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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.

Between 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 results.

The Twa 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 inhabit the forests around the volcanoes where tourists now flock to get a glimpse of some of the last remaining gorillas. However, the Twa have seen little benefit from these visits. Like many other indigenous minority groups throughout the world, they have been forced to leave the forest 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 used 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, they 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.

The Twa 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 Twa by other Rwandans is not considered taboo; rather is generally accepted. In 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 words and always quarrel among themselves.” This marginalization has been largely internalized by the Twa who are often afraid to approach other Rwandans or begin to claim their rights as citizens.

The Healing 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 confidence. 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, close to the volcanoes, and the other was in Kayonza on the outskirts of a national wildlife park.

The evaluation 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 and increased community cohesion, the wholehearted implementation of the vegetable sack gardens and the improved status of the Twa in their communities.

Increased Confidence
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 to fear.

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 shared:

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.

The lesson 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.

One woman, 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, sold 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.

Another 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 and 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 experiences and healing have given him wisdom to share with others. He said, for 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 wife because 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 pain of another couple and intervene on their behalf. In these ways, the tree of trust is taking root in the Twa community, spreading through the network of neighbors, family and friends.

The implementation 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 trust.

The sacks worked particularly well in Ruhengeri where there is plenty of rainfall. In Kayonza, some participants had lost their harvest because of drought and others to wild animals from the national park. In fact, as a further indication of the marginalization of the Twa, one woman 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 time, far away.

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 their lives.

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.

Elizabeth Cave said that the groundwork had now been laid, that the participants had increased their confidence and that the next steps 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 unheard 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 the future of the project.

The project so far is a testament to the way the HROC methodology can transform hearts, relationships, health, livelihoods and power structures. As the participants start to take ownership of the project, let us hope that, like the individual stories of Jacqueline and Bosco, the 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.