After decades of living in the shadows of a country they have known as their home, the Maragoli people, a minority group, will soon be recognised among the 65 indigenous Ugandan communities in the proposed amendment of Uganda’s 1995 Constitution.
The actual number of Maragoli in Uganda is not readily available rather than being considered under ‘others’ in the two most recent Ugandan censuses, according to Minority Rights Group International (MGR).
Leaders from Kiryandongo District and the community in Bunyoro sub-region, mid-western Uganda estimate the Maragoli population to be between 25,000 and 30,000.
Majority of Maragoli are found in Kiryandongo District and basically occupy at least a parish comprised of two to three villages.
Some are scattered within Kigumba, the main town council for Kiryandongo District.
According to MRG, Maragoli have lived in Uganda for more than a century and until recently they had experienced few serious problems either with the communities they settled in or with the government. Although they were absent from the national schedule in the 1995 Constitution and the amended schedule in the 2005 constitutional amendment that list the tribes of Uganda, they continued to enjoy the same rights as other citizens.
The current difficulties of the Maragoli community began in 2015 when the government introduced a mass national registration of Ugandan citizens and issued each person a national identification card under a newly constituted National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA).
It is at this point that the Maragoli for the first time were put at risk of statelessness due to the withholding of their identity cards, MRG observes.
In 2017, NIRA held onto 15,000 national identity cards of members of the Maragoli on grounds that they are not a recognised tribe in Uganda.
In August 2020, the outgoing Kibanda South MP in Kiryandongo District Jack Odur Lutanywa tabled before Parliament a private member Constitutional Amendment Bill No 20, 2020, seeking the recognition of the Maragoli as one of the indigenous tribes in Uganda.
The objective of the Bill is to amend the Third Schedule of the Constitution to include the Maragoli, who settled in Uganda in the 18th Century, as one of Uganda’s indigenous communities as at February 1, 1926.
The Third Schedule to the Constitution provides a list of 65 indigenous communities whose members qualify for citizenship by birth because such communities were living in Uganda as of February 1, 1926.
Lutanywa argued that since the Maragoli were in the country before February 1926 when Uganda was created, they deserve to be recognised as indigenous.
He noted that the Maragoli people have since the 1990s sought for the inclusion in the Constitution through petitions to Parliament, ministers, different department ministries and President Museveni, all in vain.
“Of recent our biggest challenge has been the lack of national identity cards. Without an identity card, you cannot get treatment at a government hospital, your children cannot benefit from free education, you cannot apply for a passport or driving permit. You cannot stand for any political leadership position; open a bank account and SIM card registration. This is because we are not recognised in the Constitution as a tribe,” Mr Aggrey Anyamba, a 56-year-old primary school teacher, told Sunday Monitor in Kigumba.
“Our children have not been able to further their education in higher institutions of learning because our tribe is not recognised. We have no future. In case you have a piece of land you can’t lease it,”Anyamba adds.
Jacob Kato, a 43-year-old farmer, says: “We cannot start businesses here because we do not have national identity cards. This means we also can’t access credit from financial institution.”
Edisa Namaji, 50, says the Marogoli suffer various forms of discrimination including being abandoned by their husbands of other tribes.
“When a Murogoli woman gets married to a man outside her tribe she is not worthy of a wife. Men from different tribes always abandon us. For instance,my Acholi husband left me and I am now suffering with our children. He married his tribemate in Gulu District,” the mother of five laments.
She adds: “I cannot register my children for national identity cards because I am not recognised. If I am recognised in the Constitution I will then have a voice to talk about my aspirations and challenges.”
Government has announced plans to establish a constitutional review commission to, among others, address objectives set out in three private members’ Bills aimed at altering governance of the Central Bank, recognise the Maragoli community and ensure equitable distribution of employment opportunities.
The government had set a timeframe for establishing the commission before the end of the 10th Parliament in May 2021. According to MRG, the origins of the Maragoli people in Uganda are not recorded in detail in historical sources.
MRG says the Maragoli may have come from Ethiopia through southern Sudan to the southern part of West Nile and Bunyoro sub-regions.
But Mr Christopher Kagunza, the chairman of the Maragoli Community Association, says: “We migrated from Saudi Arabia in the 18th Century and some of us settled in Hoima while others went to Masindi, Kigumba and Bugiri. The last group settled in western Kenya.”
Mr Kagunza adds that in 1903, some of the skilled Maragoli in Kenya were recruited to work on the Uganda Railway and thereafter settled in Kigumba.
“In the 1920s, the British Colonial Government under its Uganda Development Plan signed an agreement with Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom to settle the Maragoli people from Kenya in Bunyoro. This was after Omukama (King) Sir Tito Winyi IV Gafabusa of Bunyoro Kitara (1924 - 1967) had seen our agricultural productive potential. He had identified the Maragoli people as good farmers of maize, cotton, beans, cassava and millet in his kingdom,” Kagunza explains.
Mr Moses Sagwa, the 50-year-old farmer and pastor, says the 1920s group came with the Bible and spread the gospel in the region.
“Many of us are Pentecostals and farmers in this region. We were accepted here because of our good neighbourliness and brotherhood,” Sagwa says.
Mr Anyamba says the Maragoli community has played a big role in agriculture which has eventually led to the development and growth of towns like Kigumba.
“We have participated in the social-economic development of the country like paying taxes and other national activities,” he says.
However, Mr Anyamba reveals that because of stigmatisation and marginalization some of their people, especially the youth don’t want to be identified as Maragoli.
“Three of my daughters were forced to adopt Kinyoro names in order to join primary school. Being recognised by the Constitution will liberate. No body will underrating the Maragoli because we shall all be equal in the Constitution. We shall be free of any form of intimidation and access all national services,” Kagunza said.
On his part Sagwa, says, “Our children will be able to access education and bursaries. We shall be able to lease our land and stand for any political leadership positions in the country.”
The Maragoli, who speak a language known as Lugoli, initially practiced polygamy and widow inheritance but this has since changed.
Maragoli elder Luka Mudolya, says: “We have been practicing polygamy and wife inheritance but the HIV/Aids scourge coupled with the current high cost of living has limited these practices in many ways.”
The secretary of the Maragoli Community Association, Mr David Ndoli, says his community still practices male circumcision known as kekebo in Lugoli.
“We still carry out male circumcision and that ritual is our key cultural practice which is accompanied by dance and other events. We don’t marry with goats but with cows. We have a very rich culture,” he boasts.
On the issue of recognising the Maragoli in the Constitution, the Kampala-based Africa regional manager, MRG Africa, Ms Agnes Kabajuni, says recognition will help Maragoli claim their cultural identity and improve their self-esteem.
“It will strengthen their citizenship as a people who are currently at risk of statelessness. They will be able to obtain legal documentation such as national identity cards and passports not as other tribes, but in their own indigenous group. Legal documents are also linked to access to services, education and employment opportunities. It will help the government fulfil their international obligation to eradicate risks of statelessness in Uganda,” Ms Kabajuni says.
As to whether it would not have been better to recognise all the minority tribes in Uganda in the constitutional amendment at ago rather than acknowledging one at a time, Ms Kabajuni, says: “It would have been better to have one Bill. The opportunity of having a Bill on the inclusion of indigenous communities should help the government consider other communities missing in the Third Schedule of the Constitution.”
Ms Kabajuni adds that although the Maragoli issue was brought into the limelight because of the denial of national identity cards, there are other communities who are silently bearing the impact of lack of recognition.
These she said include the Benet in Kween and Bukwo, Bagabo and Bacingwe in Kasese.
Although Uganda has 21 ethnic minorities with a population of three million, the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) observes that they hardly feature in any national political or cultural discourses.
“Uganda is a diverse nation, in terms of ethnicity, religion, political affiliation and other ways too. Our Constitution recognises the existence of 65 ‘indigenous communities.’ Some of the larger ethnic groups – the Baganda and the Acholi, the Bakiga and the Karimojong, the Banyankole and Teso – will immediately come to our minds and, in all likelihood, we may belong to such a group,” the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) writes in the Introduction Speaking Out- a book about the creative writing by Uganda’s ethnic minority groups published in 2015 by Fountain Publishers.
“Our nation, however, also includes smaller ethnic communities, all those we do not often hear about, unless we belong to the 1 per cent of the national population they represent. There are 15 groups with fewer than 25,000 people – the Bavanoma and the Napore, the Benet and the Ik, the Ethur and the Bahehe, and nine other ethnic minority groups, representing almost 200, 000 fellow citizens,” CCFU adds.
“Yet, because of history, small numbers, marginalisation, prejudice and stereotypes on the part of the more numerous Ugandan communities, these ethnic minorities rarely occupy the entire stage. 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,” CCFU observes.
Some of the other ethnic minority groups in Uganda are Babukusu, Babwisi, Bamba, Banyabindi, Basongora, Kebu, Lendu, Nubi, and Paluo (also known as Chope, Tepeth, Banyara, Batuku, Batwa, Dodoth, Mening, Jie, Mvuba, Nyangia, Bagwe, Bagungu, Bakenyi, Ngikutio, Basese, and Bagangaizi.
Ethnic minority groups are located in remote areas, underserved (limited access to basic services) and thus most live in extreme marginalisation and poverty, Kabajuni observes.
“Because of their smallness in number, they are structurally left behind in development process. Government programmes are likely not to adequately reach them because they are missing in decision-making processes as result of lack of representation. Take an example of the Batwa community. After losing their ancestral territorial claim over forests where they lived which are now gazetted parks, they are scattered all over Kigezi Region and cannot form a constituency for political representation and participation and that plays out throughout other decision making levels,” Ms Kabajuni says.
She adds: “They are the least educated, so they cannot compete for job opportunities at district levels and even if they were educated, their minority status disadvantages them. In situation where minority communities have districts of their own the situation might be slightly better at the local government levels.”
Ms Kabajuni says education is one of biggest asset that have moved Ugandan society up the social and economic strata.
“Most ethnic minority communities do not access, afford or benefit from equal, quality and appropriate education. Whereas this is true of other marginalised communities, lack of education has maintained the low status of ethnic minorities.”
“Being located in hard to reach area, most ethnic minorities lack basic health care services. This situation may be the same for all other marginalised communities, but for ethnic minorities it has been made worse because of the level of exclusion they face,” she adds.
According to Kabajuni, poverty is another problem that is endemic to ethnic minorities in Uganda.
“Land is capital. A score of ethnic minorities such as the Benet, the Ik, and the Batwa have lost their ancestral lands due to conservation. They were never consulted, they never consented and they were either not compensated or were inadequately compensated. This has left them vulnerable resulting from lack of means of production and dependent on neighbouring dominating communities, exacerbating discrimination which has affected their income levels.”
“Lack of adequate laws and policies that protect ethnic minorities in this country to ensure inclusion in development processes and affirmative action has left minorities behind. Though the Land Policy of 2013 recognises ethnic minority vulnerable situation and directs government to take measures to correct the situation, enforcement is lacking and more enabling policy framework needs to be done to increase their protection. Policies on land use, management and ownership at the moment fail to align with the ethnic minority way of life,” Kabajuni says.