Imagine being uprooted from the life you know and being left to fend for yourself in a totally foreign place. According to Christina Katushabe, this, is what happened to the Batwa in 1992 when they were evicted from their homes in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and received no compensation in the form of land or money.
“After leaving the forest, they found refuge in the neigbhbouring areas of Ruhingya and Kitahurira among others. But with no farming or any others skills to provide a livelihood for themselves, they soon fell through the dredges of society succumbing to abject poverty and disease,” Katushabe explains.
She describes the Batwa as a peaceful tribe comfortable struggling to break from an ancient lifestyle with limited resources to launch them into modern times.
“Women are still very much marginalised and very few of the Batwa have formal education. So the women are in a doubly disadvantaged situation,” she says.
Adapting to new life
Recognising that they needed help, the women through their woman leader Alivera Turyomurugyendo asked Katushabe to help them acquire skills that can help them earn an income.
“There are so many things that impressed me so much about this community, first of all is the way they value each other; the love they have for each other and other people is so strong it is almost tangible. Secondly, they have a developed sense of self-esteem, they do not want to be treated as charity cases, they want to be taught how to do things so they can earn their own money and be independent,” Katushabe says about a community she has come to cherish so much.
Heeding their request, Katushabe left her village in Nyakisenyi, Rukungiri District and settled in Kitahurira village Mpungu Sub-County in Kanungu District, where she started teaching women how to do handcrafts such as baskets, mats among others which they sell to the local communities and tourists. Currently, she works with 12 Batwa families comprised of more than 40 people. In addition to helping them economically, the 30-year-old sensitises the community about the importance of attaining education, especially keeping the girl-child in school.
“The Batwa have little regard for girls and as a result there are rampart early marriages, violence against women and girls and abandonment. My role is to show them what can be accomplished if they treated their women better and gave their girls a chance to attain formal education,” she adds.
Change a Life Bwindi
In 2014, Katushabe started the initiative Change a Life Bwindi that aims at changing the lives of not just the Batwa but all people living in Bwindi by giving them economic independence and a fresh outlook to life.
With the help of community Conservation Partners, Change a Life Bwindi started a women centre where all women in the area regardless of tribe gather to learn how to make crafts and how to co-exist not only with the indigenous Batwa people but also conserving nature; the area is a home to gorillas, elephants and other primates.
“In addition to this, Change a Life also emphasises conservation, well aware that the nature surrounding us is a source of wealth, especially for tourism” Katushabe says.
The social activist has also mobilised women and children to make an entertainment group that taps money from tourists in Bwindi
“We entertain tourists whom we interest into buying our products and also sometimes donate to the cause. Women do traditional dances and songs to offer an extra experience to the clients and through these gatherings we talk to the girls and women about the problems affecting them,” she adds.
Living with the Batwa in Bwindi is far from the life Katushabe had planned to live. The activist graduated as an accountant, a profession she enjoyed very much and also worked as an accountant with several NGOs. But her life changed when a five-year-old girl from the community was allegedly raped by a 45-year-old man who was HIV positive. As if that was not tragic enough, when the community found out the girl was rejected even by her own family.
“I had come to visit my brother who was a ranger working with Bwindi National Park when I learnt about the story. I was surprised to learn that such cases are many in this community, especially the marginalised Batwa women who are sometimes denied rights to justice at local level,” Katushabe reveals.
It was at this time that Katushabe chose to quit her job as an accountant to start advocating for the women and the girls in the area. Her goal is to ensure that there is a fair balance between the environment, wildlife conservation and sustainable development in Bwindi through implementing livelihood education and sustainable development programmes among, women and children living in the communities bordering the national park.