by Eliza Smith
It was a specific moment in 2013, while attending a farmer club meeting in rural Kenya, that sparked my curiosity. Patrick Kiirya, the meeting facilitator, as well as minister for agriculture in the Busoga Kingdom in Uganda and an agroecology enthusiast, asked participants to perform a song about the value of trees as a meeting “energizer.” I thought this to be a rather challenging impromptu exercise and doubted there would be too many bold volunteers. To my surprise, almost all the fifteen people attending the meeting, men and women, stood in front of the group and delivered creative and heartfelt performances about trees. Some were traditional songs, others were made up on the spot. It was definitely a “TIA” or “This Is Africa” moment. Art and agriculture sit gloriously entwined in souls here.
I want to know more. I want to know whether harnessing this energy might help multiply the benefits for learning exchange in agroecology and biocultural resilience. What about flipped classrooms where song, dance, and theatrical spoken word are used to understand and memorize landscape and biological systems, while actually walking in them, like many oral traditions have always done? What about a new breed of agricultural show — harvest festivals where learning exchange takes place through practical workshops teaching old and new knowledge that is also celebrated through visual and performing arts? What about a new film genre that shares the stories and lessons of smallholder farmers? All this in order to shape the minds of the next generation of global changemakers working in their own communities for cultural, ecological, and economic sustainability.
The story of my interest in this issue begins in 2013 with my work in agricultural research for development in East Africa. I am a veterinary scientist by trade and work in livestock projects that seek to improve small-scale production for livelihoods and nutrition, as well as to minimize agriculture-related infectious diseases, which are common in resource-poor settings. During my time in Kenya, I had the opportunity to learn about the applications of agroecology. I completed an introductory design course with both local East African and international participants. The pioneers here, Kenyans Gai Cullen and Joseph Letenyoi, inspired me through stories of various ecological enterprises in their country. Beyond the course, I continue to have lively discussions with Patrick Kiirya about the potential for agritourism and “agrifestivals” in the region as part of what he describes as theater for development.
Fast forward to 2015, with the birth of my daughter. Since then, the concept and importance of retaining memory and learnings has become incredibly important to me, especially for the purpose of sharing knowledge so as to raise a resilient child. I have come to the sober realization that my own intelligence is defined by my ability to memorize and recall facts and figures that relate to my broad life sciences education. And now, as a thirty-three-year-old first-time mother, having spent the last couple of years struggling with sleep deprivation, postnatal depression, and yes, “baby brain,” I fear the apparent loss of swathes of once easily recalled information. So I was naturally drawn to the book “The Memory Code” about traditional Aboriginal memory techniques and ancient memory spaces the world over. This book has catalyzed my own investigation into how I might be able to use these concepts and experiences to teach my daughter about the biocultural diversity in her two homelands — Australia and Uganda — and also inform the development of “Arts for Agricultural Development” as a collaborative toolset for my work in sustainable agriculture, health, and livelihoods.
It’s now 2017. I am here with my daughter on the shores of the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi in the Kabale District of western Uganda, near the Rwanda border, to meet with some people who may just be interested in such an approach — the Batwa Pygmies. Traditionally hunters who had intimate knowledge of the plants and animals in their forest homelands, in the early 1990s they experienced forced translocation through government programs in the name of wildlife conservation. Earlier in the century, regional infighting in Rwanda resulted in mass migration to the Bunyonyi area. For decades now, they have been living here in unforested and overly cultivated islands that dot the lake. Sadly, they often conceal their cultural roots to avoid discrimination from the locally predominant Bakiga (Bantu) population, with whom they have a history of conflict. They make a living from small-scale agriculture and fishing and from singing, dancing, and making crafts for tourists.
Here’s how I made the connection with the Batwa. In 2014, I met the artist Arthur Conrad Kisitu in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. From Arthur, I learned about a different way of approaching life’s hurts and challenges: through dancing. His NdabaDance project seeks to show solidarity with and rehumanize those who are marginalized and face barriers to empowerment and connection with culture or environment. The project aims to tell stories of other cultures and traditions, and to give children an opportunity for intercultural exchange and for sharing their experiences — both good and bad. It is this approach that has led Arthur to document the plight of the Batwa more closely.
“In the last three years,” says Arthur, “I have been actively reaching out to the children in the Batwa community in Kabale. The Ekizino dance is one of the few things that are shared by the Bakiga and the minority Batwa. The only time the two communities mix harmoniously is when they do the traditional dance together. I have sought to use this for enhancing mutual understanding of the Batwa with their neighbors. While these relations are just one aspect of the challenges that remain, I have been documenting the day-to-day positive aspects of their life. Using music and dance for repairing relationships, promoting Batwa pride and involvement.”
Among other challenges that face the Batwa is the potential for a cycle of alcohol addiction and dependence on the tourist dollar. Arthur explains that in the last three years he has seen a change in the community. Where initially there were a number of members, including children and adult performers, who were more engaged and interested, he now finds people, including children as young as ten to twelve years, who will spend money on alcohol over food, become angered more easily, and demand payment before allowing him to document them.
I am also disturbed by the story I heard from my cousin and her husband of their experience meeting the Batwa in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southwestern Uganda — the forest home from which they were evicted in 1992, when the area was declared a park for the protection of endangered mountain gorillas. While watching the Batwa sing and dance, they couldn’t help but perceive how disconnected these people seemed to be from the dance. At the end, they communicated gratitude to the dance group and also remorse that they can no longer live in their traditional way. The Batwa appeared to respond emotionally and seemed thankful for the acknowledgment of their loss. No other tourist had done this before.
I ask Arthur for his thoughts on using visual art and performance not only as a form of inter-cultural dialogue but also as a medium through which agricultural teachings could be applied.
“Traditional folk music in Uganda,” he answers, “reflects a rich diversity of forms and styles steeped in Indigenous cultures that capture the soul of the country. Like in many parts of Uganda, drumming and dancing form a critical dialectic in Batwa social rituals, culture, and entertainment. Dance goes hand in hand with day-to-day activities. As the Batwa embrace their new role in farming, adapting to this new reality, it is only a matter of time before they begin combining their music and dance to the agricultural experience. This should be encouraged because that is how they learn and share generally.”
I am not sure whether this concept will resonate with the Batwa, but to find out I guess I have to start the conversation. So, with some trepidation, I begin with Habasa Anna, a Mutwa (Batwa) mother my same age. I am acutely aware of my own cultural projections and the potential for loss of meaning in translation. Arthur briefs me that the Habasa family is trying its best to make a living away from the tourist market. Anna looks after their three children, collects water daily, and tends to their garden growing mostly potatoes, beans, and some medicinal plants for when family members get fever. Habasa Ivan, her husband, spends long hours fishing for small fish and traveling the long distance to the market when there is big enough a catch. He also hunts the occasional small mammal that lives around the lake to take home for meat. For a man who lives with a painful disfiguring disease, he works hard for little reward, certainly not enough to pay for proper treatment for his condition. But he says he works to forget the pain and does not feel sorry for himself.
Arthur, Henry the interpreter, myself, and my daughter wait for three hours for the boat carrying the Habasa family to arrive. The last long boat rolls in, and I anxiously peer into the boat full of people staring back at me, wondering who Anna and Ivan might be. Only later when I examine the photos Arthur has taken of the boat’s arrival, do I see the similarly tense look of Ivan, the man hunched in a blue hooded jacket in the blearing heat of the day to hide the lumps that cover his body. Once we are settled down together, with Anna’s husband watching on without speaking, the conversation that ensues allows me to start assembling the pieces of the puzzle.
Anna describes the main challenges in her life as the family’s constant health concerns that she cannot access proper medical care to address. When asked if she ever thinks about wanting to go back to the old Batwa way of life in the forest, she says no, as she herself was born here and knows nothing different. She explains that her dream in life would be to become a tailor so that she could sell clothes at the market. She also says that she would like to learn to produce more crops, improve the rocky soil in her garden, and raise cows for milk consumption.
When I ask her about Batwa songs, she insists she can’t sing. Then, surprisingly, she breaks into a beautiful song about the journey of the Batwa and about being thankful despite the hardships. I notice her tearing up as she sings and get the sense that this woman endures a lot. She says she very much likes the idea of watching films to learn how to better her farming practice, even though she has never seen a film, but cannot afford to sing to learn about agriculture. A puzzling answer — for surely song was once integral to wider knowledge systems in Batwa culture. Perhaps song could once again play a very practical part in these people’s livelihood? Might art, gloriously entwined with agriculture, help the Batwa pursue new learnings about cultivation of plants and animals for a new way of life, enriched with memories of bioculture in their old way of life?
The interview ends with Anna graciously welcoming me to stay with her in her home for a while. I imagine the challenges of such a venture with a 21-month-old toddler but am excited at the prospect of a learning exchange in pursuit of finding out what role art has for agriculture in her community. So I make a promise to keep the communication line open with Anna and work towards starting this journey in person with her in 2018.
Eliza Smith is a veterinary scientist whose interests lie in knowledge systems for agriculture, health, and livelihoods in the global development sector. She works as communications manager for the Kyeema Foundation, an organization that promotes local partnerships to improve living standards of vulnerable communities. Eliza calls East Africa home.
View a short film by Arthur Conrad Kisitu on the meeting between Anna and Eliza at Lake Bunyonyi in Kabale District, Uganda.
Kelly, L. (2016). The Memory Code: The Traditional Aboriginal Memory Technique that Unlocks the Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and Ancient Monuments the World Over. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Kyeema Foundation. (n.d.). Kyeema Foundation. Retrieved from www.kyeemafoundation.org
NdabaDance. (n.d.). NdabaDance — The Project. Retrieved from www.ndabadance.com