ENVIRONMENT AND LAND – Rwanda and Uganda

For Batwa communities, poor health outcomes are a symptom of protracted discrimination

Hamimu Masudi

In anticipation of a lockdown, when everyone was busy stockpiling all sorts of household items, a leader of an indigenous hunter-gatherer community in East Africa sent an email to his contact at Minority Rights Group International (MRG). It was a photo of a plant, traditionally used in bathing, that produces lather when crushed in water. He wanted to learn from her if this plant would be suitable for handwashing, as a precautionary measure against COVID-19.

His contact reached out to a specialist chemist who responded after a short while. ‘Any plant that produces lather will be effective’, the chemist replied. ‘And under circumstances where a family must choose between spending on food and spending on soap, they should choose food to help protect the immune system and use the readily available plant in washing.’ The advice was well received and was shared widely within indigenous peoples’ networks in the region.

In a world engulfed by the pandemic, this is just one snapshot of the unique struggles that indigenous peoples in Central Africa face. With a long history of devastation and dispossession, Batwa, Mbuti and Baka communities were fighting for their survival long before the advent of COVID-19. Forced off their land and prohibited from entering much of their former territories to gather food, firewood or medicinal herbs, their situation has become even more precarious since the arrival of the virus. Alongside adults with underlying health conditions and older people, indigenous people are known to be at higher risk from emerging infectious diseases.

Even though these communities consistently face poorer health, including mental health outcomes, exacerbated by the stigma and discrimination they face, they remain outside formal social protection systems and are unable to access medical and financial support. For instance, Batwa in Rwanda and Uganda were reportedly left out of the national emergency food distribution and have been dependent on the goodwill of members of other better-off communities and local charity organizations. A rapid phone call survey of Batwa communities by activists in Rwanda, a fortnight into lockdown, revealed a lack of appropriate information on public health and impractical official hygiene requirements ill-suited to the local context.

Drastically reduced numbers of visitors because of the impact of the pandemic on the tourism sector has devastated local livelihoods. By selling handicrafts, pottery and tour-guide services, indigenous communities were able to earn incomes and sustain their livelihoods – but these opportunities have been significantly depleted by COVID-19 containment measures. Farming, which would once have offered an alternative source of income, is not an option for most due to the systematic dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands, beginning in the nineteenth century under European colonial rule and continued by successive post-colonial African states.

As pandemics tend to deepen existing inequalities, the risks are especially high for indigenous women. According to traditional norms, they are the default caretakers of children, the sick, the elderly and members of their extended families. The risks of abuse and exploitation are readily apparent, particularly in the context of a major health crisis, and reports of gender-based violence have been documented by non-governmental organizations working with Batwa communities in south-eastern Uganda, for instance.

Across Central Africa, the tragedy of indigenous peoples lies in their invisibility, as many laws in these countries remain silent as to their existence – a factor that explains the limited availability of disaggregated data on infections and other epidemiological data. This is also reflected in the absence of public health information specifically targeted at indigenous peoples and their lack of representation on national COVID-19 task forces. This is despite recommendations by the United Nations ‘to ensure these services and facilities are provided in indigenous languages, and as appropriate to the specific situation’ of communities.

The plight of forest peoples in Rwanda, Uganda and other countries across Central Africa not only illustrates the need for tailored, accessible and culturally appropriate interventions in the midst of a pandemic. It also reflects how the legacy of landlessness and dispossession has affected every aspect of their lives, from health and livelihoods to participation and well-being, long before the pandemic began.

Photo: Baleku Flora (centre) was born in the forest and left with her parents when the government started conserving the forest for Mountain Gorillas. She later went back to live on the outskirts of the forest with her husband who died before the government forced every Mutwa out of the forest in 1991. With her family, she now lives in Buhoma, a village bordering the Bwindi National Park. Credit: Esther Ruth Mbabazi.