The first time I met the Batwa people in Uganda, I thought it was unbelievable that they could live the way they do.
Earlier on I had asked my colleagues to help me identify the poorest minority group in Uganda, and many of them pointed to the Batwa Pygmies in the southwest of the country. I had heard about them but did not know much about their grim reality.
On a Monday morning, I boarded a bus to the beautiful town of Kisoro, where the Batwa live. The journey was long and tiring.
When I reached Kabale, a town along the way, I started to take in the beauty of the area. The air was fresh and the breeze was cool. The land was hilly and green, with a few houses scattered all around.
Each of the hills had rows of crops carefully planted across it, and roads meandered around through these hills. This beauty, however, did not prepare me for the shock that awaited me the following day.
The next morning, I set out for the church where I would interview the staff. It was another bright beautiful day, and the hills looked smoky. Chris, the partnership facilitator for Kisoro, walked me to the church where the Batwa lived in an open space along the path to the church.
I saw small and short ramshackle tent-like structures made of bamboo shoots, old rugs, polythene bags and sisal sacks that were covered in dust and black smoke that had settled on them. The surrounding area was dirty and smelly.
My stomach clenched and I could not breathe for a moment. I begged Chris to tell me it was all a mistake, but he could not. Then a few people started crawling out of the structures. It was real, yet so unbelievable.
As we walked down the path to the church, I could see children with sad faces and adults that had been beaten hard by life.
At the church, I learned that the Batwa were driven from the Mgahinga and Echuya forests around 1992, when the government forced them out to create game and forest reserves. They had lived there and survived on hunting and gathering fruits for centuries.
The Batwa were left homeless, with no land compensation since they did not own the land in the forest. They resorted to living on any open land they found, and they built only temporary shelters.
In Kisoro, the Batwa were not well received by the locals. They were, in fact, isolated and despised. Pastor Mbonye the overseer of the Kisoro Hill Child Development Center tells us,
“When they came, they were discriminated against because they don’t bathe and they smell. Whenever there are parties, they gather to beg for food because they do not have a source of income.
People would not employ them. People constantly chase them away and insult them because they consider them an embarrassment.”
When we first partnered with Kisoro Hill Baptist Church, Pastor Mbonye used the opportunity to register 11 Batwa children. It was difficult, however, to secure these children in the Child Sponsorship Program because many times they did not attend the center activities and would miss school.
Only two children remain today, and Budaratinya is one of them.
Budaratinya moved from one of the flimsy structures to a semi-permanent house with her mother. It all seemed like a dream for them. Her mother recalls,
“Before Pastor Mbonye brought us to live in this house, we lived with the rest of the Batwa. Those houses were very cold at night and we were always scared of snakes and animals.
In fact, one morning I woke up and I saw a snake just a few centimeters away from my head. I was scared and screamed. My neighbors came and rescued me and killed it, but today I feel very safe thanks to the pastor for his help.”
Besides being provided housing, Budaratinya also received free medication, food, education, scholastic materials, and training in hygiene and food security. She even made a few friends.
Budaratinya is now hopeful for a bright future, and her desire is to take care of her mother. She would like to become a nurse when she grows up so that she can help others.
While Budaratinya’s is a happier story, the Batwa as a whole are faced with great challenges since they do not own land or property.
They also lack food, education, social acceptance and political representation at a national level. And other agencies’ funds designated to help the Batwa are often unfairly diverted to other tribal groups.
Perhaps the saddest part of it all, though, is that children are born in such an environment, and this kind of lifestyle is all they know.
Innocent children learn to beg at an early age instead of learning skills that will help them provide for themselves. They do not have education, hygiene and sanitation, and most of them do not know the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Many children suffer in this world, but the Batwa children are forgotten by the world.