Jul 31, 2015

Batwa: Evicted from Traditional Lands and Living in Poverty


Ewelina Kawczynska describes the current situation for the Batwa community, which is denied sufficient aid, education and employment opportunities by the Ugandan government and ostracized by wider society.

See the full article, published by the Equal Times, below:


The Batwa (known, pejoratively as “pygmies” in the west because of their height) are one of the oldest surviving tribes in Africa, but their culture, identity and language are under increasing threat. The traditional hunting ground of this nomadic community comprises forested areas in what is now Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

However, in 1991, due to conservation projects to protect mountain gorillas, the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda was created in the south of the country (15 kilometres from the town of Kisoro) and Uganda’s 6,700-strong Batwa community were evicted from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where they had lived for centuries.

According to Ugandan law, as a nomadic people who had never settled in one location, the Batwa had no claim to the land, therefore, the Ugandan government had no legal obligation to compensate them with new land. As a result, the Batwa were displaced.

Forced from their traditional homeland and lacking resources, the Batwa are now dependent on NGOs and donors for survival.Without access to clean water, healthcare or sanitation they are forced to live in shacks made from old pieces of cardboard and plastic bags, and to burn old tyres to cook food. Employment opportunities are few and far between.

Over 20 Batwa are working for the Batwa Trail – a program within the National Park that was set up in 2006 by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA), the local government of Kisoro and the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU) with the help of USAID. They sing and dance for tourists, as they used to do for themselves when they lived in the forest, but only earn around US$4 per day each. The rest of their earnings are split between the three parties. Other Batwa are not allowed to enter the park, as Ugandan authorities are concerned they may hurt the gorillas.

When asked by Equal Times why Batwa are not employed as guides Jossy Muhangi, a UWA spokesperson, explained: “They need to have a certain level of education and speak English, so they cannot work as guides for our guests.”

The Batwa also suffer from discrimination, and this leads to women being raped. According to a study by Minority Rights Group International and UOBDU, 57 per cent of Batwa women have been victims of sexual abuse. Henry Neza a program officer from UOBDU says that “there are many people who believe that having sex with a Batwa woman can cure AIDS and back pain.”

Those women who become infected with HIV have limited access to healthcare because they don’t have the money or face discrimination of hospital staff and other patients.Those who manage to get treatment don’t always have enough food, thus rendering the ARVs ineffective.

Faced with such hopelessness, the only thing left for Batwa women is to either beg for money or to become waster pickers. This is the case for Betty Nyiranzayaka, a 22-year-old mother of a young boy with whom she lives in the slums in Kisoro. “We go around the town asking who has garbage. We collect it and this is how we can get some money,” she says. She often goes hungry and if she doesn’t have food for her son, she feeds him sugar cane. “Before in the forest we had everything we needed, fruits, honey, firewood. We felt happy. Today we have nothing,” says Betty.

The Batwa also suffer from extremely limited access to education. According to UOBDU coordinator Zaninka Penninah, only 10 Batwa children in the Kisoro district have completed their A-Levels. “Even if the Batwa children go to school other children discriminate against them and they perform very poorly. There are very few that succeed in finishing school,” says Neza.

Once success story, however, is Alice Nyamihanda. Born to a poor family, the 26-year-old is one of only three Batwa nationally to have been to university in the Kisoro District. She now works as a Tourism Officer in Kisoro and encourages young Batwa children to study hard for a better future. “It was very difficult for me at the beginning; children didn’t want to sit with me, they didn’t talk to me, but I was strong and convinced them that I am as normal as they are,” she says.

Although Batwa are traditional hunters, they are forced into other forms of labour, where they are exploited for very low pay or no pay at all. Some do menial jobs or agricultural work, while others make handicrafts and jewellery for tourists. They are the lucky ones as they live close to the forests. Others live on church land in the slums of Kisoro in houses made of paper that are destroyed every time it rains.

In response to these injustices, the UOBDU was created in 2000 to represent and defend the community’s interests. “They depend on begging and you see children eating from the bins, it breaks my heart every time I come here,” says Henry Neza.

However, government aid to the Batwa does not appear to be forthcoming. In February 2013 the UOBDU petitioned the constitutional court of Uganda, demanding the government compensate the Batwa with land. They have yet to receive a response.

When Equal Times talked to Patrick Mutabwire, Acting Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Local Government in Kampala, he denied there was any problem. “I have been in this office for 12 years and I have not received any complaints from the local government in Kisoro,” he said.

The UOBDU believes that any land compensation to the Batwa may take as much as 20 years, but they are determined not to give up the fight to return to their ancestral land.


Ewelina Kawczynska


Photo credit: Penn State @Flickr