As with anything a person feels passionately about, I have been delving deeper into the history of the people on that rock pile in Bubanza. While finding the information has taken lots of sifting, the facts are that these people are not caught up in our Western ideas of success and imprisoned behind destitution, trapped outside the margins of society. And their perseverance is not guaranteed
The Batwa are the original inhabitants of East Africa where they are known as Twa, pygmys, autochthons, potters, former nomadic hunter/gatherers and historically marginalized people. Hmm, historically marginalized. Obviously there’s a problem here. They lived in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for “innumerable years” until someone realized the value of the land. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1992, they were forced to abandon their heritage and relocated to neighboring countries, especially Rwanda just to the south. Confronted with the Rwandan genocide three years later, they were then forced to relocate again, some ending up in Burundi where I came to know them.
The tradition, economy, religion and society on which they had depended upon for thousands of years suddenly became entirely inaccessible when they extracted from their mother forest. Not being given any preparation or compensation, just forced out. They were told they couldn’t live, hunt or forage in the forests because the forests needed to be preserved for tourists. After living there some 5000 years, it seems to me they would be able to tell the government a thing or two about conservation! So they were thrown out of mama’s house without a dollar or any street smarts. And then the potter’s clay gathering marshes were taken by the gov, too! With zero marketable resources, access to land, education, healthcare or government recognition, many were forced into servitude and begging. Today they are one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. Yikes!
A report by Rwanda’s Senate Comission in 2009 says “the potters have miserable conditions among which the lack of adequate shelter, high rate of non schooling youth, the lack of the medical care, the lack of sources of income, the lack of employment, lack of farming lands and food insecurity… The malnutrition of the historically marginalized persons (potters) is at the heart of the high rate of infant mortality and by this fact potters risk of disappear completely.” But they still weren’t given any resources. “The new life was imposed on us without warning. We had no time to prepare to integrate into another life outside the forest.” Says Imelde Sabushimike, a Twa Indigenous Fellow from UN’s Geneva Programme last year.
Current social success depends on material wealth. In East Africa, land and cattle are the primary means of obtaining this wealth- neither of which the Twa people have ever owned. Having been forced into modern society without a clue, in Burundi, ww witnessed them using their scavenging skills in the garbage dumps. Traditionally a nomadic tribe, they do not see as much value in material wealth as we do. From a Western perspective, it seems they live simple lives. Perhaps they would have more stuff if they had more money, but they seem content living simpler lives which brings on even more discrimination. These intelligent, extremely adaptive people are very successful when given opportunities. But, yet again, there’s that problem of ID cards. I’m going to start sounding like a broken record. Here’s the new spiel from the donation page:
With an identification card, a man, woman or child becomes a citizen, can attend school, be treated at the hospital, vote and even ride the bus! It cannot change stereotypes against Batwa as primitive, uncivilized and underdeveloped, or give them enough food to eat or grant them access to their homelands but it can give them recognition. Because many work all day just to afford one meal each day, a $10 ID card is an luxury the majority of Burundi’s Batwa cannot even consider.
I am [obviously] not rich, but remember being in the slums of Kenya where we visited a bar with the program’s founder. There was a conversation between a patron and me regarding poverty. How he had no chance and if he had rich friends like me, he could get a bike and then a bike could help him rise above his situation. I remember how aghast I was at being called rich but in reality…. It’s all about perspective. I have the luxury of an extra ten dollars available to donate for identification cards and love that my community of friends and family have been so exceedingly generous in helping me collect gear for this hike so that I have not had to purchase new gear. I love how people are so great! My life is so, so rich with family, friends and community of generous individuals, I am exceedingly thankful so many of you have stepped forward to contribute!
Last night was another African slideshow and the amazingly receptive audience made it so great! I feel so lucky to be able to share my experience with the community. We only have four weekends left before departure! Four more opportunities to share? We will be having another gathering for people to see my photos from Rwanda, share some food before I leave for hiking the PCT and collect those promised donations! Time, date and location are TBD.
Good journalists cite all their sources, right? Well if anyone cares for more information, these are some goodies. There are also videos at the youcaring fundraiser site that is linked up above.
For more information from United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda
For a UN perspective
Kellerman foundation’s research on Uganda’s pygmies and history
Friends of Bwindi
Information about Twa people (potters) in Rwanda