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An indigenous community in Burundi battles for equal treatment

Joseph Kanani and his extended family live as squatters in extremely poor conditions in Musigati, a village north of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura.
“We do not have land. In the past we have had no representation in government and anyone could come and build right in the middle of our land. The public would treat us like dogs that cannot bite,” Kanani says.

Joseph Kanani and his extended family live in rudimentary homes - © OHCHR / Gabriel VockelThe Batwa, a pygmy people, indigenous to the tiny Central African nation of Burundi, are marginalized. They want their rights recognized and are demanding equal access to land, education and health services.

The Batwa community, which constitutes one percent of Burundi’s population, traditionally served as servants. The perception of them in servitude continues to dominate their lives. The births of Batwa are unrecorded and so with no legal status they have no rights to public amenities such as health services. Authorities in Burundi acknowledge the age-old discrimination.

“For a long time the Batwa were not allowed to enter other people’s homes. They were seen to be backward, with no value and bright future. Things have changed, people visit them. But the only obstacle is that there’s no intermarriage with them, even now it cannot happen,” says Derogates Ntikazohera, a local official.

Vital Bambanze, a former indigenous fellow of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, now heads a local non-governmental organization promoting the rights of the Batwa. “We have realised the Batwa are being exploited, working as slaves for others. We got money from the UN human rights office slavery fund. We are trying to buy back land,” he says.

The Batwa were once dependent on the now depleted Central African rainforest as hunter gatherers but now most work as casual labourers.

“Our children, we send them to school but they do not complete more than one or two years. They drop out because of hunger…. This harms us so much,” Kanani says. He fends for his young family of three children by making bricks, earning US45 cents a day. He can barely afford one meal a day.

Batwa children have a high school dropout rate - © OHCHR / Gabriel VockelDésire Nanduri is fighting the odds. He scales the hilly Burundi countryside to secure a better life through education. The 19-year-old junior high school student walks for an hour to and from school daily. “I am a representative of the youth; I try to encourage other Batwa children to go on with school. And if God helps me I will continue with my studies. I will be able to help my community,” he says.

Liberate Nicayenzi is the community’s heroine. As the first woman Batwa Member of Parliament, she serves as a mentor. “We have this role, the responsibility to make the Batwa community aware of their rights to give them the access to social integration and to progress, like others,” she says.

The UN’s human rights office in Burundi is working with the government to open dialogue between the Batwa and local authorities about their rights. Isabel Kempf is OHCHR-s Regional Human Rights Advisor, she says:“OHCHR works with the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region to address regional human rights concerns, in the case of the Batwa what we create a forum for them to learn about their rights and from each other, and to strategise.We provide them provide them space to advocate for their rights and dialogue with their governments and communities. and exchange best practises in the region.” 

This year’s official theme for Human Rights Day is discrimination. Human Rights Day occurs every year on the 10th December – the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

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