma articulated by participants ranged from
discrimination and isolation, to domestic abuse, and to the loss
of loved ones during the war or the genocide. Many participants mentioned
that just putting a name to their experiences has helped them move
on and heal. Most participants also said that interacting and sharing
their experiences with others was key to their recovery.
For example, one woman who had watched while her children were killed
Whenever I would
go to bed, I would be scared. I was not able to interact with others;
I was not able to welcome anyone in my heart. I felt pain
in me and that caused me to fall sick. I was able to heal when I did
not resist the thoughts that come from this trauma; when I accepted
that this happened to me. There I was able to go to other people and
say “I am not well.” In the training we were told that
if we don’t interact with others we will continue to be traumatized.
When I told people my heart started to heal.
most often cited as the favorite was the tree of trust, an exercise
where participants are encouraged to think about the roots,
branches and fruits of trust. Almost all participants emphasized that
before the training, there was conflict and divisiveness in their community
but that HROC had helped them to understand and help each other. Many
people gave examples of having helped others in their communities who
were experiencing trauma and difficulty. Tellingly, the situations
those they helped were facing were often very similar to those the
participant themselves had experienced.
Jacqueline, shared a particularly moving testimony. She grew up not
knowing who her
father was .In Rwanda’s patrilineal
society this meant she effectively belonged nowhere and to no one.
Moreover she lost her mother during the war. Because her mother’s
family chased her away, she was forced to marry a man old enough
to be her father. He abused her verbally and physically for years,
all their belongings and everything they cultivated before she had
a chance to buy food for their children. She was forced to work other
people’s land and smuggle in food for her severely malnourished
babies. Eventually she became suicidal. It was at this point that
she was invited to the HROC workshop. She said of the training, It’s
like you took me from hell and placed me in another world. My living
until today is because of HROC. Even though she is still facing difficulties,
her experiences have now become a source of strength. She said, Now
people are wondering what words of wisdom I can give and gave examples
of people she had helped. One woman had given birth to a child and
it had come to light that it was not her husband’s. The husband
was prepared to leave his wife and disown the daughter but Jacqueline
spoke to him and convinced him to take the child as his own. Jacqueline
knew what it would mean for her to grow up without a father and was
able to reconcile the relationship and give some hope to the baby.
man, Bosco, lost his brother during the war and became unable to
control his anger. He said, My heart was not stable and that would
cause me to fight all the time. My wife would not say two words
I would beat her. This became my nature. After the HROC workshop,
he says he has stopped beating his wife and has begun treating
others the way he would like to be treated. Like Jacqueline, his
and healing have given him wisdom to share with others. He said,
example, A neighbor of mine used to beat his wife and traumatize
her. So I went and talked to him to tell him to stop beating his
he is traumatizing not only her but his children. It took a while,
but now the couple no longer fight. Because he used to abuse his
wife and had found healing from his anger, he was able to see the
another couple and intervene on their behalf. In these ways, the
tree of trust is taking root in the Twa community, spreading through
network of neighbors, family and friends.
of the sack gardens
The second aspect of the project — the vegetable gardens— has
been taken on enthusiastically by all participants. The connection
between the trauma healing workshops and the vegetable garden sacks
was made explicit during the training. Working together to cultivate
vegetables in sacks was described as a way to cultivate the tree of
worked particularly well in Ruhengeri where there is plenty of rainfall.
In Kayonza, some participants had lost their
of drought and others to wild animals from the national park. In
fact, as a further indication of the marginalization of the Twa,
said, Animals are more important here than we are. If you kill a
bird for eating your food, you will go to prison for a very long
Despite these challenges, walking into the village, people would proudly
point to their sacks bursting with cabbages, dodo (a green leafy vegetable)
and tomatoes, and pose for photographs. All the participants articulately
described how to make a sack garden, and shared how it had changed
As the people
who are left behind by history, it is well-known that we don’t
have any land. Now I have my sack garden and my family eats vegetables
from there so it has been so good to me.
My children were often falling sick, but now they are much healthier.
We have a small space for cultivating and the sacks are right by our
house. You can go anytime and pick what you need.
Higher status of the Twa
Many participants have shared this methodology with other people, including
other Rwandans and have enjoyed a higher status in their communities
as a result. Some have even begun charging for training sessions,
turning their knowledge into an income generating activity. Beyond
these trainings, a group of participants in Kayonza had also started
a traditional dance group that is invited to events and parties for
a small fee. This additional income is far from trivial for some
of the poorest people in the world and the initiatives were attributed
directly to the healing, cohesion and confidence that HROC had brought.
Cave said that the groundwork had now been laid, that the participants
had increased their confidence and that the next
would be to give opportunity for the participants to find other income
generating activities and to interact more regularly with other Rwandans.
Many participants mentioned that this was already starting to take
place, as a result of their increased confidence. In fact, in response
to whether they had become more aware of their rights through this
project, the overwhelming majority said that now they knew that they
were people like others. They also emphasized that local leaders
have come to value their opinions and input, something which was
of before the training. Eight of the participants have now been trained
as Healing Companions and are able to conduct trauma-healing workshops
on their own. Because of this, other Rwandans in their communities
have begun to see them as people who have something to offer. The
hope is that these newly enabled Twa will be empowered to take on
of the project.
so far is a testament to the way the HROC methodology can transform
hearts, relationships, health, livelihoods
As the participants start to take ownership of the project, let
us hope that, like the individual stories of Jacqueline and Bosco,
collective suffering of the Twa can be turned into wisdom from
which all Rwandans can benefit.
The Next Step
Quaker Peace and Social Witness has granted AGLI and HROC-Rwanda additional
funds to continue this project. The new project will involved advanced
HROC workshops with half Twa and half Tutsi and Hutu. In addition,
further income generating activities including the bio-sand water
filter project will be implrement in 2011.