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ALTERNATE NAMES: BATWA, MBUTI (BAMBUTI), BAKA, AKA LOCATION: Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia
POPULATION: About 100,000
LANGUAGES: Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Rukiga, Balese, Bira, Mangbetu
RELIGION: Indigenous (traditional) religions (90%), Christianity (10%)


The Twa people of the Great Lakes Region in Africa are a pygmy minority strewn across several countries, including Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda. It should be noted at the outset that the term “pygmy” is considered derogatory by many scholars as it perpetuates the discrimination of this group of people due to their characteristic small stature. The total population of the Twa and other similar groups is estimated to be anywhere from 82,000 to 126,000 people. The Twa, also known as the Batwa, are one of many ethnic groups, such as the BaKola, Aka, BaBongo, BaMbuti, Mbuti (Bambuti), Baka, and Aka. They are often referred to as the forest people, the original inhabitants of this region. They are traditionally a hunter and gatherer group, surviving on what the rainforests provide. However, as forests continue to dwindle due to deforestation, their livelihoods and way of life have become ever precarious, and many are undergoing a lifestyle change. They are no longer able to hunt or gather from the bounty of the tropical rainforest, but are reduced to a precarious lifestyle of subsistence agriculture. Those still found deep in the tropical rainforest continue to practice their culture and lifestyle as they have done for thousands of years.

The arrival of the Bantu peoples in the region brought the subjugation of the Twa. The Bantu people began arriving in the area from their original homeland (eastern Nigeria and Cameroon) between the 12th to the 15th century. Two such groups in present day Rwanda and Burundi were the Tutsi, a Bantu-speaking Nilotic people, and the Hutu, a Bantu group. The Tutsi soon became the ruling group that dominated both the Hutu and the Twa. The Tutsi created a highly centralized kingdom, presided over by Tutsi kings who came from one ruling clan. In pre-colonial times, the relationship between the ordinary Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa was one of mutual benefit through the exchange of labor and the goods they traded. However, during the colonial era, the Tutsi were more favored by the colonizing powers, particularly the Belgians. Coupled with the hierarchical nature of Rwandan traditional society with the Tutsi at the top, the colonial policies laid the foundation for present day upheavals and genocide in this region.

It is estimated that during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, over 30% of the Twa lost their lives. Today, the Twa play a marginal role in Rwandan and Burundian politics and are often ignored in discussions about the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis. Many have been pushed away from the remaining patches of tropical rainforest and forcibly settled in areas where they have to abandon their way of hunter/gatherer life. They are currently undergoing untold hardship as they try to adopt new ways of making a living, such as agriculture and raising livestock. Massive deforestation of their habitats, because of agriculture, logging and other development by their Bantu and Tutsi counterparts, has deprived the Twa of the natural resources essential for the cultural survival of this endangered and marginalized group.


The homeland of the Twa and associated groups is generally the tropical rainforest of central Africa around the Great Lakes of Eastern Africa. The Twa are scattered in a number of countriesin this region,whichincludeCameroon,Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. The rainforest homeland of the Twa people is tropical and experiences large amounts of rainfall, ranging from 127 to 203 cm (50 to 80 in). The forest, which experiences a short dry season for about a month or two, is a moist and humid region with many rivers and lakes. Not all Twa are restricted to the tropical rainforest, some are found in the savannah environments of southern Africa where they might have migrated out of the rainforest alongside the great migration of the Bantu people.

Around the Great Lakes region of eastern and central Africa the Twa people resided in high altitude mountain forests around Lakes Kivu, Albert, and Tanganyika. The tropical rainforest offers an excellent habitat for the semi nomadic and hunter-gatherer way of finding food that the Twa have survived on for generations. However, because of massive deforestation, as a result of logging and agriculture, their traditional home-land is under siege and many find themselves landless, poor, deprived of their traditional hunting and gathering grounds, and despised by other groups in the region because of their small stature.


There is no such thing as a language for the Twa people. The Twa speak several different languages, depending on the country or region in which they find themselves. For example, in Rwanda they speak Kinyarwanda, in Burundi they speak Kirundi, and in Uganda they speak Rukiga. This is not to say that they never had a language of their own. Some still speak their original languages, such as Balese, Bira, and Mangbetu among the Bambuti in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For some of them, interaction with other groups has resulted in their languages being diluted and/or disappearing altogether. Thus, interaction with the new groups that moved into their homeland has resulted in the dilution and, in many cases, the death of their languages and the modification of their rituals. Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, and Rukiga are part of the Bantu group or the Niger-Congo group of languages. Lukiga/Rukiga has a noun class system in which prefixes on nouns mark membership of one of the noun genders. Examples here include the following: mu - person (singular), e.g. mukiga = inhabitant of Bakiga land; bu - land, e.g. Bukiga = land of the Bakiga; lu/ru - language, e.g. Lukiga/Rukiga = language of the Bakiga; ba -people, e.g. Bakiga = The Bakiga people; ki - customs or traditions, e.g. kikiga, denotes religious tradition common to the Bakiga people. This is also true of languages such as Kinyarwanda and Kirundi.


The Twa have a well-developed and sophisticated folklore with legends, stories, and poetry. Their folklore has important lessons about their forest environments, movements, and their history and origin. For example, one of the legends narrates the origins of the Mbuti group of the Twa. It notes that Mutwa was a native of African tropical rainforests. He occupied the current Itwari and Bwindi forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo and western Uganda respectively. In the DRC he was known locally as Mumbuti (singular) and Bambuti (plural), while in Uganda he was Mutwa (singular) and Batwa (plural). He was a nomadic hunter and gatherer. In most cases, Mutwa lived in solitude. Therefore, when he died no one else was there to witness the death or burial. The legend goes on to narrate burial customs and taboos, the use of spears for hunting, and the glorious life in the forest. In short, this legend refers to the Twa as singular, denoting their lifestyle of roaming in small bands as individuals and their way of hunting and gathering what the environment provides, i.e. honey, animals, fruits, and other edible plants from time immemorial.

Another famous folklore legend narrated by Turnbull (1961) concerns the singing of the “Bird” with the “Most Beautiful Song.” Turbull writes:

“This bird was found by a young boy who heard such a Beautiful Song that he had to go and see who was singing. When he found the Bird he brought it back to the camp to feed it. His father was annoyed at having to give food to the Bird, but the son pleaded and the Bird was fed. The next day the Bird sang again; it sang the Most Beautiful Song in the Forest, and again the boy went to it and brought it back to feed it. This time the father was even more angered, but once again he gave in and fed the Bird. The third day (most Pygmy stories repeat themselves at least three times) the same thing happened. But this time the father took the Bird from his son and told his son to go away. When his son had left, the father killed the Bird, the Bird with the Most Beautiful Song in the Forest, and with the Bird he killed the Song, and with the Song he killed himself and he dropped dead, completely dead, dead for ever.”

This legend tells of the importance of singing among the Twa in their forest homeland. Indeed, during the early hours of the night, the Twa sit by the fire outside their camp in their small bands and tell riddles and legends. Some sing, mimicking the various beautiful animal sounds in the forest. Central to the folklore of the Twa people are the many animals found in their environment. Many of these animals take on characteristics of men, for example, the ever-wise turtle and the cunning trick-ster hare. Thus, animals are used to tell entertaining stories designed to teach about human behavior and relationships.


Only a small portion (about 10%) of the Twa people has been converted to Christianity. The majority continue to adhere to indigenous beliefs in many gods. The most important deity of the Twa people is the god of the hunt, Khonvoum. He wields a bow made from two snakes that together appear to humans as a rainbow. His second in command is the god of thunder, through which he contacts mortal man. The Twa believe that man was forged from clay by Khonvoum, who forged different races and peoples from different types of clay, e.g. black people from black clay, white people from white clay, and the Twa from red clay. Khonvoum was also generous to the Twa by providing them with a forest rich of resources and animals for them to hunt. There are, of course other gods, such as Tore who is the god of the forest, as well as the god associated with death, as he decreed it on humans after his mother had died. Many of these gods appear as animals, such as the elephant, the chameleon, the leopard, and reptiles. This is keeping with the fact that the life of the Twa is part and parcel of the forest, their great provider, something to keep in awe, a sacred place bequeathed to them by their benevolent pantheon of gods.


For the Twa people, there are very few holidays and, when celebrated, they are often impromptu. They celebrate a few traditional holiday events, such as the rite of passage for young boys, the end of Nkumbi (the honey feast dance), and other ceremonial activities. These traditional festivities are in keeping with their lifestyle of hunting and gathering. However, the few Twa that have been settled and live sedentary lives may be involved in national holidays, such as Independence Day or Christmas for Christians.


In traditional Twa society, there were and still are rites of passage for boys and girls. The girls' initiation is called the elima. The elima initiation ceremony signifies the coming of age of girls. This is done during the first menstruation of the girl. She is immediately secluded into a hut with her friends who have also celebrated the coming of maturity. The girls are taught the duties of motherhood by an older and wiser woman in the community. There is much singing and dancing by both older women and girls. The elima is considered a great joyous occasion celebrated over days or weeks.

Boys undergo the nkumbi initiation ceremony. The nkumbi is the village circumcision school, which is done in partnership with the Bantu villages near the forests. The Twa and the Bantu have long interacted with each other, trading goods and resources from the forest. It was during these interactions that the Twa adopted some of the customs of the village Bantu and vice versa. One such custom is the nkumbi ceremony that is celebrated jointly. It happens after every four years. Boys from both the Bantu village and the nomadic Twas are secluded and undergo circumcision and initiation into manhood together. However, the relationship is still unequal, with the village boys in a more dominant position than the Twa, who are considered to be in a subservient position of their more powerful Bantu partners. Nevertheless, the joint initiation and circumcision ceremony is evidence of the symbiotic relationship between these two groups, in that one group provides material goods the other group does not have. In this way the two groups take care of each other. However, some initiation rituals are kept a total secret among the Twa. For example, the rite of initiation and the Spirit of the Forest is the preserve of Twa men only, who are revered as the holders of initiation knowledge. They are never supposed to talk about or reveal the secrets of this initiation to anyone, including their own women.

Another important ritual occurs when an important person in the Twa society dies. This is referred to as the molimo ritual that is celebrated with much noise. The Twa believe that they are the children of the forest and the forest is their caretaker and protector. They believe that when one dies, the forest must have gone to sleep and needs to be woken up, hence the noisy molimo celebration. The molimo is actually a trumpet made of wood or bamboo that is played by the men during the death ritual. When not in use, it is hidden away in the forest. The ritual is conducted at night around the campfire, and only men are allowed to be present. The molimo is also said to be a dangerous animal from the forest, not to be seen by women and children, who are hurriedly sent off into the huts. The men surround the molimo as it bellows out its forest noises and songs. There is much dancing and feasting by the men as they awaken the forest to come and protect them from death and other calamities.


The Twa have what might be considered an egalitarian society in which no one has authority over another. It has been suggested that egalitarianism was one of several central characteristics of nomadic hunting and gathering societies, since mobility precluded the accumulation of material possessions for any one single member in the band. Furthermore, clear evidence exists concerning the sexual division of labor among Twa. Females are primarily assigned the food-gathering chore as they have developed a keen sense for and the greatest familiarity with nutritive plants, such as wild fruits and vegetables. Hunting activities are the realm of men. The Twa do not see themselves as living a solitary or poor life, constantly at the mercy of the environment. They consider themselves to be living in a forest paradise on this earth.

Women continue to play a major role in community decision-making. Women are free to access forest resources anytime they wish. The Twa people have great respect for each other. Children learn this aspect of life early on, because anyone in a band can and is allowed to discipline any child. Children are also free to wander around into other peoples huts at will and are generally cared for by anyone in the band. Night is a time for socializing around a campfire. People come together to tell stories, legends, and riddles and sometimes to settle disputes between members of the camp.

The Twa are also a gregarious people that like to live in small groups or bands. However, from time to time, individuals or families will travel to visit other camps in the forest, where they might stay for substantial periods of time, to socialize and look for prospective wives or husbands. There is also a symbiotic relationship between the Twa of the forest and their Bantu neighbors, with whom they have interacted for generations. Although many consider the relationship between the Twa and their sedentary Bantu neighbors as unequal in favor of the Bantu villagers, others have argued that this is an interdependent relationship in which there is a flow of commodities either away. It is seen as a mutually beneficial relationship and, in some cases both groups, share some rituals such as the joint initiation of boys.


The Twa people live simple but rewarding lives. Their huts, often built by women, are made of branches and leaves. The Twa consider the forest to be their father and mother, a benevolent force that provides all their material needs. Hunting is one of the most important activities, as it is the main way of providing food and sustaining the group. Their material possessions are simple, geared towards the hunting and gathering way of life. The most prized possessions of the Twa are spears, bows and arrows, nets for hunting, and pots for cooking. They have developed an excellent trading relationship with the sedentary Bantu groups around them, with whom they trade forest products for important items, such as metal tips for their weapons. The huts are simple and temporary and can be abandoned anytime the group desires to move on. Women construct the huts from tree branches, covered with large leaves to ward off the constant dripping of the rain. The Twa sleep on leaves and sometimes mats woven from reeds. They usually live in a camp for up to one to five months, until they have exhausted the food resources around the camp and it is necessary to move on to a new environment. Thus, material comfort and wealth are not a significant aspect of Twa society. The forest provides the necessities for survival.


The Twa live in small camps of about 30 to 100 individuals. They learn to depend on each other and share everything they collect from the forest. Children are raised by the entire group, calling all women mother. In terms of family and marriage, the Twa used to practice monogamy, but this may have changed slightly with the influence of their Bantu neighbors, who practice polygamy. In terms of kinship and descent, the Twa follow the patrilineal system in which children belong to the father, particularly male children. A typical Twa family consists of a husband, a wife, and their children. Marriages can be arranged or two individuals can fall in love and marry each other. However, as in many other ethnic groups, marriage is the affair of extended families; it joins two groups, rather than simply the husband and wife. As a patrilineal society, when a marriage ends in divorce, male children stay with the father or return to the father's band when they grow up.


The Twa's clothing is simple, consisting of a loincloth for men either made from bark cloth or fabric. Bark cloth is made from the layer underneath the bark of selected species of trees. The bark is beaten until it is thin and soft to wear. The Mbuti and Efe groups of the Twa in the Ituri rainforest in northeast DRC and southwest Uganda are best known for their bark cloths. Today, cotton fabrics and western forms of clothing are quite common for both men and women.


The forest provides all the food the Twa need. Hunting is one of the most important activities of Twa men. Skilled hunters who specialize in hunting big game, such as elephants, are highly respected in Twa society. Other hunted animals include wild pigs, the giant forest hog, antelopes, and monkeys. While men are hunters, women gather products from the forest, such as wild yams, berries, fruits, roots, leaves, cola nuts, mushrooms, and other edible plants, as well as small animals such as larvae, snails, ants, termites, caterpillars, and reptiles.

Men and women also get involved in fishing activities, using various techniques such as traps, dams made of branches and trees, and nets for fishing from canoes. The most popular fishing technique by women is dam fishing. During the dry season, when the water level is low, areas of the river can be drained to catch the fish in the mud. The collection of honey, one of the most prized treats among the Twa, is left to men, as sometimes they have to climb 15 m (50 ft) to collect it from the trunks of huge forest trees.

Food is prepared in various ways. Meat is cooked in earthenware pots, children help to pound cassava or manioc with a pestle and mortar, vegetables are minced before cooking, and palm oil is processed and used in cooking food. Some Twa have adopted the agricultural lifestyle, farming crops of yams, legumes, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, peanuts, plantains, cassava, and maize. Sometimes these foods are obtained by trading with their agricultural neighbors. The Twa also practice certain food taboos. For example, a group may not hunt or eat an animal that is used as a totem for that band.


The Twa who have been settled and now follow a sedentary way of life send their children to schools, especially in parts of Rwanda and Burundi. However, many Twa have resisted Western forms of education, preferring to teach their children in the ways of their life and traditions. From as early as three years old, boys are taught to use the bow for hunting and to climb trees to collect honey. Quite often, young boys accompany older men on their hunts. The boys carry the hunting nets, arrows, and bows for the older men. Girls are initiated into the tasks of a woman, which include gathering forest products for food, cooking, and fishing.


The Twa people are renowned for their musical skills. As children of the forest, they mimic the many sounds they hear in the forest in their songs and dance. Twa culture is dominated by music and dances; from almost all life events, from healing to initiation rituals, from traditional tales to group games, from hunting songs to entertainment moments, music is ever present. Birth, initiation, and death are all marked by rituals where music and dance play a very important role.

When night falls, it is time to sit around a campfire and tell stories and folktales about legendary ancestors and forest spirits. While some may think there is little to talk about concerning the cultural heritage of the Twa, they have nevertheless perfected a way of living that promotes egalitarianism and teaches all members to do their part for the good of the entire community. Perhaps this aspect of their culture is their greatest legacy. Community and family come first and the individual is but a part of the whole.


The most important work for the Twa is hunting and gathering. For the Twa deep in the forest, they hunt and gather just enough for them to survive. However, for the Twa who are in contact with the Bantu or African villagers, they hunt and gather a little more to trade for commodities they need from the villagers. They hunt and gather from the forest meat, honey, and fruits to exchange for plantains, maize, beans, cloth, and iron tools. Recently, money has found its way into Twa society. As such, both men and women offer their labor to the villagers to help them cultivate their fields in exchange for cash. They are also asking for cash even for the forest products they bring to the villagers instead of simple bartering.

Although there is some division of labor by gender among the Twa, certain activities are a communal affair. For example, men, women, and children can all get involved in a hunt if nets are used. In such instances, women will make noises and beat the bushes to herd the animals towards the net, while the men wait by the net to trap the animals that come their way. Some activities, such as foraging, are done by both men and women, while others such as cooking, cleaning, building huts, and obtaining water are reserved for women. For small game, such as monkeys and antelope, men may hunt alone using poison-tipped arrows.


As in every society, Twa children are quite playful. Children play games that teach them important hunting and gathering skills, as well as group cooperation. Children and adults play games together where hunting skills are imparted into the children through mock hunts. For the adults, women and men may compete in a tug-of-war to see who is the strongest. The game is designed to teach the members of a band their interdependence on each other.


Entertainment among the Twa comes in the form of feasting and dancing, especially after a successful hunt during which the giant forest hog or an elephant has been brought down. This would imply lots of meat and feasting for the group. There are celebrations, such as the honey festival, where there is much singing and dancing. In the shadow of the full moon at night, children, men and, women sit around a campfire for entertaining storytelling, riddles, or dancing.


The Twa are skilled in fashioning many of the implements they need for hunting and gathering, such as bows and arrows. They also make their own nets from forest vines for hunting, and weave baskets and mats from reeds and grasses. They have excellent skills for making bark cloth that they fashion into loincloths.

Given that music plays a central role in the daily life of the Twa, they have developed an impressive array of musical instruments. Some of the instruments are obtained from the Bantu villagers, such as the cylindrical drums, the arched harp, and rattles. Others are traditional to the Twa, such as the musical bow (made and played exclusively by women) and flutes.


One of the major problems facing the Twa today is their disappearing homeland, due to clearing of forests for agriculture purposes by the Bantu groups. Forested areas have receded as agriculture has expanded on the rich volcanic soils in the Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and DRC regions. By the 1980s, much of all the available land, apart from areas reserved for wildlife conservation and environmental protection, was under cultivation, particularly in Rwanda and Burundi. Pressures on the forests intensified through production of export crops such as tea, quinine, and coffee.

Thus, the forest environments for the Twa hunting and gathering activities have decreased resulting in their becoming a landless and endangered group. Their traditional forest-based culture that includes their religion and rituals as well as their language is in grave jeopardy. Some Twa have adapted themselves to new forms of livelihoods such as making pottery, basketry, and metalworking. Others have attached themselves to powerful and rich individuals in a subservient position and have become singers, dancers, messengers, guards, warriors, and hunters for these individuals. But, many continue to remain poor and landless with their food supply threatened. The ongoing civil unrest in the great lakes region has also affected them adversely.

In short, recent activities in the region, including logging, mining, road building, and commerce have brought the Twa into greater contacts with the modern world that threatens to erode their values, beliefs, and way of life. In addition to the loss of their tropical rainforest homeland, the Twa are despised and exploited by their Bantu neighbors, who often regard them to be subhuman. Recently, HIV/AIDS has been introduced into the Twa society, as many Bantu believe that sexual intercourse with a Twa can cure diseases such as AIDS. For those who have moved to live in towns and cities, commercial sex work for Twa women is on the increase putting them at an even greater risk for HIV infection. For the Twa still in the forests, there have reports of soldiers in the Congo hunting and eating them in order to absorb their forest powers. These factors have caused untold hardships for a people used to living in harmony with their environment, and their culture could be obliterated in the near future.


As an egalitarian society, men and women have equal power and women are often involved in making important decisions, such as where to move the camp or where and when to go hunt or forage for food. Although some chores are left for women alone (e.g. cooking, cleaning, and fixing huts), women and men often go out hunting or fishing together.

There are of course some gender issues among Twa society that affect women unfairly. For example, the custom of sister exchange as a common form of marriage implies the bartering of women, rather than marriage through love. However, it needs to be emphasized that monogamy is the norm for Twa marriages and bride wealth does not exist in Twa society. Polygamous unions are increasing, although these are also rare in Twa society. In short, gender equality is an aspect of Twa society.


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—revised by E. Kalipeni