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Journalist Gerald Matembu (left) interviewing two Benet women— Rael Kokop (left) and her daughter, Scovia Chelengat, in Kween district, eastern Uganda.

Telling indigenous stories with nuance

27 July 2022

By Billy Rwothungeyo, Africa Media Officer at Minority Rights Group  

Uganda’s star in middle and long distance running is on the rise, with the country now rubbing shoulders with powerhouses Kenya and Ethiopia. A little-known fact is that many of the athletes powering Uganda’s fast-growing reputation in athletics, are Benet — a small marginalized indigenous community in the eastern part of Uganda. 

Many Ugandans, including journalists, simply assume that these athletes are all Sabiny — one of the sub-tribes of the larger Kalenjin Nilotic ethnic group. While Benet people also belong to this group, and occupy the same geographical location as Sabiny people, the Benet are in fact distinct from their neighbours.  

Journalists Andrew Masinde, Ronald Musoke and Gerald Matembu encountered these details on a recent trip to Benet communities in Kween district in eastern Uganda organized by MRG.  

‘I did not know how rich the Benet culture and customs are until I visited their communities. I used to think that everyone in the region was Sabiny,’ admits Masinde.  

Benet are extremely vulnerable. Injustices against them go as far back as pre-independence Uganda, when in the 1930’s, the British colonial establishment began driving them off their ancestral lands to pave way for wildlife conservation. This trend continued into the 1990s, as the government of Uganda sought to expand Mount Elgon National Park. 

Many Benet people live in temporary settlements which are poorly served by public goods and services, and are often subject to ridicule by more dominant neighbouring communities. Many Benet children grow up with this stigma hanging over their heads. Some live with these scars well into their adulthood, even in success.  

As a journalist, exploring this context in keen detail would help tell the story of the Benet with accurate nuance.  

While the sub-tribes within the Kalenjin ethnic group have similar cultural and linguistic traits, they also have differences such as the ways they conduct child naming and burial rituals. Benet people have 43 caves spread across the mountain, from where they traditionally carried out cultural rituals. A good journalist should pick up on such cultural nuances in their reporting, and stay clear of lumping the Benet together with other Kalenjin sub-tribes as one homogenous entity. 

So, how does a journalist get such salient details right in order to tell indigenous stories with tactful nuance? Seek information. Visit indigenous communities, and interact with their leaders. Check out the written literature about the community and try to corroborate such information with what you see on the ground. 

‘The field is the currency of journalism. It is important to visit marginalized communities and get first-hand information on their daily experience,’ says Masinde.  

Do not forget to be sensitive, while in the field, and also in your reporting. The Benet, for example, are often referred to by some as ‘Ndorobo’, which loosely translates to ‘primitive people from the mountain.’ Over in south western Uganda, some people refer to Batwa as ‘pygmies.’ Pygmy is considered pejorative in many circles. Avoiding such disparaging terms makes for better nuanced reporting. 

That said, while it is important to capture indigenous voices in stories about indigenous people, be cognisant of the fact that you should still seek out subject experts. While a Benet mother may point out that her five-year-old son cannot go to school because the nearest school to her village is seven kilometres away, she may not be an expert on pupil-teacher ratio. The prudent thing to do in this case is to seek out an education expert on the issue. This way, you keep your reporting strong. 

Journalists play an integral role in amplifying indigenous voices. It is safe to say that nuanced reporting provides clarity to these voices.

Photo: Journalist Gerald Matembu (left) interviewing two Benet women— Rael Kokop (left) and her daughter, Scovia Chelengat, in Kween district, eastern Uganda. Credit: Billy Rwothungeyo / MRG.

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