Forest dwellers known as Pygmies were evicted when their homes became national parks a generation ago. Now they're fighting back.
Nov 25, 2014·
12 MIN READ
Wendee Nicole writes for publications including Scientific American, Smithsonian, Sierra, Pacific Standard, and others. Travel to Uganda to report for TakePart was funded by Mongabay.org's Special Reporting Initiatives Program.
Scott Kellermann remembers the moment he realized he’d been going about things all wrong. He and several men and women from the community he was working with sat on the ground outside mud-brick huts recently constructed in their village, Kitariro, in southwestern Uganda. Kellermann, a physician and an Episcopalian missionary, had first come to Uganda in 2000 to medically survey the group, who had been evicted from their forest home and were living in conditions of extreme poverty in villages at the edge of two national parks. Finding children with swollen bellies and rail-thin adults, he and his wife, Carol, soon decided to move to Uganda and dedicate themselves full-time to their aid.
About a year later, he met with officials from the Ugandan government to discuss the possibility of allowing this community, known as the Batwa and sometimes as Pygmies, to live within park boundaries, as they had for centuries before their eviction. Now he was delivering the news of this meeting to the Batwa elders.
“We’re trying to get you guys back in the forest,” Kellermann told them. He expected to be met with expressions of gratitude and waves of joy. Instead, the village leaders told him life in the forest had been difficult, and they now preferred to live on its edge. “How can you speak for us?” they said. “We don’t want to go back to living in the forest.”
It was a dramatic surprise to Kellermann, and it led him to rethink his approach. “We used to consider ourselves the voice of the voiceless,” he says now. “But that kept them in kind of a voiceless position.”
“I learned that it is important to ascertain what the Batwa truly wanted before attempting to be their advocate,” said Kellermann, now 69. “Most people who commit to helping, we work for a couple months, years, maybe even decades, but the Batwa will be there forever. They’re the ones that have to be involved in the solution.”
Kellermann’s epiphany is one that many large, international donor groups have also experienced over the past couple of decades. Organizations and individuals are realizing that the old development model is itself developing. Less and less are people from wealthy countries coming to poor ones, assessing local problems on their own, and telling residents how the visitors will fix things. That approach, which began in Africa’s colonial era, is being replaced by a strategy of involving local people in determining the issues and designing solutions. Nowhere, it seems, can this be better applied than in the case of the Batwa.
In Karehe, a Batwa village in southwestern Uganda, young children play in the rust-colored dirt. Two girls giggle and smile; their younger brother, wearing only a shirt, clings to a metal bowl, the remnants of its meager contents on his lips and fingers.
Much of the time, these children are left alone while their parents sell cheap crafts to tourists by the river. They wear the same filthy clothes, day after day.
Many Batwa children in Karehe have protruding bellies and sunken eyes, indicators of severe malnutrition, poor sanitation in their communities, and a lack of medical care. Kids and adults alike practice open defecation in their yards or gardens, though some have a pit latrine. Most Batwa children drop out of primary school, further ensuring a precarious future for their people; only three of the few thousand Batwa living in Uganda have earned college degrees, according to the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda.
The plight of the Batwa has been eclipsed by what many call one of wildlife’s greatest success stories—the mountain gorilla. Yet their conditions have been inexorably linked ever since the Ugandan government established two national parks in Batwa homelands, forcing people from their forest home. Now they live in villages on the park’s borders.
Found only in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the great apes have returned from the brink of extinction thanks to intense efforts by conservation groups and government wildlife authorities. Mountain gorilla numbers rebounded from a low of 254 in 1981 to an estimated 880 in the latest population survey, conducted in 2012. Media heralded the victory but largely failed to mention the deeply suffering communities. The indigenous who were removed from their ancestral homeland have become “conservation refugees.”