by Evariste Ndikumana, African Road Changemaker
Evariste Ndikumana is a leader of the Batwa Indigenous People in Burundi. Long marginalized and left out of development efforts, the Batwa are among the poorest people in Burundi, a country that stands as one of the poorest countries in the world. African Road, together with the First Presbyterian Church of Bend, partners with Evariste to empower three Batwa villages — Gahombo, Mwendo, and Ndava — with agriculture, education, healthcare, and citizens’ rights.
Evariste says: “The last time I went to Gahombo, I met with Julietta, a 75 years old Batwa woman. She told me with smiles and joy about the life she had five years ago compared to her life today. While talking to me, she would repeatedly hold me in her arms as a sign of thanks.”
Julietta Bavuganumva’s Story
“I was born in Muramvya (a Batwa village in Burundi). My grandparents were well regarded at the royal court. They were called every time when it was time for hunting dangerous wild animals like lions for their ritual uses at the king’s court. It was said that the Batwa are very brave and good hunters because they originate from the big forests. At that time, and as our grandfather told us, the Batwa were well regarded as any other citizen because there were still no ethnic divisions.
“Since the kingship was overthrown, ethnic problems arose and the Batwa began to be mistreated because only two ethnic groups were considered, that is, Hutus and Tutsis. At this time, some Batwa were still living in the forests.
“When I grew up, I saw the Hutu children going to school, but we were told that there was no school for the Batwa. A Batwa child might run after the Hutu and Tutsi students to follow them to school, only to be hit or forced to spend all day kneeling on the ground. Things were so difficult that even when we went to the well to draw some water, we made arrangements not to go where there were Hutus or Tutsi. I liked studying very much, but the situation did not allow me to do so because at school the other children used to hit us every day and it was unbearable.
“The land that the king had given to the Batwa was despoiled and taken by their neighbours because the Batwa did not know the value of the land due to their ignorance. Our neighbours would ask us to sign a paper by promising us food or beer, and we signed without knowing what we were signing. We then found ourselves with a document bearing our signature that attested that we sold our land. Back then, there was no way to file a lawsuit, and there are lands that are still in dispute until today.
“All this led us into a misery: perpetual hunger, our children not going to school, our women dying due their pregnancy. We were living a hopeless life. Discrimination and injustice caused by our neighbours were then our daily bread. There was no one to whom to plead our cause.
“What is more sickening is that the National Identity cards – which others regard as an inalienable right – was considered as a miracle for the Batwa to possess. When the Batwa saw a Mutwa (a Batwa person) possessing a National Identity Card, they touched it as if it were an extraordinary thing.
“A Mutwa child who is in the third primary school grade was considered to be someone of great importance in our village. To go to the hospital was seen as a miracle because it was considered a right reserved to Hutu or Tutsi exclusively.
“We greatly thank our donors because what our neighbours had forcibly taken away, they are giving it back to us because we have regained our dignity and our respect. When our children go to school with all the school materials and uniforms and tell us how they are equally treated with their classmates, it fills me with joy. I think to myself ‘Lord, even if I die today, there would be no worry because you showed me a lot of blessing and I praise your Holy name.’ I am glad to see my Identity Card: I remember that it was considered something extraordinary in the past, but today I can go to the Health Centre like others. This shows me that even what we do not yet have like beautiful houses, God will give us in the future. I cannot tell you the joy I felt when we went to the commune to regularize our marriage at the Civil Registry Bureau because my husband had married me illegally. I never stop praying for our US Donors for God to fill them with blessings. If I could see them, we could dance together and I would carry them in my arms as a sign of heartfelt gratitude in spite of my advanced age.”