Integrated Regional Information Networks - January 26, 2012
BUNDIMASOLI - The marginalized western Ugandan Basua community is
fighting extinction; forcibly removed from their forest home two
decades ago, they have struggled to cope with modern life and
have been ravaged by health crises, including HIV.
Uganda has two indigenous forest communities - the Batwa people
of the southwest, a larger group originally from Rwanda and
Burundi, and the Basua in the west who came from the neighbouring
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Already marginalized for
their short stature and for being traditional forest dwellers,
the Basua have continued to receive less assistance than the
Batwa because they are more geographically isolated and have a
smaller population, numbering just 100.
Western Uganda's Semliki Forest - the historical home of the
Basua - became a National Park in 1993, and as a result, the
community has lost its hunter-gatherer existence; they now have
to request permission to fish and collect medicinal herbs and
firewood, and are forbidden from hunting.
The Basua have been moved around ever since, most recently to a
village outside the small trading town of Bundimasoli in 2007,
after a local NGO won a grant from the European Union to build a
village for them, but the project collapsed under corruption
allegations before it was completed. The community still has no
clear rights to the land where it was resettled, and struggles to
access basic services such as clean drinking water and
"Imagine someone is used to maybe going to the office, working,
making phone calls, going to the ATM, withdrawing money... then
you dump them in the forest instead," said Fred Lulinaki, a
programme director at the East and Central Africa Association for
Indigenous Rights (ECAAIR). "If they survive, it will be just by
Some Basua men and women find casual jobs such as hauling wood,
but most sit around the village with nothing to do. Some have
turned to alcohol. Of the 40 children, Lulinaki said only two
attend school, either because they are orphaned or their parents
cannot afford the cost of pens and school fees. Fifteen of the
community's children are orphans.
Ezekiel Mugisa, local coordinator of the Organisation for the
Survival of the Basua (OSIBA), said the first documented case of
HIV among them was in 1985, but the virus really established a
foothold when the Allied Democratic Forces - a Ugandan rebel
group - launched a movement to overthrow the Ugandan government
for the DRC in the mid-1990s. The Ugandan troops sent to fight
the insurgents set up camp near the Basuas' home; soldiers and
suppliers offered money and goods in exchange for sex with Basua
women, or raped them.
Rumours have long circulated in Uganda that sex with Basua women
cured back pain and HIV. Stan Frankland, an anthropologist at
Scotland's University of St Andrews, has been working with and
advocating for the community since he first visited them as a
tourist in 1990. He helped establish OSIBA.
Frankland said the myths stemmed from a belief that as forest
dwellers, the Basua "have some spiritual aspect to them. That
they're not fully human... they might transmit this power."
Even with the troops gone and education campaigns debunking
supposed AIDS cures, transactional sex remains common. For many
women, it is the only viable way of supporting themselves. HIV is
a secondary concern to getting enough to eat.
There are no official statistics on HIV prevalence among the
Basua, but those who do know they are HIV-positive have limited
access to, or knowledge about, treatment. Since Save the Children
pulled out recently, the nearest source of treatment is a health
centre 20km away - few of the Basua can afford the transport
costs. Even when they did have access to ARVs, there was no
formal process to teach people why the drugs were important or
how to take and store them. Instead, many would trade the drugs
for food, according to Mugisa.
"The [Basua] are dying," said Basua King Geoffrey Nzito, who had
just concluded a burial ceremony. "I want people to join hands so
at least they can come to a solution that is good for us."
The Basuas' situation mirrors the problems indigenous groups
around the world are facing, says Rebecca Adamson, president and
founder of First Peoples Worldwide (FPW), a group that makes
small, direct grants to indigenous groups to help carry out
livelihood projects that they design and develop.
Adamson said she had seen many indigenous groups kicked off land
they had lived on and cultivated for hundreds of years, so that
governments and companies could access it for mining, industry or
tourism. Once they are displaced, there is little funding to help
the groups integrate into life outside the forests.
The funding that exists is often driven by NGOs without the input
of the indigenous people, so they "remain at the whims of what
western society wants for them instead of what they want for
themselves", she said.
Adamson is afraid that "we will be seeing large-scale extinction
of certain groups" like the Basua.
ECAAIR is seeking funding to launch livelihood projects for the
Basua community that build on the skills they have from life in
the forest - fishing, bee-keeping, growing garlic - and turning
them into sustainable businesses. As they wait for funding,
association members have already started teaching basic
bookkeeping classes to the community.
"This skills training is aimed at reducing vulnerability and
dependence, which will also reduce the HIV and AIDS," Lulinaki
Frankland is also encouraging the community to be more active
about protecting their health. In December he led a discussion
about the dangers of transactional sex. The lesson seems to have
stuck. Since the beginning of the year, Nzito said he and other
members of the community have been driving away the men who come
at night seeking out Basua women.
It is a small step, but the community also urgently requires
access to HIV treatment and education; other health crises -
mainly malnutrition and untreated malaria - are also affecting
Frankland said the Basua acknowledged their fear that the
community would soon die out. "There are only 100 of them. If you
can't save 100 people, how are you going to make it work on a