Batwa Uganda Project Begins…

by: Lauren Masey
Seasonal Calendar Activity in Rwaburindi

Before arriving, I wanted to ensure I was adequately informed about the Batwa, but also wanted to make sure that I came with an open mind, a blank page with no premature opinions. I managed to use research papers, articles, and mainly YouTube videos to try and grasp what the situation waiting for in me in Uganda would be. 

After about three weeks of my fact finding mission, meeting with different groups, individuals, organizations, I still have yet to come to any conclusions! I don’t think there are any hard facts on what has happened in the past, as peoples perceptions are the facts and that is just as real. I can, however, confidently give an update on the information we’ve gathered in the communities, the communities itself, and the challenges I believe Development in Gardening (DIG) will face throughout the project.

This project will be quite challenging, unique, but has the potential to have a deep impact on the communities, the people, and the current food systems of the Batwa. Having the support of a DIG’s already developed approach, model and technical resources, and thinking that it can be easily adapted, I was very wrong. I think we will be stripping those values and guidelines to the bare minimum to make this project work and here’s why;

Three communities were identified by our partner on the ground, Global Batwa Outreach (GBO). These three communities, as to be expected, come with their own set of culture, geography, resources, and dynamics. The communities, sitting near the Echuya forest, an isolated forest patch often grouped with the famous and larger Bwindi Impenetrable Forest nearby, and are almost connected. 

You would hardly know due to the hilly terrain and if you are traveling on motorbike as the roads aren’t good and bikes prefer to take the longer, smoother route. These patches of forest have been identified by some as a conservation hotspot, being home to the silverback mountain gorillas, a number of endemic frog and bird species, or so I’m told. It also boasts one of the few forests that has the unique, green bamboo growing within the forest. All of these reasons play a role in the Batwa’s eviction in 1992. Despite having a shared history, these communities now look very different as several years have gone by.

We’ll start with the furthest West, Kiryaushenje, almost near to the Rwandan border. 

1) Kiryaushenje

Farming System abutted to Echuya Forest

This community was identified for us by GBO because of their hard-working culture and their adaption to farming. When coming down the hill and crossing the stream into the community, houses are clustered together and almost every meter of land that is able to be cultivated outside of their immediate compounds is the host to climbing beans, peas, sweet potatoes, or Irish potatoes. The houses are small, reflecting the space available to them. Houses are simple as we see in all the communities, a bamboo frame, mud is slapped against the structure and smoothed offering little warmth in such a cold place. Tin roof’s cover the houses making them look nicer than they actually are. I try to piece together why people are living in such structures—Does it reflect the feeling of impermanence, or perhaps being content without what most of us typically would consider comforts, or maybe its just poverty. Kiryaushenje is the name of the wider town, the village being named Mushanje, and the section where the Batwa live is called Mumudugudugu, meaning “together” in Rutwa, the language of the Batwa. During our first community meeting, we asked an elder their history, thinking I would get a specific story to those of this community, I got the general historic rundown.

Meeting and farmland at Kiryaushenje

Not far from the forest, a few people sneak into the forest to harvest ropes as they call them. Ropes are immature green bamboo sticks that people use for housing and furniture and can be sold for quite a large sum of money. If caught, the Batwa can be imprisoned. It seems that this portion of the Echuya is heavily guarded and many don’t resort to this form of income generation but have turned to the safer, but slower income generating activity of farming. Many farm for their neighboring Bakiga, the name of the people from Ugandan tribe living in Western Uganda. In return for farming the Bakiga land, they either make a sum of money, earn a portion of the harvest, get paid in a day’s worth of food, or any combination of food and cash reimbursement. This land that people are farming can be right outside their village, or can be up to a 2 hour walk. Brainstorming different ways to approach the project in this community where land is small and already seems to be in production, we assess the positives; Kiryaushenje has a stream running down its hill, in which households are tapping into to irrigate their crops. Most of the arable land is on gentle slopes and people already have basic agriculture skills. We also have two Batwa leaders that made it as far as college, an extraordinary accomplishment when weighing all the obstacles a Mutwa has to go through even to make it through primary school.  

Local Facilitator

One of them is Wilber. Wilber dropped out of college while he was studying Computer Science after he couldn’t raise enough money to keep up with tuition. Returning home, his mother died and he struggled to feed himself after a long day in the field or in the forest. Wilber decided to get married so that he could have someone to help him out at home. The way in which he describes the situation, it seems as if he feels as if it was his only choice. Wilber has since been a leader in the community, encouraging his fellow Batwa to working for yourself, take projects such as their Village Savings and Internal Lending, or carrot and cabbage projects seriously. We’ve asked Wilber to be on of our local facilitators for the project, as his academic background, position in the community, and desire for more seems to be a great fit for what we are looking for. I’ve already enjoyed working with Wilber and learned an enormous amount of information from him about Batwa culture. When envisioning how the project can be modeled for success, we anticipate focusing on urban agriculture systems, encouraging space-efficient but nutritious crops, and building best practices into existing agriculture skills.  

2) Murubindi

Community Consultation at Murubindi

Walk about 6 km northwest, over a few hills but along the Euchya Forest and you’ll reach Murubindi community. Murubindi community looks completely different than Kiryaushenje. Having about 45 households, these are spread across the hills and valleys. A few houses are centered around the school, referring to themselves as the Center, but houses are few and far between. Murubindi seems untouched by outside organizations, except for the tin roof’s, the occasional organization-branded T-shirt you may see, and the presence of a school building. The community hardly has a single latrine, and the one that I had experience in was completely full, and the walls are made out of an unleafy grass, exposing the person inside. Houses fortunately are a bit more spacious, as they’re having more land to distribute. This hill in which Murubindi Community is settled on is much steeper and travelling between house to house is a bit nerve wracking. Two water sources lay in the middle of the valley, an estimated hour walk for any of the houses on the hills. This portion of the forest must not be enforced as much as Kiryaushenje, as many of the community are seen entering and exiting the forest with timber or other products. AICM and Bwindi Conservation Trust have been named as the organizations who have provided land for the people in Murubindi. Although full of stones and seeming to have low fertility, the land is enough.

Sally plants maize but it is short & stunted
 She can’t afford fertilizer so is looking for DIG
 to show organic methods to help her family

Water will be the major constraint in this community. The dynamics here seem a bit different. People aren’t as friendly or welcoming for the project as in Kiryaushenje. During a survey, a lady said she was given seeds by Nature Uganda and just through them on the land. She didn’t seem to care that they weren’t sprouting and many people have admitted that the main form of feeding themselves is through begging. The land they are surrounded on is either empty, their crops look to be suffering from infertile soils, or land is being cultivated by the neighboring Bakiga. This community has land in which we can have a demonstration garden or two, to serve the spread out households, however water will be our major challenge. If we try to put in central water tanks, we may see a lack of ownership and poor maintenance, if we give individual water tanks, it could get quite costly. However we decide, the water situation must be addressed, or we will only see rain-fed gardens being used. Thinking about how to manage community expectations and balance dynamics, Elias, the Community Elder, has advised that we work with only those who are interested, eager. Those who are more skeptical or not willing to get involved don’t need to be involved. During our baseline survey, we decided to visit each household to make sure they had the opportunity to hear about the project, were invited to participate, and could decide for themselves their level of involvement. It seems as if the community has a layer of depression laying over them, an almost exhaustion of having to live day to day, finding food. Or perhaps it’s the high rates of alcoholism that has got this community relying of short-term solutions. Whatever the reasoning, we know that motivation and visual benefits will be key to adoption, and hopefully leading to long-term food security.

3) Rwaburindi

Continuing northwest, Murubindi turns into Rwaburindi, a name given area between Murubindi and Rwamanhano, our third community. Rwamanahano can be accessed from the tarmac road and given its beautiful view on top of the hill and with a clear view of Lake Bunyoni, it has become a popular stop for tourists. Tourists have the option of stopping along the ‘Batwa Trail’ and viewing this unique culture and people through dances and an informative walk into the forest. Tourists have been said to ‘ruin the mentality’ of Rwamahano by providing free, unstructured handouts. These cash handouts have been said to contribute to a short-term mindset that emphasizes fast cash and discourages investments such as farming. Being identified by GBO as probably the most challenging site, I find quite the contrary. I find people to be inviting and eager to begin the project. This community looks similar to Murubindi, having spread out houses on steep hills. Water will also most likely be our biggest challenge.

Baseline Surveys
The Enumerators!

The communities are different in so many ways and we hope to continue to take each one as they are, identifying their separate needs and designing a project based on what they want their impact to be. We’ve begun our baseline survey, aiming to survey each household in these three communities. This survey has been eye-opening, to say the least. Each night, going through the individual surveys, I’m consistently surprised at the education levels of these communities—averaging around the equivalents of grades 1 and 2 (these averages are not confirmed).  These surveys have allowed me to hear some personal stories, some of which I believe are noteworthy and help to put into perspective the poverty the Batwa experience. 

Understanding the Reality

Sitting with one of our enumerators during a survey, I noticed a man laying on the side, not participating. This isn’t uncommon as men often show that they don’t have interest in participating, but it struck me as odd that would then listen to the entire survey. Near the end, I noticed the women had a baby under her cloth kitenge. I asked to see the baby and she showed me, aiming to use the gesture to generate a comfortable feeling between us. The baby she showed me seemed malnourished. When I asked how old, she relayed the following story, “The man sitting up on the ledge, my brother, his wife died due to a sickness shortly after birth. My husband had also recently died, so I came to live here to take care of the baby. I’m using a plant from the forest to produce milk so that I can become a wet nurse.” I nod and apologize for their loss and tell her she’d doing a good job at raising this baby. We leave her house and I notice her small quarter of an acre growing beans and maize, wondering how it can meet the caloric needs of herself, her brother, the baby, and the five other children I saw. 
Joseph interviewing the woman who moved to 
take care of her brother’s baby

Another story that struck me was during a different survey. The women being surveyed was answering questions while preparing lunch. In the pot was what looked like a pot full of Irish potatoes. During the interview, three of her small kids came up from what must have been the well. Probably walking for 30 minutes, they each came with about two liters of water. She used some of the water to add to her boiling pot of potatoes and the other water was put aside. One of the kids that had brought the water, proceeded to wash his hands in early anticipation for lunch. He used a few splashes of water to wash his hands, turning the water brown with dirt instantly. He continued to wash his hands in this brown water, never changing the water or rinsing with clean water. He sat down happily and played a kind of ‘hot potato’ when lunch was ready. I imagined that if I had just walked 30 mins each way to get water, I probably wouldn’t waste the extra water for a more sanitary rinse either. I want to share these stories because of many the perceptions that I’ve heard about the Batwa, that they are dirty, unmotivated, unable to help themselves. I’ve heard these views from Directors of organizations, from Ugandan neighbors, and extension workers. Some say the Batwa have a different mentality, some are saying they have a different culture, some say they have different ethics. More or less all the same, people go far to try and rationalize the reasoning for the state of the Batwas living conditions. People say they have the inability to plan long-term, some say they sell everything possible for money for beer, some say they are lazy. Regardless of the reasoning why or what people say, we know we have some challenges that have stemmed from their eviction from 1992 and our overall purpose stays true to the DIG mission, to enable vulnerable communities to meet their own needs and improve their well-being through nutrition-sensitive and sustainable agriculture. Be it through addressing water needs, exploring non-traditional gardening, putting accountability systems into place, we hope to ensure that by the end of the year, the communities are at least feeding their families.

Moving Forward
In addition to the baseline survey, we’ve been on the lookout for the best candidates to fill the positions of local facilitators and field officer. We intend to have one facilitator per community, totaling three and one field officer that can support the facilitators and the Coordinator. After advertising on the local radio, through schools and stakeholder organizations, we’ve had over 20 applicants! The first round of interviews will be complete on Monday, with the second round taking place on Thursday. We’re happy to have such a competitive selection to build a great team.