Uganda's first Batwa pygmy graduate

Alice Nyamihanda talks about her university experience

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Twenty-two-year-old Alice Nyamihanda is the pride of her community of former Batwa pygmy forest-dwellers in Uganda.

Her facial features reveal her origins, but her Western dress-sense and clarity of spoken English suggest she will pursue quite a different path to her fellow Batwa.

Start Quote

We can neither live in our original habitat nor are we are allowed to have our own land”

End Quote Kanyabikingi Batwa tourist guide

"I feel great because I am educated - when they chased us from the forest we were afraid, and we didn't have a chance to go back. Now I want to work for my people."

Like many other Ugandans in their 20s, Ms Nyamihanda will graduate from university this week; but unlike anyone else her origins lie deep in a forest where Uganda meets Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, now known as Mgahinga Gorilla Park.

Ms Nyamihanda is one of only a few thousand remaining Batwa pygmies in Uganda, and the first ever to return to her impoverished native community with a university diploma.

Landless squatters

The Batwa are some of the most marginalised people in Africa, evicted from their ancestral land in 1991 when the forests became national parks for gorilla conservation.

Facts on the Batwa

Batwa people of Uganda
  • They are a minority numerically and politically, making up between 0.02% and 0.7% of the population in the countries where they live
  • Child mortality: 38% of Batwa children die under the age of five, compared with a Ugandan average of 18%
  • Life expectancy: 28, compared with a Ugandan average of 53
  • Average annual income: $25, compared with a Ugandan average of $420
  • Literacy rates: Less than 0.5% of the Batwa population has a full secondary education, compared with 15% of Ugandans

Sources: Batwa Development Program Study, UN, World Bank, Minority Rights Groups International

They can now be found on the outskirts of national park boundaries living in plastic-sheeted squalor, often inebriated.

In common with many other indigenous groups around the world, the Batwa people are traditional hunter-gatherers who have struggled to cope with life in the 21st Century.

Their population numbers have dropped dramatically, and since their eviction from the forest they have broadly been reduced to the status of landless squatters.

Unable to adapt, many violate the park rules by illegally poaching animals in the forest. They are, though, allowed to enter their former habitat to gather berries and small plants for herbal medicine - a key aspect of their ancient heritage.

It is difficult to guess his age, but Kanyabikingi has a face weathered by his way of life.

He now guides curious tourists on walking tours to demonstrate the lost life he once lived in the forest. Like most other Batwa, he communicates with me in his native language through an interpreter.

"There is no life for us inside or outside the forest. We can neither live in our original habitat nor are we are allowed to have our own land."

Basic survival has been a struggle for the last 20 years, and education has not been a priority for the Batwa.

Now, as part of a community that has long feared the world outside the forest, Alice is leading the way in her efforts to embrace it.

But the path has been precarious: Since childhood Ms Nyamihanda has constantly relied on the benevolence of non-governmental organisations to carry her through each academic year.

"I finished my primary education and I performed well - but my family could not afford secondary school fees. I had no uniform, books, clothes or even food to eat," she says.

Escape-route

Education is valued highly among Ugandans.

Start Quote

I am proud of my education, but I am not proud to be Batwa because they have lost their culture - the culture has gone”

End Quote Alice Nyamihanda

The country is on track to meet its UN Millennium Development Goal - to ensure that by 2015, all children will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. To achieve this, President Yoweri Museveni introduced free primary education in 1997.

Ms Nyamihanda was not a beneficiary of this policy, but the importance she places on education as the escape-route from poverty reflects an outlook shared by many Ugandans.

"After my studies - I have to help my people, I want to encourage other Batwa children to go to school," she says.

"You see, if someone is educated, you can work in an office and get money."

Ms Nyamihanda joined Bugema University on the outskirts of Kampala in 2008 and is now graduating with a diploma in development studies - a subject with very real relevance to her life.

"I chose development studies because when you are developed you can actually do something," she says.

Her plan now is to return to her village to seek professional employment in larger nearby towns - but this will not be her first experience of the working world.

"When I was nine my father died.

"There were eight members in my family so I had to work in someone's home to earn enough money to feed the family."

Hope

Henry Neza from the United Organisation for Batwa Development (UOBDU) works closely with the indigenous group. There is currently not a single person from the Batwa community working for the organisation.

Batwa women outside a house The rich heritage of Alice Nyamihanda's forefathers has almost vanished

He says Ms Nyamihanda's achievement is a small step forward for the forest people.

"It is our intention that the Batwa people can one day be educated enough to manage themselves - and they can begin to represent and support themselves."

It may seem unfair that some of the last people to live so close to nature are being confronted with the demands of the modern world.

But if the Batwa people are going to survive, then Ms Nyamihanda's example may provide their only hope.

She symbolises the rapid shift towards development which this marginalised community has resisted so hard. And it is clear she believes education is the only way forward.

I ask Ms Nyamihanda whether she feels proud of her origins.

"I am proud of my education, but I am not proud to be Batwa because they have lost their culture - the culture has gone," she says.

The low-impact use of forest resources meant the Batwa way of life was sustainable over thousands of years.

In today's world of climate change, there is perhaps some wisdom to be drawn from these ancient tribes.

But the rich heritage of her forefathers has almost vanished - and it seems Ms Nyamihanda and her generation would now be as lost in the forest as anyone else.

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