At first sight, the nursery beds and tiny cactuses in painted pots by the roadside look unremarkable. As in any other East African city, the residents of Kigali can conveniently buy decorative plants and earthenware straight from their cars.
But the gentlemen who run the neatly arranged gardens that extend towards a swamp rich in clay are anything but common. They are the Ururabo cooperative (“ururabo” means “flower”), the youth from less than 1% of Rwanda’s population, the oddly named “historically marginalised people”.
To understand what that term means, we have to look 24 years into the past.
At a roadblock manned by armed thugs, your life or death depended on what ethnic group was recorded in your documents. Rwanda was in the mist of a horrific genocide, and those lucky to survive promised themselves: never again.
This is why it is now inappropriate and politically destructive to talk about tribes in the country. “We are all Rwandans,” is the official line, presenting the nation as one people rightly proud of the progress Rwanda has made.
Often forgotten — as if it has always been about Tutsis and Hutus only — “historically marginalised people” are the indigenous hunter-gatherer population better known as the Twa (or “Batwa”, the plural version of the noun).
Centuries ago the Bantu migrants reached the forests of the Batwa and started to cut them down to gain land for cultivation. The woods that remained were eventually converted into national parks, making Batwa landless.
On the Rwandan side of the Gorilla Highlands region, the Batwa have built their new livelihood and identity on pottery. The craft runs through generations.
“Those are the old Batwa at the other end of the swamp,” points Jean Paul Tuyishime at another pottery manufacture. He is the leader of the cooperative and, what a rarity, a university-educated man. “The government wanted to help those elders by donating cattle but all they actually care about is sheep. We, the younger ones, are more open to new ideas and development.”
Tuyishimwe’s attempts to uplift the Batwa youth of Kigali began in 2010 when he completed his secondary school. “I started to develop the mindsets of my brothers. We had been living together in the same urban cells and villages for decades. The Ururabo cooperative is made of 20 of us.”
Every week they have two two-hour training sessions, to offer visitors more than just shopping for potted flowers or something to plant at home. “When they come to us, we show them what we produce, talk to them about our history and then invite them for some dancing,” says Jean Paul. There is no set price for the experience and whatever they collect in tips is precious. Life in Kigali is not cheap.
To learn more about the Batwa potters of Kigali, pay them a visit on KG15 Avenue/Avenue du lac Kivu (below the Vision 2020 Community). You can call Jean Paul Tuyishime on +250 788 271 693 for directions and special arrangements. Tuyishime can also connect you with other Batwa groups in Rwanda.
text: Isabelle Masozera; video stills: Miha Logar