Plight of Historically Marginalized People Compounded by COVID-19

Historically Marginalized People in Rwanda are known to depend on pottery but the quality of life has been declining due to socio-economic challenges.

Populations of historically marginalized people in Rwanda say the quality of life among their communities has declined further in the past 3 years, with their plight exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Rwandese Community of Potters, known by its French acronym COPORWA, a local Non-Government Organisation that advocates for the rights of historically marginalized people in Rwanda, is appealing to the Government to come up with specific intervention programmes to support these communities and halt the backward trend. 

According to Vincent Bavakure, the Executive Secretary of COPORWA, a study done in 2018 had already indicated that historically marginalized populations were facing a decline in the quality of life due to socio-economic vulnerability and uncertainty, a situation which was worsened by the New Coronavirus outbreak.

“A study we did in 2018 had already showed that historically marginalized populations were already under pressure due to the economic shocks they were facing, feeling more marginalized and their sources of incomes being threatened,” 

“Majority of those we interviewed between January and July 2018 said that they had fallen back into extreme poverty, their livelihood, which is pottery, was under threat by other players and loss of land. They felt more stigmatized than they were before,” Bavakure says.

Vincent Bavakure, the Executive Secretary of COPORWA, says special intervention programs might be needed to keep HMPs due to the challenges they face.

Bavakure said that over the past two decades, several government programmes aimed empowering HMPs, socially and economically, were implemented while cultural discrimination and marginalization had declined tremendously but these gains have been threatened by COVID-19, which affected the already vulnerable communities more.

“It is a worrisome trend which we are witnessing. We are engaging with the Government and other partners to see if it can be reversed by ensuring that specific programmes are developed to engage these populations and support them to remain resilient,” says Bavakure.

He pointed out that most economic activities of HMPs were heavily affected by the pandemic, especially pottery, where the market demand went down while other activities like apiary and local brewing, also largely dependent on their ability to move from one place to another, were also impacted.

“This means that the majority of the HMP households lost their sources of income, got more vulnerable and fell back into poverty. We have cases where some members of these communities got desperate and would be duped into selling their land or products at undesirable prices,” says Bavakure.   

Among other things, Bavakure says that HMP populations have been declining as a result and that the situation of landlessness for many continues to affect their livelihoods. 

According to available figures, in 2012 there were 36, 073, categorized as HMPs, according to a government census, but their number had reduced to 35, 015 by the time another census of this group was done in 2014.

The Vice president of COPORWA Board Kazungu Dieudonne and Executive Director, Bavakure Vincent in a recent field visit in Nyaruguru District, to hear the issues of HMPs.

 COPORWA attributes the population decline to several factors including decline in living conditions, poverty, growing isolation and marginalization due to fast development and loss of sources of livelihood. 

“We are yet to do a survey but what we know is that the number has continued to reduce, some could be dying, many are in-breeding, all these factors are affecting their population,” he noted. 

COPORWA says COVID-19 worsened the issue of school dropouts. Numbers show that only 500 children attended primary schools, out of those 200 attended secondary and 30 have graduated. 

By 2018, 87 percent of the HMPs didn’t have any land, and no single place to grow food or get the clay-which for long has been their lifeline. Some who fled the country in 1994, returned only to find their land repossessed by other people, which they couldn’t claim since they had no land titles. 

According to Bavakure, many are being exploited into digging fields of people in exchange for clay so they can make pottery.

A group of Student from the HMPs community who finished their university studies. The Government says education is the only way to go.

 Taken advantage of

John Mugabo, the Executive Director of Men4Women, an Initiative that advocates for the breaking of stigma and cultural taboos in various communities, including HMPs, says that the government has done a lot to transform lives indigenous marginalized groups but a lot more is still desired. 

Mugabo said that one of the major challenges is the lack of knowledge and understanding, which leads to HMP populations being taken advantage of, for example some cases where community members were allocated land but they would be duped into selling it at a giveaway price. 

“What we noticed is that these people are not originally Farmers, but they are hunters. And so, they don’t basically know the value of land. The general public or the neighbours take advantage and buy it at a very low price,” Mugabo says. 

In other cases, HMP households are given cows under the government’s One Cow Per Family programme and they end up slaughtering and eating them because rearing cows and drinking milk is not part of their nutrition culture. 

“Basically, what we try to do is create more awareness on their issues and try to educate them on the importance of adapting to the new ways of life and fitting into the general Rwanda community,” Mugabo says. 

Men4Women says a big number of the children, over 40 percent, were found with chronic malnutrition, something he says is a serious problem. 

“This is partly because they don’t quite identify with the conventional ways of combating malnutrition,” he adds. 

Men4Women launched awareness programs in HMP communities, aimed at transforming their lives and supporting them but the COVID-19 outbreak interfered with these programs, leading to the communities falling back. 

The organisation has also been trying to change traditional beliefs with an engaging approach during which they talk to them about mindset change to adapt themselves into national programmes and it is working in the four provinces of Rwanda where they operate. 

Government Speaks out 

Sheikh Hassan Bahame, the Director General of Community Development and Social Affairs at the Ministry of Local Government, says that the government is aware of these issues and is working to address them but majority of them have to do with the mindset. 

“We have discussed these issues with them and the people who represent them, they know what is being done but there is also their part they need to play, which is to have the right mindset and to adjust accordingly,” 

“The biggest challenge we face is a group of people who want to cling to their old traditions and practices which are not sustainable. Hunting and pottery cannot sustain you in this day and age. What you need is education or employable skills,” Sheikh Bahame told KT Press. 

The DG of Community Development and at MINALOC, Sheikh Hassan Bahame, says HMP populations have to play their part by acquiring education because their old way of life is no longer sustainable.

The MINALOC official said that the Government of Rwanda put in place programs and policies that benefit all Rwandans, not one particular group which wants to continue to depend on clay or hunting for survival and to continue referring to itself as “Abatwa”, an outlawed name. 

“One day there will be no more clay to do pottery and hunting is not permitted. We are telling them to go to school and earn employable skills,”

“We’ve seen over the years that those who accepted to go to school are excelling in different sectors. Some became senators, others are doing business,” 

“The idea of considering yourself vulnerable or to want to be treated differently than Rwandans cannot work under this government. We have cases where these households are given cows but they start fighting to slaughter them even before the local leaders leave,” he asserted.

Sheikh Bahame says that HMPs are being encouraged to abandon their old ways and adapt to modern ways of life.

 Regarding losing their land, Sheikh Bahame said that when the government found out that this was happening, the Ministry intervened and ensured that the land which was unfairly taken from HMPs is returned to them, even if they didn’t have titles. 

“But we had other cases where these people genuinely sold the land and legally transferred documents, took the money and maybe drank it. In this case there is little the government can do because it was a legal transaction,” Bahame said. 

Regarding school dropouts, the Director General said efforts are in place to ensure that children who dropped out of school go back, while like other Rwandans affected by COVID-19, relief support is given but the general problem emanates from those who don’t want to study or work or adapt to modern ways of living.




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