The Story of the Pygmies

The Community of Potters (COP) in Rwanda were formerly known as the Batwa. Because of official policies about designation of ethnic identities in Rwanda following the genocide of 1994, they were designated as the COP as of 2007. They are an indigenous population referred to collectively as the Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region. Originally hunter-gatherers in the forests of Rwanda, in 1998 they were driven from the Nyungwe Forest by the creation of a national park, and from the Parc des Volcans by the creation of a sanctuary for the mountain gorillas. Many of them have become potters after they could no longer forage or hunt. As an indigenous people, their culture and way of life differ from the mainstream and are threatened with extinction.

Current Status

The COP includes about eight thousand families, 35,000 individuals, divided into three main types of communities based on their level of economic development. They are represented by the national organization CAUPRA, a partner in our organization.

About twenty percent of the population lives in remote areas near the Akagagera and Nyungwe natonal parks. They do not own the land on which they live. Their houses of sticks and leaves are fragile and not weatherized. They may actively avoid contact with persons not from their community. Their way of life depends on hunting and gathering and is marked by extreme poverty, low literacy and virtually no participation in Rwanda's national health care system.

About seventy-five percent live on the outskirts of larger Rwandan villages as squatters on government land. While some houses may be constructed of mud and thatch, others are simple fabrications of sticks and leaves like those of the previous group. They may grow crops of beans, rice and bananas and may produce pots and other clay products for sale in local markets, There is a low level of literacy; some children may attend school; but few people receive health care at local government health centers, which are reachable only by walking for several hours. Almost all pregnant women deliver at home with no prenatal care, with high rates of maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality.

About five percent live in sturdy, mud brick homes with tile or thatch roofs built on land which they own. Their lifestyle is relatively similar to that of other Rwandans; they do not report major levels of discrimination; their children attend local schools; and they receive health care at local government health centers. Some women may have received prenatal care and may have even delivered at the health centers.

Their poverty and marginalized status are generally believed to prevent the COP from using national health care. For example, almost none can afford to pay for membership in the national mutuelle health insurance plan, without which one cannot be treated at government health centers or hospitals. In addition, many live where health centers are remote, or not present at all.

Although statistics for this group are missing, illiteracy is thought to exceed 90%. Barriers to school attendance include poverty, social stigmatization and geographic isolation. Anecdotal reports by the COP indicate that only two of ten children born survive to adulthood. One survey reported the incidence of intestinal protozoa or helminths to be 100% Compared to Rwandan standards, levels of childhood vaccination are low, death from untreated malaria is common, pre-natal care is non-existent and childbirth mortality is high.

What Makes Pygmies Pygmy?

Pygmy by definition is group of equatorial Africans under 5 feet tall. The word pygmy is derived from the Greek term Pygmaioi, which is a unit of measurement equivalent to the length from the elbows to the knuckles. Pygmy was first used by Homer in the Iliad to describe a mythological tribe of diminutive humans who lived in India and Ethiopia.

Pygmy groups have been the natural subject of scientific research. For example, the uniqueness of this population is confirmed by studies of both its evolutionary genetics and variations in insulin receptor structures. Small statue and early menarche have been theorized to be related to selection pressure caused by early mortality related to the environmental constraints of forest dwelling. Yet, very little, if any research documents the health care status, service needs or utilization of this endangered population.

About Rwanda

The genocide of 1994 left indelible scars across the country, both physically and in the nation's social fabric. Much of Rwanda's health sector was destroyed, and with a real GDP per capita of $230; the country remains one of the poorest in the world. Malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia account for the majority of all-age morbidity. The lack of pysicians, health centers, health administration and other trained personnel hamper the country's ability to provide health care to all its citizens. An intensive development program is ongoing and impressive gains have been made. However, lack of trained manpower and limitations in information technology, educational levels, and capital resources hinder the further extension of health care to the entire population.

With your help we can give Rwanda and the pygmies the chance for a sustainable future.