Tag Archives: Uganda

Helping the Batwa

On our first morning in Kabale, in the mountains of southern Uganda, we met a young blond woman named Yana. We were in a bakery, and she offered to assist us. We got to talking, and she told us that she is a volunteer who has been in Uganda for 13 months. Her official assignment is to volunteer with the ‘House of Edirisa’, where she leads an out of school enrichment program called ‘Smiles’. But she has also been volunteering with an organization helping the Batwa people.

The Batwa are a race of people whose homeland is the mountains that lie on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Batwa are a small minority in these countries, less than one percent of the population. Their total number is less than 5000. Their mountains are covered by dense tropical rain forests, which are also the home of the mountain gorillas. Their livelihoods, culture and religion are based on these forests as traditionally the Batwa are hunters and gatherers, living in harmony with the forest. There they are semi-nomadic, moving every few months in search of fresh food supplies. Their tools are pre-stone age. They use sharpened sticks for digging and cutting and arrow tips are just fire-hardened sharpened wood. Occasionally they utilize an iron knife for slashing the thick underbrush. They have lived in these forests for thousands of years.

The Batwa are small in stature. They are also known as “pygmies”, which denotes ancient dwellers of the forest. They are between four and five feet tall.

Over the past 20 years, many of the Batwa homelands have become parks or forests reserves. In many cases, the Batwa were forced to leave their forests, and in some cases, were given land on the surrounding mountain tops. This dealt a devastating blow to these Batwa. They could no longer hunt or gather in the forest. It became illegal for them to even enter the forest, and they are now arrested for being there.

Yana told us about some Batwa villages, and the people that she is working with to help them. We were intrigued, so after returning to our hotel to get our belongings, we tracked her down, and asked her for more information.

With their lives devastated, many Batwa now live in extreme poverty. They are not traditionally farmers, and many have been unsuccessful in cultivating their own crops. They have little or no experience with raising animals. It matters little, as they have neither seed to plant nor animals to raise. As a result of their poverty, and lack of alternative means of support, many Batwa have been exploited by their neighbouring tribes. They have been reduced to virtual serfdom. Some are ‘employed’ to guard the crops of others. Many others have been sexually exploited. They are discriminated against, and are ridiculed if they go into other villages. Some Africans believe that the Batwa have magical powers, and so they are pursued like mythical leprechauns.

The Batwa rarely use the past or future tense, conversing almost exclusively in the present. They essentially had no paradigm or terminology to transition to the 21st century.

Yana told us about five Batwa villages that a very small local aid organization is trying to help. This organization is made up of three young Ugandan men – Anthony (a student), Saul (an accountant at a secondary school), and Nestory (a part-time teacher). They are three non-Batwa friends that come from a village at the foot of the mountains, a four hour steep walk from the Batwa they are trying to help. The Batwa villages are high in the mountains, at about 8000 feet elevation. The fastest route there from Kabale, the closest city, is a two hour drive followed by a hike of up to three hours. For seven years they have been going to visit the Batwa, establishing a relationship, and helping where they can. They helped to get vegetable seeds and start a garden. However, they were extremely restricted in what they could accomplish because they have limited financial means.

Enter an American named Barton Brooks. He is the founder of Guerilla Aid, a one man international aid organization. Barton travels the world in search of projects to help people. His mission is, “Find something that needs doing, do it, and teach others how to do it”. Barton arrived in Kabale about four weeks before we did, and put together a plan to help these Batwa villages, working together with Anthony, Saul, Nestory, and Yana. In the first ten days, this small group got donations to build a chicken coop in the first village, stocked it with 100 chicks, and provided feed and someone to care for the chicks until the Batwa learn to do it for themselves. They also helped a very old man.

They found the old man lying naked on a neighboring hillside. For 30 years, he had lived alone in a grass hut on a hilltop. His job was to guard the potato field of a non-Batwa, in return for which he was paid one potato per day. When they asked him what he wanted, he said that he didn’t want to die in poverty, and that he would like to return to a Batwa village to live in a hut of his own. In just a few days, the small group of volunteers helped him to achieve this. They built him a tiny hut, with a mat and blankets on the dirt floor. They bought him some clothes. Then they built a stretcher, and went to get the old man. When they arrived, he said that he wanted to walk to his new home. Because of they way he had lived, this was extremely difficult for him, and the normal ninety minute walk took over three hours. But he made it. When he arrived, the villagers danced and sang.

Barton and Anthony’s were riding a motorcycle that collided with a Land Rover on muddy roads coming down from the village. Anthony broke his arm. Barton broke his collar bones, both arms, and had a compound fracture of his femur (sticking out the back where his hamstring should be). He spent two days in hospital in Uganda, and then was evacuated to the United States where he has had many surgeries and is still in hospital.

Two of Barton’s friends from Utah, Chris and Paul, where scheduled to come for ten days to work with him. When Barton was injured, they were considering canceling their trip. But they decided to come anyway, based on Yana’s urging, to continue the good work that had been started. We met Chris and Paul in Kabale, when they returned from a day of work in the Batwa village, where they were building bamboo furniture for the school which had none.

Yana told us about the first of the five Batwa villages they were currently trying to help. This village has about 80 adults and 90 children. They live in about thirty mud huts with grass roofs on an exposed mountain slope. Their biggest problem is starvation. They have no animals, other than the chicks that were recently provided for them. They have only a small vegetable garden that cannot sustain the village. They live on a diet that consists primary of porridge made from sorghum. They have no good source of protein.

We decided that we wanted to help. Rather than spend a few days relaxing at Lake Bunyoni, this seemed like something more important. Given that the most urgent priority for the Batwa was food, we decided to donate seed potatoes to the village, to take them there, and to plant them. There was much discussion about whether this was feasible. Did the Batwa have sufficient land to plant the potatoes? Was the land cleared and tilled? Did they know how to plant and harvest potatoes? Did they know how to reserve some potatoes to re-plant? And most importantly, is this what the Batwa wanted? There were some unanswered questions, but it seemed like it would be feasible, so we went ahead.

We donated money to purchase 500 kilograms of seed potatoes and five heavy hoes to till the land and plant them. We arranged to transport all this and us to the village.

We arrived at about noon after a long car ride and a short hike. The elevation was high enough that we noticed a shortness of breath on the walk (at least that’s what I choose to attribute it to, and not a lack of fitness, although that may very well be the case). In these mountains, like many around the world, the weather changes frequently, and rain squalls arrived every hour or so during our time there.

The Batwa men had carried the potatoes up the steep hillside from another village the previous day. They had spent the morning of our arrival tilling two plots of their land with hand tools, so this land was thankfully ready for planting. Like all their land, these plots are located on the hillside. The potatoes had been kept in a secure hut overnight. When one is hungry, it is difficult to care about sustainable farming, and seed potatoes are easily eaten.

Diane, Patrick, the village women, and a couple of Batwa men set to work planting the potatoes. Working from the bottom of the hill, a line of people with hoes dug holes about a foot apart into which a seed potato (or two small ones) were dropped.
Then a similar set of holes was dug immediately above the first, with the dirt pulled down to cover the lower hole. This continued all the way up the slope, and the work progressed very quickly. Before we knew it, the first plot was planted, and we moved to the second one.

Despite their size, the Batwa women are tough.

They swung the hoe almost as hard as Patrick, and didn’t seem to tire as the work progressed. One of the Batwa women was giving Diane a hard time because she wasn’t doing it right.

Upon completing both plots, we paused. Because it’s difficult to work when one is hungry, we had brought some meager food with us for the village. It was recommended that we bring buns, because they are easy to transport and can be eaten immediately, requiring no fuel to cook them. When offered the choice, the Batwa choose to finish planting the second plot before eating.

We handed out the food, and because some of the village men were working elsewhere, there were extras, but we did not eat.

Afterwards, we walked around the village. We met the old man who had recently been relocated. He stood in the door of his new hut, wearing his new clothes, which were a bit too big for him. Diane met Hope, an 18 year old mother of two. She now cares for the old man, with food provided for him.

We saw a new hut being constructed for a single mom with several children, whose old hut was falling apart.

We also helped with the construction of furniture for the school — bamboo desks and benches tied with twine, straight out of Gilligan’s Island. The children have no pencils or books, but at least they won’t have to sit on the floor.

As the end of the afternoon approached, it began to rain steadily. We said our goodbyes, and started to walk down, at which time it began to hail heavily, so we beat a hasty retreat back up to the school building. On our next attempt, we made it down to the car for the long drive back to the Kabale.
The Batwa are an amazing people, and we hope they will survive. The odds are against them.

Observations about Uganda

  • It is lush and green, even now at the end of the dry season.
  • It is one of the safest countries in Africa.
  • It is known as “The Pearl of Africa”.
  • The staple dish is ‘matoke’, a mash of cooked plantains. It tastes like very gluey potatoes, but lumpier and with a bit of a sour taste like turnips.
  • The women are soft-spoken and passive.
  • English is the only official language, although it isn’t usually spoken. Signs and some radio stations are in English, but most people speak ‘Luganda’. Like Kenya, the numeric system is the same as in Canada.
  • The pace seems slower than in Kenya.
  • Like in Kenya, Coke seems to dominate over Pepsi. Coke, Fanta, and Sprite are widely available, but come in glass bottles that are expected to be drunk on the spot and returned. People prefer to drink through long straws, perhaps because the bottles are later refilled.
  • There are a lot of bicycles, all black. None have gears. Most have heavy-duty racks on the back capable of carrying passengers (women ride side-saddle) or baggage.
  • No one obeys the speed limits (if there are any).
  • The roads are about a foot narrower than they should be and there are no paved shoulders.
  • People rarely walk if a boda-boda (a bicycle or motorcycle taxi) is available. They seem shocked that we would want to walk anywhere. We haven’t seen a single runner or jogger in the country.
  • Kampala, the capital city, has a restaurant with the best Indian food that we’ve ever tasted.

The Bus Trip

Today we rode the bus in Uganda. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

We caught a shared minivan, known as a ‘matatu’, from our hotel on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to the area of town where the buses park. There are actual several matatu and bus parks located here, and all the surrounding streets are crammed with matatus and people squeezing between them. The sidewalks are either broken, or jammed with the merchandise of vendors that spills out of their shops, making the muddy streets the only alternative to move around.

We started our search for a bus at about 10:00 AM, walking around trying to find which of the fifteen bus companies spread over four lots had buses leaving for Kabale, and town in the southwest of Uganda near the Rwandan border. After getting lost more than once in the maze of streets, and walking away from one company that wanted too much money and appeared to have questionable looking buses, we finally found a bus at about 11:30.

Upon entering the bus park, we were immediately grabbed by a woman who was one of the many ‘brokers’ or ‘guides’ that work the area. Walking us the 50 feet from the entrance of the bus park to the door of the bus, where we bought our tickets, entitled her to a commission of 1000 Ugandan Shillings (USh), about 60 cents Canadian, from each of our ticket prices (15000 USh). Before purchasing our tickets, we asked when the bus would be leaving, and were told by the ticket seller who stands near the bus door, “45 minutes”.

We boarded the bus, which was nicely painted on the outside, but lacking in most other regards. Instead of the usual four seats in each row, divided by a center aisle, an extra seat had been added to each row (three on one side, a narrow aisle, and two on the other). The seats were covered in stiff plastic, which in theory could have allowed them to be cleaned. The seats closest to the aisle each had an arm rest that flipped up, allowing easier access from the aisle. The arm rests had long since lost all their fabric and padding, and were instead just bare metal bars with sharp edges. We squeeze our backpacks into the overhead racks, and started to wait.

The bus was sitting, along with about thirty other buses, in two rows in an open parking lot under the hot sun. The parking lot was of the smallest possible size that could hold that many buses, while still allowing the occasional departing or arriving bus to be shoe-horned in and out with twenty-point turns. Our bus had its engine idling, doing our part to add to the heat and fumes.

The interior of the bus was a toxic sauna. Very hot and stuffy, it smelled like a mixture of body odour and gasoline fumes and was at least 35 degrees Celsius. There were already a few other passengers sitting in the hot interior of the bus, some sleeping. We took turns sitting in the bus, to watch our belongings and secure our seats, while the other person stood outside to try to get relief from the heat. Although there was more air outside, the sunshine beating down made it more of a change than an improvement.

At one point, Patrick went in search of food, while Diane remained on the bus. The bus started to pull away, and Diane ran to the front of the bus trying to stop them from leaving. It turned out they were just re-positioning the bus. When they started to pull away again, Diane did the same, much to the amusement of the others on the bus. One of the other passengers reassured her that the bus wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.

After forty-five minutes of sweating, plus another 10 minutes for good measure, Patrick inquired with the ticket seller when the bus was leaving. He replied, “45 minutes from the last time I told you”. It soon became clear that the bus wasn’t leaving any time soon. After 90 minutes, and several information gathering discussions with other passengers, it became apparent that the bus would in fact be leaving as soon as all the seats had been sold. Since a refund was out of the question, and any other transportation option would presumably be the same, we sat and we waited some more.

After two hours, the bus was about half full and the temperature was climbing with the afternoon sun. African people are really tolerant of the heat, often wearing several layers of clothing when Diane and I are in shorts and t-shirts, but it was so hot in the bus that the men were taking their shirts off.

While we waited, we were provided with entertainment of a sort. Each new arrival to the bus was a source of small encouragement. Often they were pulled to the bus by one or more brokers, who then fought over the commission and sometimes the passenger, pulling them back and forth to demonstrate their ownership. The bus was filled with a steady stream of hawkers, coming on board to sell radios, flash lights, men’s and women’s shoes, picture frames, candy, and more. They squeezed down the narrow aisle with their wares, pushing past one another and the passengers. Some carried glass plates of food or soda in glass bottles, which you were expected to eat while they waited to collect the glassware. Another guy was selling medications; including de-wormer which it appeared was for human use.

After three hours, we were starting to wear down. Diane was leaning forward with her head on the back of the seat ahead, desperate for a hint of a breeze. By this point, our late departure time guaranteed we would be traveling at night in the mountains, on questionable roads, and arriving late in a small town with no accommodations booked.

Finally, after three and a half hours, the bus filled up and pulled away. We were the only white people on the bus. We thought that things were looking up, but they were only just beginning.

Despite being told that the bus would stop three times, there was only one bus stop, about one hour into our trip. The bus pulled over at a police checkpoint, and the men, plus two women in long skirts, got off to pee at the side of the road, in full view of the remaining passengers. Diane stayed on board.

Bus drivers in Africa have a reputation for traveling too fast. The narrow roads barely provide enough space for a bus to get by oncoming traffic, and at 70 miles an hour, the other vehicles flash by with less than twelve inches to spare. The roads have no shoulder, and often the driver needs to hang some wheels off the broken edge of the pavement, resulting in bone jarring bumps. The roads have a disproportionate amount of large vehicle traffic, perhaps because so few people have cars, so the buses are forever passing slower moving vehicles (usually long gasoline tankers), and often on blind corners and hilltops. There don’t appear to be any speed limits, so the speed is the maximum the driver can reasonably extract from his vehicle and the road conditions, plus twenty percent.

Our bus seemed to have a serious problem with its rear suspension. Every bump was transferred directly to the occupants. Large bumps were accompanied with a loud bang, as the cab of the bus smashed down onto the undercarriage. About one hour into our trip, we hit a bump so hard that the side window in the row behind us shattered, dropping large shards on the passengers. The assistant driver stood up at the front of the bus to see what had happened, then sat down again. The bus continued on.

As darkness approached, we hit a bump so hard that we actually launched out of our seats and into the air. Luckily, Patrick avoided being impaled on the metal armrest. At the back of the bus, some passengers had hit the ceiling, and one man was seriously injured. He cried out, and the passengers stood to see what had happened. People yelled for the driver to stop, but the bus continued on. The passengers were speaking loudly in Ugandan, and were obviously upset that nothing was being done. Diane feared a riot would break out. After much shouting, it took an off-duty Ugandan army member walking to the front of the bus to get it to stop. The assistant driver came to the rear of the bus to see what had happened, then returned to his seat. The bus continued on.

When we reached the next village, the bus stopped. The injured man was helped to the front of the bus, but collapsed twice in the aisle, in obvious pain. He was taken into a pharmacy, probably the closest thing the village had to a medical facility. While we waited, a Catholic nun who was seated near us stood and approached Diane. She asked if Diane was alright. Diane replied, “Yes”, and then asked if the nun was OK. She rubbed the crucifix around her neck and answered, “I’m praying”.

While we waited, villagers sold grilled meat on branches to the passengers through the windows of the bus. As darkness fell, the injured man was helped back to a seat near the front of the bus, trading his previous seat with some other brave soul. We continued through the dark, and into the mountains.

We arrived in Kabale at 11 PM, over twelve hours from the start of our journey, having completed what was supposed to be a six hour bus trip. Diane didn’t use a restroom for the entire period, which wasn’t a problem given how much we were sweating. We found a room at the fourth hotel we tried, which was good because there were only two others in town. Diane was already working on her strategy to convince the taxi driver to take us home and let us sleep on his floor.

Patrick’s Comment — Throughout this trip, Diane maintained a particularly positive attitude, coping with the heat and stress exceptionally well. She even joked along the way. I think she’s got this traveling thing figured out.