Jul 29, 2010

Batwa: Dutchman On A Mission To Help a Forgotten People

Plight of ‘forgotten’ people brought to light as Dutch author brings out book to raise awareness of the Batwa’s struggles not only in Rwanda but also Uganda where a book is launched in an effort to raise funds


Below is an article published by All Africa.com:


Elias Habyarimana, 44, stands a few inches tall on the smooth floor at Lubowa International School, before an audience of mostly white philanthropic foreigners. The atmosphere around him is a stark contrast to the mud-and-wattle huts his peasant tribesmen back home in Kisoro are familiar with.

"The majority of the Batwa live on other people's land offering cheap labour and are often kicked out of the land whenever the owner desires. We live in makeshift polythene bag huts amidst poor health," Habyarimana, who is the chairman of the United Organisation for Batwa Development (UOBD), which advocates the rights of the Batwa in Uganda, explains.

He adds that his people live a "dog's life" often eating from dustbins, cannot afford basic things of life like clothing and food and are then mistaken for mad people.

He says their population faces extinction due to food shortages caused by lack of land for cultivation and ill-health that is caused by poor living conditions such as lack of latrines and clean water.

Habyarimana was speaking recently at the launch of a book, The Batwa of Uganda - A Forgotten People.

The author, Karsten Tadie, a Dutch national and a former student of the Lubowa-based International School of Uganda, wants to highlight the plight of Batwa and raise funds through the book sales to improve their situation.

According to the 2008 State of the Population report, the Batwa population reduced from 6,738 in 2002 to 6,705 in 2008.

The Batwa are a forest people who live in Bundibugyo, Kasese, Kisoro, Kabale and Kanungu districts and on the slopes of Mount Rwenzori in south-western Uganda.

They continue to be discriminated against because of their way of life that seems primitive to other communities. They are one of the world's few remaining indigenous tribes that still lead a purely traditional way of life by hunting game meat and collecting fruits from the forests.

Very few of their children go to school and they do not seek medical care from the conventional health facilities, but use herbs to treat their ailments.

Habyarimana says most of their children drop out of school at primary level due to discrimination from the rest of the pupils because of their low height. They also face discrimination because they are landless.

"Most people believe we are foreigners who have no stake in Uganda. Even the Ugandan government has never compensated us since we were kicked out of the forests," Habyarimana says.

Three years ago, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) evicted them from the forests of Semiliki, Bwindi Impenetrable and Rwenzori with the purposes of conserving the forest.

Tadie set out to write a school project to complete his high school certificate, but also wanted to do something that would benefit Uganda.

He says he first heard about the plight of the Batwa in 2009 from other people. However, he wanted to know more about them from his own account.

"I went to see the first group in Semiliki in Bundibugyo, then visited the rest in Kisoro," he says. "I saw these people suffer, as if they are not human beings. They live in makeshift huts and have no food to eat. I felt I should do something for them," he adds.

When Tadie came back, he told the story of the Batwa mostly through photographs and a few lines of text.

The book also aims to encourage communities, district leaders, policy makers, NGOs and development agencies to accept the Batwa as part of the society so that they can enjoy the same human rights and have access to social services like other Ugandans.

It is hoped that the book will be useful to UOBD, for fundraising and advocacy.

"Through the sale of this book, I hope to raise some money to buy land for the Batwa. This land will be used for cultivation and settlement," Tadie says.

The book moves away from the 'discovery' language often used while writing about 'the pygmies'.

Historical writings on people referred to as pygmies go as far back as 4,000 years, when they were praised for their good dancing and storytelling skills in the Congo basin.

The European Union (EU) bought land on the boundaries of the park and constructed houses for some Batwa in Bundibugyo district.

They also introduced a project to equip them with income-generating skills but the project was allegedly mismanaged by the implementers.

Many of the Batwa living in Kanungu, Kabale and Kisoro remained in the cold because nobody cared to construct them shelter.

UOBDU was formed to highlight their plight and eventually some Good Samaritans came to their rescue. They bought some land and constructed shelter for some of them.

However, about 90% of the Batwa still remain landless and beggars and labourers, according to Habyarimana. Out of about 6,705 Batwa, only 18 have gone to secondary school.

Among the Ntandi Batwa of Bundibugyo, who are about 90 people, only one of their children has gone beyond S.2 and he recently dropped out of school.

Wilson Kainta, 22, says he dropped out of school due to lack of school fees and food. "I was determined to complete school to help my people. Unfortunately, I have no school fees and there is no food at home for my family," says Kainta, who has also married early and has a baby girl because he claims he fears contracting AIDS if not married.

Outside the forest, the Batwa face more dangers. Before they moved out of the forest, they rarely inter-married with other tribes. "Now, other tribes are marrying our women and the women think we are useless," Kainta says.

He accuses the Bakonjo and Bamba of Bundibugyo of raping and infecting their girls with HIV, a virus they know little about. He says: "They believe that when they have sex with Batwa women, they will be cured of AIDS. Our women in turn come and sleep with us, accelerating HIV transmission."

Kainta lost his sister in this manner and claims there is no sensitisation about AIDS in this community.

The Batwa are often used as a tourist attraction, yet they remain the poorest of the poor. "Over 90% of us are poor," says Jofurey Nzito, the king of the Batwa. "All the money generated goes to UWA."

Samson Dhiwerera, a UWA game ranger, dismisses the claims, saying UWA gives 20% of gate collections from tourists to the communities living near the park.

However, in Tadie's book, the UWA boss is quoted as saying: "Their conditions are not our responsibility."

This is a community that can be studied by several academic disciplines.

This book provides the facts. But on a humanitarian ground, it is a community seeking a saviour.

The book costs sh50,000 in several bookshops and at UWA offices within the country, around lodges in parks, offices of the Batwa organisation in Kisoro and Kabale.

"This is a great day," Habyarimana said: "When you look at our situation, you may be tempted to think we do not live in Uganda. But this book tells our story and we hope the entire local and international community comes to our rescue."