‘We want to be considered as part of this country’
In early 2022, Uganda will be evaluated by the UN Human Rights Council on its human rights record; including its handling of the country’s indigenous minority groups. In a similar assessment in 2016, the government committed to give them better health and education services.
But when the London-based human rights organisation, Minority Rights Group International, recently took a group of journalists to Bwindi in the southwestern district of Kanungu where a sizable number of the Batwa live, it was clear little has been done to improve their lives, Ronald Musoke reports.
Tagiri Mahoro, 44, still remembers how life used to be when his community still lived in the big forest before they were evicted. The year, 1991, is still imprinted on the minds of older Batwa like Mahoro.
It is the year when the government evicted the Batwa from the southwestern tropical rain forests of Mgahinga, Bwindi and Echuya. The community which had lived in these forests for centuries suddenly found itself landless. The government converted the forests into national parks to conserve the iconic Mountain Gorillas.
Today, the parks rake in millions of dollars in tourism revenue. But that is at the expense of the estimated 6,000 Batwa who wallow in poverty and squalor in squatter settlements across the districts of Kanungu, Rubanda, Kisoro, Kabale and parts of Bundibugyo.
Mahoro is a member of a group which sings and dances to entertain tourist visiting his former home, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, to track gorillas. They also sell them art crafts and souvenir trinkets.
When we visited on Oct.19, as part of the Minority Rights Group International tour, Mahoro took us on an hour’s forest trail in which he showed us glimpses of the life the Batwa lived before the eviction. He recalled the promises the government made to them.
“We thought we would live happier lives but we are now suffering,” he said.
We walked along the edge of a fast flowing pleasant stream in the thick forest. Another guide, 22-year old Elizabeth Tumubwiine, told us she dropped out of school in Senior Two and is the group’s top tour guide because she speaks good English. She was 17 when she started working.
Tumubwiine said to the Batwa, the forest is like a pharmacy; full of medicines provided by Nyabingi, their god. She picked out the fig tree, an important plant in their culture.
“The fig tree provided clothes (bark cloth) and medicine,” she said, “We would get herbs for stomach complications. We knew which leaves and roots to get. Even when one of our community members died, they would be buried under the fig tree covered with fig leaves.”
We also met Flora Kyomukama who tucked herself inside a gaping trunk of an old tree to show us how the Batwa used to hide when they still called the forest home.Her bark cloth blended well with the hue of the trunk.
We were shown the leaves of the Giant African Fern tree the Batwa covered themselves with during cold nights. The Batwa men skillfully re-enacted how they would lay traps to catch duikers, antelopes and monkeys.
When Jackson Kyomukama, a short middle-aged man with failing eye sight who was the lead quickly scraped the bark of the “African Viagra tree” and erotically demonstrated its importance, Tumubwiine looked a little embarrassed. But she recovered and explained how the Batwa men used to chew pieces of the bark for virility.
Finally, we got to a bigger clearing where the group normally entertains tourists. They sang and danced energetically. Then we asked them to tell us about the challenges they have faced since they were evicted.
“We have always wondered whether we are human beings or not,” Tumwebine, the tour guide said, because of the marginalisation. Mahoro agreed.
Catherine Tumwesigire, 23, a mother of one said despite the Batwa voting for the NRM government and particularly, President Yoweri Museveni, they feel let down.
She says the Batwa youth have applied for but not got financial support from government poverty alleviation projects such as the Youth Livelihood programme or the COVID-19 relief assistance.
“We have always wondered if we are part of this country,” she says, “We want to be considered as part of this country.”
In an earlier meeting with another group, Jacenta Mutume, the deputy chairperson of Bikuuto settlement, one of several Batwa settlements in Kanungu District,spoke of how the Batwa miss the wild meat, honey and potatoes from the forest.
“We used to even pick free medicine there,” she said, “Now our children suffer from many diseases.”
Jackson Shumbusha, 56, told The Independent she sees no direct benefits from tourism for the Batwa. His only hope is for the Batwa children to get an education. “We also want our children to be like the Bakiga children. The future would be bright if our children were educated.”
Lack of land remains a big challenge for the Batwa.
“Our need is to cultivate bigger gardens. We don’t have where to get food from because we have smaller gardens.
Here, each settlement is probably 5-10 acres big and close to 25 households live on these pieces of land.
Sylivia Kokunda, the executive director of Action for Batwa Empowerment Group (ABEG), a CBO, says the Batwa have one of the highest incidents of gender-based violence, alcoholism, high HIV rates, early pregnancies and premature deaths.
Agnes Kabajuni, the regional manager of the Minority Rights Group International, says the government must improve the situation of the Batwa.