Who are the Twa People?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Twa people are an African ethnic minority who can be found around the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. They are sometimes referred to as the “forgotten people,” since Twa society and culture has been heavily repressed by larger and more powerful ethnic groups. Some people have expressed concern about the survival of the Twa people in the highly unstable political climate of Africa, since they are vulnerable to discrimination, land pressures, and other issues.

The Twa people make up about 1 percent of the population of Rwanda.
The Twa people make up about 1 percent of the population of Rwanda.

In Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi, the Twa make up around one percent of the population. Overall, it is estimated that there are around 80,000 Twa people in Africa altogether. This small ethnic group lived in Central Africa long before other African peoples colonized the region, and they are part of a larger group of African peoples who are classified as pygmies due to their characteristic small statures. Generally, the term “pygmy” is not used, and ethnologists prefer to identify various pygmy groups by their unique ethnic groupings, as “pygmy” can be perceived as derogatory.

Twa people are a small ethnic group that lived in Central Africa long before other African peoples colonized the region.
Twa people are a small ethnic group that lived in Central Africa long before other African peoples colonized the region.

The traditional life of the Twa is semi nomadic, with a hunter-gatherer approach to finding food. Through thousands of years of existence in the Great Lakes Region, the Twa people have developed their own unique culture which includes dances, music, and religious traditions which vary from those of other ethnic groups in the region. As large, dominant tribes moved in, Twa culture began to undergo dramatic shifts.

Many ethnologists are concerned about the Twa people because they have been deprived of their traditional hunting and gathering grounds. Many modern Twa are landless, poor, and heavily discriminated against because of their different ethnic identity and obvious physical differences. Twa often have trouble accessing education, health care, and other vitally needed services, and they are excluded from society in general in some parts of their traditional homeland. They also face problems with violence; during the genocide in Rwanda, for example, it is estimated that up to 30% of the Twa population may have been murdered.

Members of this ethnic group are sometimes also referred to as the Batwa; as an ethnic minority, they often struggle for recognition and prominence with global organizations which are supposed to protect minorities and refugee populations. The United Nations estimates that the Twa population of Africa has undergone a steep decline, and that this ethnic group has experienced a great deal of disruption as a result of forcible displacement from their land and contact with the wars and violence which plague some parts of Africa.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - The Twa people aren't one homogeneous group and it's kind of rude to call them pygmies, particularly since a lot of them aren't.

As I understand it, there is a branch of the people who live in the forest and are shorter than average, but the majority live in villages on the plains and, in terms of height, you wouldn't look twice at them in an average town.


@indigomoth - I believe in the value of diversity as well, but unfortunately, the world doesn't work that way. It's the nature of evolution, it applies to cultures as well. If people can't adapt to the way the landscape around them is changing, then they won't survive.

I don't want to sound harsh, and I think in an ideal world everyone would try to conserve different cultures as much as possible, because that's good for everyone. But this isn't an ideal world. And it seems like a lot of folk try to cling to the ways their people did things in the past, which doesn't work in a modern world.

I don't know if the pygmy people are doing this, but it wouldn't surprise me.


It's so sad when a group is treated badly because they are a minority. It seems to happen a lot more when they are physically and visually different from the other groups around them too. I guess people are really superficial when it comes right down to it and think that a difference in height or skin color can make a difference to a person's worth.

I hope that the Twa people can find an equilibrium with the people around them so that their culture and people survive. The world is a better place when it cherishes diversity.

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