Since the eighth century BC, short black people from Africa have been called “pygmies,” a word derived from the ancient Greek “pygmaios”, a unit of measurement. The Batwa are indigenous people of the equatorial forests and traditional hunter-gatherers. In 2008, about one-third of their total population lived in Rwanda. Because of population crowding and gorilla conservation, they lost their ancestral lands where they had lived for thousands of years and have since confronted vast systemic discrimination and health inequities. Their situation has been described as “an internationally unknown human rights catastrophe”, and their story, “a terrible one” of disproportionate suffering.
Historically in Rwanda, they were barred from entry to shops and schools; in some villages, over half the children died before age 5; and it was common for people to go for days with only a potato or a handful of rice or beans to eat. In 2012, World Bank researchers wrote that:
“The challenge for minorities such as the Pygmy is to manage the process of their transformation in an increasingly global society. This however requires a degree of autonomy, empowerment, and education that the Pygmies lack. As the poorest group in some of the world’s poorest countries… they do not currently have the means or the capacity to manage and benefit from the process of acculturation.”
In 2013-14 CORPORWA, the oldest national nonprofit in Rwanda devoted to championing the rights of Batwa people, found in a survey of five political Districts that over ninety percent of Batwa people had no formal education, regular employment, business, livestock or ability to participate in local decision-making. The most pressing problems included “extreme poverty, absence of land, inaccessibility to government’s socioeconomic programs, absence of participation in decision-making, and feelings of being disregarded and marginalized to the extent of marginalizing themselves as less-humans than other Rwandans.” According to a 2021 report from the US Public Broadcasting System, the situation for the Batwa people in Uganda, which neighbors Rwanda to the north, is very similar.