Batwa People Are Reclaiming Their Place

Others, Indigenous , Racism

Contributed by: Food for the Hungry Canada

Story collected by Cyriaque Bizimana and written with Eryn Austin-Bergen


“My village mates and I considered participating in decision making, studying, doing business and breeding livestock as being for the other groups of Burundians but not for the Batwa. I thought that God had created people differently.” – Mandela

It’s no surprise that Mandela and his peers felt like second-class citizens in their homeland. As members of the Indigenous Batwa Peoples in Burundi, they had faced discrimination from before they were even born.  

Around 300,000 Batwa people are scattered across Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, and parts of eastern DRC. They face increasing poverty due to racial discrimination, violence, loss of their home forests, and exclusion from community decision-making.

Almost all the Batwa have lost their traditional ways of making a living in and from the forest. Even their one remaining unique and marketable cultural craft of pottery making is being threatened by a mechanized pottery industry. In Burundi, most Batwa men like Mandela can’t legally own land so they can’t farm for a living like other Burundians. 

As a husband and father, Mandela felt the full force of this marginalization. Without a viable livelihood, he couldn’t feed his four children. The family relied on his wife, Sandra’s, small pottery income. Mandela turned to alcohol to forget his perceived failure and shame. His frustration with their situation turned into violence against Sandra.

“We were very miserable with this situation,” Mandela says. “My children were affected by malnutrition. The habit of beating my wife affected my children until they began to behave like those affected by psychological trauma. Emotionally, I was discouraged because I could not see a way of overcoming this situation. We thought that this was God’s will.’’ – Mandela
Mandela, with his three sons and his wife Sandra (their baby is on her back!).

Food for the Hungry Canada works alongside Indigenous families like Mandela and Sandra’s on three different continents—the Batwa in Burundi, the Ixil in Guatemala, and various groups in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. While Indigenous Peoples make up only six per cent of the global population, they account for about 19 per cent of the extreme poor. They suffer from limited access to education, poor health, human rights violations, and social discrimination.

Poverty among the Batwa arises from multiple causes, not the least of which is a deeply embedded belief arising from centuries of discrimination—”We are not worthy.” 

It’s why Mandela quit his FH Cascade Health Group after learning to build a latrine for his family—he felt like his neighbours didn’t want him to keep coming to the meetings. General development among Batwa families like his lagged due to the discrimination they were experiencing. By internalizing the message that they are “less than”, Batwa families often counted themselves out of FH Burundi activities.

To overcome these harmful beliefs, FH staff focused on teaching that God’s love does not discriminate and facilitating workshops on human rights and minority rights.


Thankfully, in 2022, Mandela decided to attend a FH rights workshop. It was a revolutionary experience! “The training helped me contemplate new horizons,” Mandela explains.

As he began to internalize his value, Mandela came alive. He helped start a Savings and Loans Group and was elected the group president. “We created loans to invest in small projects like vegetable farming; buy school supplies for our children; pay for medical cards; breed small livestock; and do small business for a better living of our families which no longer depend on pottery only,” he says.

Mandela took out a loan to buy a pig which produced manure for him to fertilize his maize crop and received agricultural support from FH staff. “I also received encouragement to be a community leader. I was elected as one of 15 community members who are considered judges at the community level and I am now the executive secretary of this group.”

“From being part of these activities, I learned that change starts with individuals then spreads across the rest of the community,” Mandela shares. “I also realized that we Batwa contributed to discriminating against ourselves because we did not know our rights. Finally, I learned that the development of a whole group is better than the development of one individual. This is the reason I convinced villagers to start a savings group and participate in community development activities.” – Mandela

To further inspire families in Mandela’s community, FH Burundi organized a two-day sharing visit between a group of 30 Batwa leaders from Randa and a successful Batwa cooperative in a neighbouring province that makes and sells popular fuel-efficient stoves. Because it was a Batwa group teaching the Randa group, rather than “outsiders”, the participants were attentive.

The Randa Batwa group created a plan to organize their own cooperative and start new income-generating activities. As a result, Batwa households in Randa are now working hard to diversify their income and not be reliant on just pottery. “People in our Batwa group are now self-confident,” Mandela says. His is one of the households that has been transformed.

“In my personal life, these changes have contributed to fulfilling my self-esteem because I am now a role model and leader in my village. I feel courageous to help other Batwa to wake up!”

Mandela’s home life also radically changed. A FH staff member shares: “Mandela is very courageous and loves his family so much! Every time, he is working in the garden and helping his wife with her work.” Mandela advocates for his wife, not wanting to see gender-segregated work anymore—rather, he wants to share all their family activities, even pottery, traditionally an exclusively female craft.

Mandela now helps Sandra with “women’s” chores, like chopping firewood for the cookstove.

Mandela and Sandra now discuss the future of their family and make decisions together.
 His violence toward her has disappeared and his children are in school and doing well—his daughter, Solange, came in third place in her class!

“My family broke the limits!” Mandela declares. “The drunk man I was has changed into a leader in our village. My family, especially my children, are safe. Before, I had no church to enter, but now I am a Christian.” – Mandela

Today, Mandela cares for his children and wife with the love and strength of the father and husband he always wanted to be.

FH Burundi works not only to uplift the mindset of the oppressed, but also to transform the mindset of the “oppressors”, thus encouraging one new and unified community of peace, mutual respect, and flourishing for all.

In addition to training Batwa group members on human rights and minority rights, they conducted sensitization meetings in 66 villages on the rights of women and the Batwa people. After the meetings, FH encouraged social mixing by hosted a friendly competition between the communities (Batwa and non-Batwa), including soccer games and dance offs. As a result, non-Batwa male leaders began reaching out to their peers to reinforce gender and ethnic equality.

Mindset transformation really is at the heart of ending discrimination against minority groups like the Batwa, and ending discrimination is necessary to ending poverty.

A person has to believe that they are worthy of something better in order to reach for it, and they have to believe they are able.

“Before FH’s activities, all the Batwa families in our village were not aware that we are loved by God just as others are, and that we can do also all the things that they can do.” But now, all that is changing. Now, Mandela says, “To be among the Batwa is no longer a reason to live miserable and discriminated life.”

If you want to participate in transforming communities like Mandela’s, check out FH Journey Partners