Providing Hope to Conservation Refugees in Uganda – (Read Time: 4 min.)
Nyirabaza winds the long golden grass firmly into place and carefully inspects her workmanship. Two weeks have passed since she gathered her bundles of tall grasses for weaving and bowls of crushed leaves for mixing her shadow-black dyes. She wonders what this nesting basket will hold.
Whatever it becomes, this basket will always hold a part of her heritage, a skill passed down through generations of ancient artisans. As the soft silky grass glides between her fingers, the earthy fragrance reminds her of her homeland in Uganda where it still grows wild.
The ancient rainforest was once a haven of shelter and freedom for her people, the Batwa. For thousands of years, these “Keepers of the Forest” foraged and lived peacefully among the native plants and wild animals, never lacking shelter, food, or water. Their women often handcrafted baskets like Nyirabaza’s to store their plentiful resources. Now Nyirabaza weaves these same baskets hoping they will save her children from homelessness and starvation.
When conservationists declared Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the Batwa’s beloved homeland, a preservation area for 350 endangered gorillas, Nyirabaza’s people were driven out of the forest and relocated to a foreign treeless land. Despised by their countrymen and lacking the agricultural skills needed to survive in this strange new landscape, many of her people perished from violence and starvation.
When Nyirabaza’s husband passed away, she desperately needed a way to provide food and shelter for her nine surviving children. Scared and still grieving the deaths of her husband and one of her ten children, she began selling her handcrafted baskets. But even with her artisan skills and experience, such complex and intricate workmanship requires two weeks to craft a single basket.
Local Ugandans don’t consider Batwa women worthy of homes or healthcare, much less a fair wage for their workmanship. Without fair wages, women like Nyirabaza are often forced to surrender their children to orphanages hoping someone else will be able to save them from homelessness and starvation.
Without fair wages, women like Nyirabaza are often forced to surrender their children to orphanages hoping someone else will be able to save them from homelessness and starvation.
Even the orphanages are not guaranteed safe havens for the 200 orphans in Nyirabaza’s community. The need for beds, food, and clothing continues to escalate as more and more Batwa parents become overwhelmed by poverty and discrimination that make it almost impossible to find employment.
The women and children must be constantly protected from physical and sexual assault by neighboring locals who despise the Batwa people. Added to the continuous threats of physical assault, the Batwa face daily humiliation and shame from their Ugandan countrymen who ban them from schools and medical facilities, dismissing them as “Land Squatters” and “Living Scarecrows”.
Resting for the first time all day, Nyirabaza is grateful she can afford to buy the lunch she almost forgot to eat. Her passionate commitment to “quality smart work” often causes her to lose track of time.
Surrounded by the laughter of her fellow artisans and conversations of children carrying jugs of fresh water down a nearby path, she feels hopeful for her family’s future.
Her skills as an artisan have sustained her family through many seasons of heartbreak and celebration.
Her four oldest children are now married and supporting themselves.
Her five younger children can finally attend school like other Ugandan children.
Nyirabaza’s local artisan community provides her children with bright clean uniforms and teachers who see the Batwa children as worthy investments of their time, wisdom, and resources.
Nyirabaza’s artisan community will soon begin to build huts for Batwa families, hoping the financial relief and stability of real permanent homes will help parents be able to keep their children.
Men and women will be trained to farm the surrounding land to provide their families with sustainable food.
Hopeful the huts will further strengthen the bonds of the already closely connected Batwa people, the community is working to build a new and promising heritage for the next generation.