Sunday, December 26, 2010

Meeting some of the world’s poorest, but nicest, people


I slept in today for the first time in several weeks. When Michele got back from leading a yoga session, she told me we had been invited to visit a Batwa village.

The Batwa are one of the ethnic groups here in Rwanda. They were pygmy hunter and gatherers settled here long ago, but adapted as the forests were cleared and other groups settled. Over the last couple centuries there has been much mixing of ethnic groups here so now the term “Twa” (short for Batwa) is generally used to describe very poor people.

Twa people singing and clapping

Our two hosts for the field trip met us at our village. One works here from America on official business and the other is a Rwandan social entrepreneur who does many things, but is currently involved in helping spread technology through Rwandan schools. Both of these individuals had helped this Twa village over the last couple years to improve their situation.

When our hosts first got involved, the village was extremely poor and was seriously impacted by malnutrition. For example, they ate no more than one meal a day. They did not have sewage treatment or even pit latrines, so their waste was a direct hazard to their water supply.

Over the last couple years, with outside help, they have acquired a few cattle, a few goats, rabbits, and improved their wastewater situation. They also have built two water catchment systems (think big rain barrels) that collect water from the two metal roofs they have, which reduces the trips down the hill to a small stream. They now get to eat twice a day, but are still food insecure (if disaster, drought, or if disease hits, their health will decline rapidly and they will starve).

View from the Twa village

One-hundred and sixty-eight people lived in this village, on the side of a hill outside of Kigali (the capital). Their view was beautiful, looking down over a green valley eventually climbing up into hills. The first striking thing, however, was not the poverty, but the overwhelming warmth with which we were greeted. So many people came up and hugged each of us.  Men, women, and children all came up to hug and shake our hands as if we were old friends or family. It was almost overwhelming, but I felt like I was very welcome on their land.

A Twa family's circular hut

We toured the village and got to step inside a few “houses.” This settlement had no electricity or running water. The first home we visited was constructed of wooden limbs tied together and walled with red clay and pebbles. Its roof was thatched plant material.  While these roofs are traditional Rwandan, they can be problematic when it rains. Only two homes in the village had corrugated metal roofs, which keep water out. These metal-roofed homes had the water catchment systems. Just across from the more modern hut with the metal roof was a circular hut with a thatched roof. A mother and father lived in this hut, which contained a raised cot and shelf hand-made of local materials. It also contained several pots on top of an open fireplace (really just a place for a fire on the floor).There was only room for three of us to stand huddled together, and we were nearly spilling out the entrance. Other homes were even smaller, with some like tents made of thatched plant material and some made of clay. Families live in these tiny spaces… And I thought my 315 square foot apartment in NYC was on the smaller side.

A Twa family's residence

Once back in the common area, the inhabitants broke into song and dance. It was like a flash mob, without any clear direction or leader. From the video we got, I can count at least 41 people of all ages involved.  The mix of clapping, drumming, and singing lasted around six minutes. Afterward, some villagers spoke in Kinyarwandan and a translator explained to us that they were so grateful for us to come and see their performance.

Twa dancing

The young Rwandan social entrepreneur then handled details of some microloans with the villagers. People expressed their concerns, asked questions, and divided up the funds. They will be trying three small new businesses that should bring desperately needed income. Currently, other than subsistence farming, this village has one source of income. They carve sharp sticks for brochettes, roasted lamb meat on a skewer, which is a popular treat in Rwanda. For 100 skewers, they get 100 Rwandan francs, which is about 17 cents US dollars. I counted at least two piles of 600 sticks made by many people, and I am not sure how many they make over all.  But consider the math: if they produced 10,000 skewers a day, then that would bring in about $17 USD. Divided by 168 people, that is just about a dime a day per capita income. And I doubt they produce or could sell that many skewers on a regular basis. Such small amounts, such as a $100 microloan, can make tremendous impacts on the lives of those who need it most; they are often are willing to work very hard to improve their lot when given the opportunity.

Both men and women carve the brochette skewers

Poverty comes in many forms and can be defined in many ways, but generally, according to the World Bank, poverty is “pronounced deprivation in well-being.” The people I met today have very little income, produce most of the food they eat, and have no refrigeration to prevent spoilage. They do not have access to modern health care, do not have running water or electricity, and do not have vehicles or other personal transportation. The road to their village is narrow, unpaved, and marked with deep gullies from erosion. Some of these challenges can be resolved fairly easily, while other improvements may take decades of societal change to produce.

600 brochette skewers will sell for just over $1 USD

As we left the Twa village, I reflected on how positive they seemed to be despite the tremendous challenges they face. They have so little, but they work hard. They band together to share when it would be easy to fight for small bits. I hope that their situation improves and that as it does, they keep the sense of community that they possess. My visit with some of the world’s poorest people was quite a humbling experience.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Jared. Sounds like you are beginning quite a journey. Thinking of you and Michelle...

  2. I worked with two Batwa villages while I was in Rwanda, and both were deeply moving experiences. This village is in some ways lucky- they have a water and food supply. I feel like the Batwa are the forgotten Rwandans, so little is done to raise them out of poverty.

    This actually might be the same village I visited outside of Kigali, but it's difficult to tell from the pictures... is it Bwiza?