The Great Lakes Twa, also known as Batwa, Abatwa or Ge-Sera, are a Bantu ethnic group native to the African Great Lakes region on the border of the Central and East Africa. As an indigenous pygmy people, the Twa are generally assumed to be the oldest surviving population of the Great Lakes region. Current populations are found in the states of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2000 they numbered approximately 80,000 people, making them a significant minority group in these countries.
Apart from anthropological literature, the term "Twa" generally refers to the Twa of the Great Lakes region. There are a number of other Twa populations in the Congo forest, as well as southern Twa populations living in swamps and deserts where there has never been forest, but these are little known in the West.
Traditionally, the Twa have been semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers of the mountain forests living in association with agricultural villages, much as other pygmy peoples do.
When the Hutu, a Bantu-speaking people, arrived in the region, they subjugated 'bush people' (hunter-gatherers) they called Abatwa, which are generally assumed to be the ancestors of the Twa today, though it may be that the Twa arrived alongside the Hutu, and either were a distinct people from the original inhabitants, or have mixed ancestry. Around the 15th century AD, the pastoralist Tutsi arrived and dominated both the Hutu and the Twa, creating a three-caste society with the Tutsi governing, the Hutu the bulk of the population, and the Twa at the bottom of the social scale, simultaneously despised, admired, and feared. For several hundred years, the Twa have been a small minority in the area, currently 1% in Rwanda and Burundi, and have had little political role, though there were at times Twa in the government of the Tutsi king.
Unusually for Pygmies, who generally trade meat for agricultural products, iron, and pottery, the Twa are themselves potters.
The Twa are often omitted in discussions about the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis, which reached its height in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. About 30% of the Twa population of Rwanda died in the violence.
The Twa of Uganda lived in the mountains of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until 1992, when it was made a World Heritage Site for the endangered mountain gorilla. At that time they were expelled from the forest and placed in settlements.
Due to clearing of the forests for agriculture, logging, development projects, and the creation of conservation areas, the Twa have been forced to leave the mountain forests and establish new homes. As they seek to develop new means of sustaining their communities (such as agriculture and livestock development) most are currently landless and live in poverty. The ancestral land rights of the Twa have never been recognised by their governments and no compensation has been made for lands lost.
Twa children have little access to education and their communities have limited representation in local and national government. Due to their pygmy ancestry, they continue to suffer ethnic prejudice, discrimination, violence, and general exclusion from society. Batwa men struggle with alcoholism, known to occur in communities facing cultural collapse as men can no longer carry out traditional roles and provide for families. By 2007, begging was the primary source of livelihood for 40 percent of the Batwa in Rwanda.
While the Batwa adapted to the changes in their environment by adopting new economic activities and thus traditions and identities, they continue to face challenges to their survival. Today, much of the available land, apart from areas reserved for wildlife conservation and environmental protection, is under cultivation. Unable to access their ancestral lands and practise traditional cultural and economic activities, the Batwa now perceive their pottery as an expression of their identity. Although it is no longer profitable since industrialised pottery became cheaply available, the Batwa continue to produce traditional pottery for its cultural and social significance. Not only do they consider it an ancestral tradition, but also it carries a social importance in their current day society. The process of digging the clay and carrying it to their settlements allows for socialisation and a sense of community among Batwa potters. However, in Rwanda the shared access marshes where Batwa harvest clay under an informal communal tenure system are fast becoming collectivised rice-growing plantations due to a 2005 land policy change. They face another crisis as they lose another occupation that defines Batwa identity and provides social livelihood.