It is true but little known that Uganda constitutionally recognises 65 ‘indigenous communities.’ Some of these groups, about 15 of them have less than 25,000 people representing just about 200,000 Ugandans put together.
Their cultures, languages, and traditions are uniquely different from one another. Although recognition of all these groups in their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness was meant to celebrate diversity of the country, different political regimes have manipulated it into ethnic profiling and discrimination.
Even in enlightened circles, after mentioning the majority groups such as the Baganda and Basoga of the central region, the Banyankore and Bakiga of the western and southwestern region, the Acholi and Langi of the north and the Bagisu, Ateso and Karamojong in the east, the conversation expands and at the same time zooms in to about 20 more ethnic groups. What then happens to all the others whose names are often known only to their members and a few of their curious neighbors: The Babukusu, Babwisi, Bahehe, Benet, Ik, Kebu, Nubi, Paluo, Lendu, Batuku, Ethur and Benet…? It is complete silence.
This is the classic example of the downside of market democracy, the tyranny of the majority over the minority. In a country where ethnic identities continue to acquire political and commercial value - access to political office, access to land, economic opportunities, education etcetera - members of minority groups will remain at the backwaters of everything. The condition is continuing to deteriorate as Uganda continues to see a rise in ethnic tensions: Nowadays, reference to tribal origins of political actors or appointments, especially in social and tabloid media, are the precincts within which debates are engaged.
Sadly, this debate reduces Uganda to less than half of its recognised indigenous communities. The sadder effect of this to minority groups has been living in remote geographical locations, poverty, lack of basic social services and other means of survival.
Indeed, minority ethnic communities find themselves in a situation where their very existence is “threatened and where their languages, cultures and traditions are at risk of disappearing because they are not comprehensively promoted, let alone recorded.”
Indeed, in a struggle for survival, people belonging to these minority groups have resorted to not only using languages of the dominant groups, but also naming their children after the dominant groups.
The work of Cross-Cultural Foundation Uganda and the publication of Speaking Out could not have come at any better time. As a publication out of a project, Speaking Out makes visible the literary and cultural beauty of the 13 minority ethnic communities in Uganda. It records selections of their folktales, proverbs, music and poetry. Although the book is mainly in English, effort has been done to document these literary gems in the original native languages. Giving a summary notes about their histories, traditions and cultures, the book also, with the aid of maps, locates these communities on the Ugandan map enabling geographical visibility to readers. Do minority groups have a voice? Yes. Can they speak? Yes. Do they have literature and history? Yes. Then Uganda should listen.
Book title: Speaking Out
Author: Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda
Publisher: Fountain Publishers Limited
Available at: All leading bookstores
Reviewed by: Yusuf Serunkuma