Twa Pottery

On our way to visit a potter in northern Burundi, an English teacher named Claude acted as our guide. On the ride there, which turned out to be very short, Claude told me that pottery is only produced by the Twa in Burundi, never by the Hutu or Tutsi.

We were in Burundi for three weeks, running a series of workshops for all the secondary school English teachers in the northern province of Kirundo.

I was surprised that he even offered this information, because I hadn’t yet heard any of the teachers mention the different ethnic groups at all. It seemed, from my outsider’s view, to be taboo to speak about Hutus or Tutsis, or to ask anyone which group they belong to, or to ask any detail about their own experiences in the war. All we heard about it was statements like “Before 1993 we had enough books.” or “We haven’t had a conference or training since before 1993.” There seemed to have been a resolute and unanimous decision not to talk about it anymore, since the war had ended a couple of years before.

The Twa, according to Claude, are the lowest in terms of social status in , and they’re the poorest too. He told us that they’re nomadic, and will move if someone in the family dies. According to Stephanie, who organized our project, there have been efforts to give them their own land so that they will stay in one place. But land is a big issue in Burundi, and what violence still happens apparently mostly stems from arguments over land ownership. The country is simply too crowded, and getting more crowded as the population grows and as refugees return to find that their land has been occupied by other people.

A Twa potter

Anyway, the potter’s workshop turned out to be just a space outside a traditional Twa hut, which is a small dome-shaped structure covered with dry banana leaves.

This is a traditional Twa house.

Most houses here are made of mud brick and have corrugated iron or ceramic tile roofs. When we went up to the Rwanda border, we saw some more traditional houses, which are also made of mud but are round, with roofs of thatch. But this house had no separate walls or roof; it was all of a piece.

Outside the house a woman showed us how she makes the pots. She had a wide bowl-shaped form and shaped the clay partly by flattening it out into the form, and partly by adding thick rope-shaped pieces on the top edge to build it up. After she had added all the clay and shaped a lip, she shaped it into an even round form by gradually working it wider from the inside.

Only the Twa women actually make the pots. Claude seemed to think that the men might help too by getting the clay from the riverbank and the mica sand that it’s mixed with from up the nearest mountain. We saw very few men around until it came time for us to give them some money, when they appeared very quickly – but more about that later.

Firing the pottery

There was a collection of pots already made next to the hut, but they hadn’t been fired yet. Knowing we were coming (Claude had arranged it the day before.), they had put off firing the pots until we were there.

Of course, there’s no kiln available if you’re from a poor, nomadic clan in the middle of Africa. So what they did was very interesting. They made a circle of broken pots on the ground, about three meters across. They placed large bundles of grass in the circle very neatly until it looked much like an oversized bird’s nest. Some of the grass was brown, but some was still somewhat green.

Then they placed the pots very carefully, with many adjustments, in the nest, on their sides, so that they couldn’t roll around, but also couldn’t knock against each other too hard. They piled a lot more of the grasses on top and set it all on fire.

the Twa potter's "kiln"
the Twa potter’s “kiln”

It burned very quickly and very hot, giving off a yellowish smoke. The women circled it, poking at the grass with a stick to shift it to close gaps, and stirring at any embers that flew out and set surrounding grasses on fire.

When it had burned down, which was within about a half hour, they used sticks to pull the pots out, then splashed water on each with a bundle of grass dipped in water. They were still too hot to touch, but presumably this splash of water stopped them baking further. The fire had given them a less even colour, with splashes of black on the basic brown colour. Here and there the mica gave it a bit of a sparkle.

Paying for Twa pottery

Since the women there had given us this whole demonstration, we decided to give them a gift of cash, about 20,000 Burundi francs from all nine of us, which is about the equivalent of 12 euros. This, it became clear, was a huge amount of money for them.

Our first plan was to give it to the woman who was clearly the boss and have her decide who to give the rest to and how much. However, Claude insisted that that wasn’t a good idea at all, and that we had to be very careful to distribute it fairly. As far as we could see, the boss woman and two others had done all the work, so they should get 5000 each, about three euros, and the rest could be shared out among the rest.

To get an idea of how much that is, the pots themselves go for about anywhere from 200 Burundi francs for a small one (about 12 eurocents) to 1000 (about 60 cents) for a big one. Even in Burundian terms this is quite cheap. Clearly our plan to give 20,000 francs was way out of proportion, but once we’d said it to Claude, there was no going back.

What ensued was a detailed negotiation between Claude and the whole village. He wanted only to give it to members of the Twa community, but more and more people appeared, including the first men we’d seen, saying that they should get some too and that they were also Twa. The women who had done the work were very forceful and seemed quite dismissive of the men.

Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, the women clearly out-argued the men. At first it seemed to me that this might get ugly, but the women, and even the men, were smiling most of the time they were arguing, and there was a lot of laughter, as if the argument was just a ritual they were going through and they all knew perfectly well who was going to get the money: the three women who had done the work.

Looking back at this later I’m dismayed at the trouble we might have caused with our wealthy white privilege and obliviousness to the effects of our presence on this community.

It took a good half-hour to come to a settlement: the three women got most of the money, and Claude paid for a very large amount of banana wine from a nearby bar for the whole village to share.

What to do about money?

It was often hard in Burundi to know what to do about money. What seemed very little to us could be an enormous amount to local people. If we overpaid for things, which I suspect we mostly did, we’d raise the price for all white foreigners who came here. At the same time, white westerners (or any westerners, really) going to a poor country like Burundi are richer and can, by definition, afford to pay more and share the wealth a bit.

In doing so, though, we’d raise the expectation that all foreigners are just sources of money. Yet, if the people we’re paying are so poor, and we can afford it, our gut feeling is to just give them the money, since they need it more than we do.

It’s a common enough worry to people who are privileged enough to travel the world, and I don’t have an answer to how to resolve it.

An illustration: at the hotel where we stayed in Kirundo, if we wanted to get our laundry done, we could ask one of the people who worked there. Then, when they did it, we were told, we should give them a “tip.” Several of us had our laundry done and gave 5000 francs as a tip, about three euros.

One day, one of our group gave 10,000, for about the same amount of laundry. Then, when another member of the group got his laundry, rather than just receiving a tip, the person who did the laundry asked for 10,000 francs. Stephanie, the organizer of the trip, was appalled; it’s supposed to be a tip, not a price. But it shows the effect of people with so much more money coming here: a sort of whites-only inflation.

Yet perhaps that’s justified: we have more wealth because the west has systematically extracted wealth from so many less powerful countries for centuries. The least we can do is give some of that back, right?

I don’t have an answer. I suspect there is no answer until the power differential between wealthy and poor countries disappears, and that won’t happen anytime soon. It’s worth, in any case, being aware of the economic effects we have on communities where we visit.


    • Rachel

      January 5, 2020 at 4:59 pm

      Normally I would just delete such an abusive comment, but instead I edited the curse word you used because I want to understand why you left this comment. I’ve reread the article (which dates to 2009, one of the first travel posts I ever wrote). I don’t understand what is insulting about it, and I’d love to know. Could you please explain so I can learn and avoid insulting anyone next time? What I wrote was my report of what I saw that day and what I was told by the Burundians I was with (Claude and Stephanie). Which part was insulting? At the same time, insulting me in return is not necessary and doesn’t help me to understand what I may have done wrong, so if you see this and answer it, please keep our discussion civil.


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