Minority ethnic groups battle to preserve their heritage

Sunday May 15 2016

The Banyabindi perform their Orunyege traditional dance. H

The Banyabindi perform their Orunyege traditional dance. However, such cultural dances are threatened with extinction by the majority Bakonzo ethnic group. PHOTO BY MORGAN MBABAZI 

By Bamuturaki Musinguzi

The Basongora and Banyabindi minority communities in the Rwenzori sub-region in western Uganda single out the deliberate efforts by the neighbouring dominant Bakonzo to deny them the right to speak and teach their indigenous languages in schools as one of the biggest threat to their very existence.

“The biggest problem we face as the Banyabindi is that the languages of instruction in the education system in this area are not ours. Our children are taught in languages such as Lhukonzo. Even then, the semantics of Lhukonzo and Runyabindi are not related,” the chairman of the Banyabindi cultural and development trust (BACDET) education committee based in Kasese District, Mr Patrick Monday Ateenyi, told Sunday Monitor recently.

“Even when we attempt to protest, we are beaten by numbers in forums such as school management committees. Kasese local government passed a resolution that Lhukonzo is the only local language of instruction in this district. This means they (Bakonzo) want to kill our language. We have lagged behind because we have not received enough modern education coupled with insecurity in this area,” Mr Ateenyi adds.

The effect
“Our children are failing in national exams because they are taught in Lhukonzo, a language which is not theirs. Our children cannot relate Lhukonzo to their daily lives, for example, the Bakonzo call a goat embene, whereas we call it embuzi.

A chair is known as entebe in Rusongora, which the Bakonzo call ekitumbi. Omutumbi refers to a dead body in Rusongora. It has reached a point where our children can’t write Rusongora,” Patrick Byabasaija, a Musongora pastoralist in Nyakatonsi Sub-county in Kasese District, laments.

Out of the 65 officially indigenous communities in Uganda, 21 are small ethnic groups, with fewer than 25,000 people. They include Tepeth, Banyala, Batuku, Paluo (Chope), Babukusu, Banyabindi, Lendu, Basongora, Ik, Batwa, Bahehe, Dodoth, Ethur, Mening, Jie, Mvuba, Nyangia, Napore and Venoma, among others. They collectively represent about one per cent of the national population, or more than 200,000 fellow citizens. There are nine other minority groups with up to only 100,000 people each.


The Third Schedule of the Uganda Constitution lists several other minority groups, including the Bamba, Babwisi, Bagwe, Bagungu, Bakenyi, Kebu, Nubi and the Ngikutio. Some groups are yet to be included in the schedule, including the Basese, Bagangaizi, and the Benet.

Due to their small numbers, history, marginalisation, prejudice and stereotypes on the part of the more numerous Ugandan communities, ethnic minorities rarely occupy the national centre stage to make their voice heard.

“While there may be concern for their economic and social welfare on the part of government and other agencies, rarely do we hear these fellow citizens speak out, with all the wealth represented by their cultural diversity,” the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) observes.

According to CCFU, ethnic minorities share a number of common characteristics: being a non-dominant group (often dominated by majority attitudes and practices), with common ethnic, religious, socio-economic or linguistic characteristics which are distinct from those of the majority population.
These characteristics often single them out as marginalised groups, frequently living in a remote geographical location, in small communities, poorer than the average population, with limited political representation and lacking access to basic social services.

The 2006 State of the World’s Minorities report by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) observes that “…Every country around the globe exhibits some ethnic, religious or cultural diversity.

Instead of as an asset to be celebrated, however, governments too often treat this as a threat. States in every world region repress the rights of their minorities, or even deny their existence. For some minorities or indigenous people, their very survival is at stake.”

Although there have been some efforts by NGOs and government to promote their welfare and to recognise their social and economic rights in Uganda, ethnic minorities generally suffer from unequal distribution of national resources.

Many have lost land and other means to survive due to civil strife or to government policies on forests and wildlife conservation, while very limited alternatives have been provided, CCFU adds.

“In spite of various efforts, their (minorities) cultural rights have often been violated and must urgently be respected so that all enjoy free expression and access to their culture before it dies away,” CCFU notes in its policy brief titled “The Cultural Rights of Ethnic Minorities in Uganda – A call for action.”

The 2015 policy brief was as a result of a three-year working project with six ethnic minorities: the Ik in northern Karamoja, the Babwisi, Bavonoma and Bamba in Bundibugyo District, the Ethur in Abim District and the Benet on the higher slopes of Mount Elgon. It draws the attention of policy makers to the importance of safeguarding the cultural rights of Uganda’s ethnic minorities.

In this brief, CCFU identifies five key issues common to the majority of ethnic minorities that need to be addressed if their cultural rights are to be respected: identity and recognition; education and language; safeguarding cultural heritage; political representation; and access to land as a cultural resource.

Cultural rights are defined as the rights of an individual and community to enjoy and advance culture without undue interference.

These stipulate that people and communities not only have access to their culture (in its evolving forms), but also participate and express artistic production, participation in cultural life, promotion and protection of cultural heritage, and intellectual property rights.

Some local languages have been introduced in lower primary schools but a minority is unlikely to be taught given the absence of teaching materials and trained teachers (or of the opportunity and freedom to teach in local languages). Children are then taught in ‘foreign’ languages, and so the minority language is threatened.

“Besides despising us, the Bakonzo have suffocated us and taken our land. The unfortunate thing is that the Bakonzo don’t want us to speak our language (Runyabindi). They don’t recognise our kingdom, claiming there can’t be a kingdom within a kingdom,” the deputy prime minister of the Banyabindi Cultural Institution, Mr Wilson B. Amooti Mijumbi, laments.

Changing dynamics
CCFU observes that with less informal education than before, there is also a widening gap between the young and old – the youth do not find the time to sit with the elders to share issues of cultural importance and to learn what can be done to preserve their culture.

The Benet indeed feel education and prejudices have threatened their cultural rights. The youth rarely recognise the dangers of some of the western cultures and forget their traditions. Similarly, most Ik youth today perceive their culture, including forms of expressions such as dress, dance and eating habits, as backward.

Prejudices also undermine minority languages beyond the school environment. It is not infrequent to hear community members suppressed and either unable or unwilling to speak their language in public. Among the Benet, for instance, the youth fear to express themselves because they are few and they fear ridicule.
“Future generations are at risk of losing their vocabularies, their confidence to speak their language, and therefore an important part of their identity,” CCFU warns.
Negative attitudes and stereotypes that affect ethnic minorities and their right to express their culture must be dispelled, CCFU suggests. For the Kebu, for instance, speeches and other information at public and official events are usually in Alur; for the Ik in Nga’karimojong or other languages.

CCFU suggests that representatives from ethnic minorities need to be invited at national forums to publicise their culture across the nation “so that we all act on their concerns, respect their cultural values and freedom of expression, in equality with all other communities.”

The BACDET vice chairman, Mr Wilson Kasumba Adyeri Kabengo, clearly states that the cultural values and beliefs of the Banyabindi are different from those of the Bakonzo.

“We (the Banyabindi) extract the four lower teeth as a cultural norm. Our women cut engondo (tattoos) on the stomach and not in the face. Our languages and dances are different; we have the Orunyege traditional dance while the Bakonzo perform Ekikibi. We have Empaako (pet names) such as Adyeri, Amooti, Akiiki and Apuuli. We used to marry with six cows as a bride price but due to lack of resources, we now pay six goats if one can’t afford cows,” Kabengo notes.

Despite the hard times, the Basongora have adhered to their cultural norms expressed through, for instance, their distinctive dressing style and their musical instrument, the enanga, only played by women. Marriage (Okusweera) among the Basongora is transacted by giving bride price in the form of cattle, never goats.

“We, the Busongora are identified through our language (Rusongora), way of life, dressing, marriage (for example, we marry with cows as bride price, while the Bakonzo marry with goats), we live in low lands, and in the past we drunk milk and eat blood,” Mr Byabasaija notes.

Mr Daniel Imara Kashagama, a senior official in Busongora kingdom, sums up their predicament as: “We live in a state of genocide and physical extermination. We have rights which others should respect.

Is it legitimate to kill somebody because he or she is a Musongora? When our people fall sick, they either go to Fort Portal or Mbarara towns to avoid being ostracised by health workers from the majority community. These problems can only be addressed if we can have our own district.”

CCFU observes that with changing modes of life, cultural knowledge, skills, beliefs, values and ways of life that reflect positive aspects of the rich and diverse heritage, some ethnic minority groups are at risk and require urgent safeguarding.

The threatened cultural heritage that ethnic minorities wish to preserve takes different forms. For the Babwisi, Bamba and Bavonoma, for instance, dances, such as luma and balimu, are an important way to express cultural identity. For the Kebu, iron-smelting has long been a matter of pride.

Perhaps most important, ethnic minorities decry the loss of cultural norms, values and customs such as the mode of greeting, the values of respect, especially for elders and in-laws, and of hospitality. Conflict resolution, mediation and reconciliation mechanisms are other examples.

Rescue efforts
“Documenting and raising awareness of the significance of one’s cultural heritage – history, practices, values and norms, traditional foods, modes of expression, knowledge of the universe and worldview, among others – is essential for its preservation and promotion,” CCFU concludes.

At the UN World Summit in New York, USA in September 2005, world leaders unanimously agreed that “the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities contribute to political and social stability and peace and enrich the cultural diversity and heritage of society.”

The Banyabindi Vs the Basongora

The Banyabindi. The recent population figures put the Banyabindi between 14,000 and 16,000 people and are among the 15 minority ethnic groups in Uganda with a population below 25,000.

They are a Runyakitara speaking community who, for centuries, occupied the lowlands and plains of Busongora, now Kasese District. They are cultivators and keep a few cattle. Some supplement their income by fishing and collecting salt from Lake Katwe.

The Banyabindi have been affected by civil strife, which has forced them to flee from their land. They cherish their language, Runyabindi, both to communicate among themselves and to the larger Runyakitara language group.

In spite of this, some Banyabindi have resorted to speaking Lhukonzo as a means of protection and to avoid victimisation in case of renewed strife between the Bakonzo and the Batooro, to whom the Banyabindi feel close. This may partly explain why there is lack of published Runyabindi literature.

The Basongora. These number about 10,000, although some estimates put their numbers at close to 50,000. They are a pastoralist community that has lived a nomadic lifestyle for generations. They mostly live in the plains of Kasese District, next to the Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda.

Their language (Rusongora) is different from that of their neighbours, the Banyabindi and the Bakonzo. It is neither written nor taught in schools. Church services are routinely conducted in Runyakitara and, in the process, this alters Rusongora.

The fate of minority groups in Africa

Like their counterparts in Uganda, minority communities in Africa have been forced off their ancestral lands, excluded from social services, disproportionately exposed to hatred and targeted violence, and bear the biggest burden of conflicts on the continent.

Of the world’s 101 million children out of school, between 50 and 70 per cent are from minorities or indigenous peoples, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) notes in its State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 report, which details how minority and indigenous children have been systematically excluded, discriminated against, or are too poor to afford an education.

In developing countries with the largest number of children out of school, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, minority and indigenous populations enjoy far less access to schooling than majority groups. In Central Africa, the great majority of indigenous Batwa and Baka have not had access even to primary education.
According to the 2009 MRG report, the most discriminated against of all tend to be poor girls living in poor families in rural areas who belong to a minority community.

The State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 report presents a global picture of the health inequalities experienced by minorities and indigenous communities.

The report finds that minorities and indigenous peoples suffer more ill-health and receive poorer quality of care. It says ill-health and poor healthcare are often consequences of discrimination.

According to the State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014, across the world, minorities and indigenous people are disproportionately exposed to hatred.

From intimidation and verbal abuse to targeted violence and mass killing, this hatred often reflects and reinforces existing patterns of exclusion. The impact also extends beyond the immediate effects on individual victims to affect entire communities – in the process further marginalising them from basic services, participation and other rights.

In South Sudan, for example, inter-ethnic violence and hate speech continued to feed off a civil conflict that by January 2014 had displaced an estimated 335,000 civilians internally, with another 78,000 having fled the country.

In Kenya, following an attack by al-Shabaab militants on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan-Somali community reported increasing incidents of hate speech from other Kenyans and increased harassment from authorities. Away from Nairobi central business district, encouraged in part by hate speech and rumours, Pokomo and Orma communities engaged in bloody revenge attacks at the start of the year.

The impact of hatred may extend beyond discrimination to more visible extremes. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 40 armed groups operate, ethnic discrimination and hatred continue to fuel civil conflicts, including high levels of sexual violence that benefit or enrich particular groups.

Elsewhere in the region, minority and indigenous communities have been targeted as part of government security crackdowns. In Mali, French intervention at the start of the year against Islamist militants was successful, but security forces in the aftermath have been accused of targeting Arabs, Tuaregs and Peuhl in reprisal attacks.

According to the State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 report, a decade into the new century sees religious minorities confronting serious violations of their rights around the globe. Following the violent attacks of September 11, 2001, governments of every political hue have used “war on terror” rhetoric to justify the repression of religious communities.

Other religious minorities have faced a violent backlash, often unjustly accused of siding with belligerents. In Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, armed conflict and land seizures have forced minority and indigenous communities away from locations central to their religious beliefs.