Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Batwa Pygmies of Kigali

Today was a day I doubt I'll ever forget. Nell arranged for us to go visit a Batwa village just outside Kigali with a friend of hers, Dr Karl Weyrauch of the Pygmy Survival Alliance. The Batwa are another ethnic group existing across Africa, but in far fewer numbers than the Tutsi and Hutus of Rwanda, accounting for about 1% of the population. They were traditionally a hunter gatherer people but have been pushed out of their land by the more dominant Hutus and Tutsis and now live in poverty on the land that noone else wants, scattered across the country.

Dr Karl, a Seattle native, has been working with one specific village near Kigali for about a year and half in cooperation with some local groups. The village of 140 is on the outskirts of Kigali, balanced on the side of a steep hill, on land that is hard to live on and even harder to farm. The people are traditionally nomadic, so their housing has always been temporary, consisting of leaf and branch huts spread in familial groups. Without water, sewage or electricity, the people have been at the edge of survival for hundreds of years, the marginalized of the marginalized.

Seeing the degree of progress that has been made in the village in 18 months by just a few volunteers and pittance of money is incredible. But perhaps the most impressive thing of all is seeing how the aid was administered, not just how much thought had gone into implementing it, but that the wisdom of the villagers themselves was always respected, used to maximize the effect of any help.

It is almost too daunting to record how much has been done, but I would be remiss to not include some highlights and their effects. One of the first requests from the villagers was to supply the villagers with shoes or sandals. Rwanda has a strong culture of footwear as a status symbol, and the Batwa were constantly ostracized for not being able to afford any. This would cause the children to be unable to attend school because of ridicule, the mothers unwilling to go to health clinics for fear of heckling. A few suitcases of shoes changed all that. Suddenly the kids could attend school (a few are now at the top of their class) and the villagers would be able to interact in the larger Rwandan world without ridicule. Of course health care was necessary as well, so purchasing basic plans was also at the top of the list, but again for a cost ridiculously low, $1 a month.

So many of these problems are ones that exist purely from having to spend all of one's energy just to survive, either working for a few francs as a day laborer or trying your best to farm from the rocky soil. As such, the people knew some things were needed, latrines, some kind of well, but just lacked the food stores to be able to dedicate the manpower to build them. Here, all it took was a bag of rice and flour to feed the village for a week with the promise to build a well during that time. A simple solution, one that empowers the villagers, but supremely effective as clean water and sanitation dramatically decrease the spread of disease and infection.

Of course direct health care is sometimes required as well, but Dr Karl emphasized that by and large cheap and simple antibiotics worked wonders in the vast majority of cases. Infections of one kind or another were common, but easily taken care of, and as the education of how to deal with open wounds continues likely to become less common.

Other solutions were ones of expertise. When we were there today, the villagers were spreading 10 tons of manure (at the cost of $10) on newly built terraces they were shown how to build. Terracing isn't a miracle cure for the rocky red soil they have, but it should help the soil retain more of it's nutrients and again sets the villagers on a path of self determination where just basic survival isn't in jeopardy.

But the most amazing thing of all of our time there was the people. Huge smiles and handshakes, laughing all day long, at the impossibly tall muzungu ('white person') or just at jokes they made which we didn't understand but were infectious regardless. This might be a people on the edge of extinction, but their spirit has never been higher, undoubtedly largely because they have been shown someone cares, but more importantly that they themselves are changing their situation for the better, that they are far better off now than they were a year ago, and will be even more so a year from now.

To that, Dr Karl deserves an incredible amount of credit. His approach is so spot on, always sensitive not to create dependence, but rather independence through his aid. That by enabling the villagers to solve their own problems, he is empowering them as well, giving them not just the means for survival but the pride that comes with surviving on your own terms. And this he does not via some huge organization, or with a giant budget, but solely through volunteers, doctors, engineers, paying their own way to give a helping hand and getting much in return through the experience. This combined with the simplicity and effectiveness of his solutions means his budget last year was less than $10,000. Think of that! $10,000 to help a village make incredible steps towards health and independence. It just blows your mind, I just can't get over it.

After instructing the villagers on the use of the manure, they then did some basic health work, administering deworming medicine, attending to any medical issues and weighing and measuring the children's growth. All the while the people still smiling, always appreciative, patient and ever so grateful.

Finally, before we left some of them gathered into a group to sing to us. As soon as they began it sent shivers down your spine, a dozen of them singing in harmony with a kind of energy that exudes a happiness, a sheer joy that made you almost jealous. I can't even explain how moving it was as they sang a traditional wedding song the main chorus apparently meaning 'though we will grow old and hunched over, in heaven we will stand tall'. It was, in short, just incredible.

Dr Karl's organization, the Pygmy Survival Alliance, which he has organized to help spread his program to other Batwa villages will soon be getting it's 501c3 status. If you ever donate, perhaps especially if you never donate, I cannot recommend doing so to his organization any more strongly. He is implementing common sense solutions for a minimal cost that are doing incredible things rebuilding these people not just physically but spiritually as well.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible.. great video Nic. Seems like you found the right person to meet there in Dr. Karl. It's really encouraging to hear what anyone can do with such a small amount of capital.