The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

On 11th August 2020, representatives of Indigenous Minority Groups in Uganda are joined by representatives of civil society organisations, Government and the media to commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on the theme ‘COVID 19 and Indigenous Peoples’ Resilience’. As we commemorate this day, it is important that we safeguard their rights (including cultural rights) and facilitate their access to essential social services and livelihoods.

In April 2020, the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) and representatives from 18 Uganda indigenous minority groups (IMGs) – the Ik, Mening, Nyangia, Napore, Ngokutio and Tepeth in Karamoja; the Lendu and Kebu in West Nile; and the Bagungu, Batuku, Bamba, Babwisi, Bavanoma, Batwa, Basongora, Banyabindi, Bagabo and Bacingwe in Western Uganda conducted a study to ascertain the impact of COVID 19 on their health, cultural rights, livelihood and education.

This was meant to help advocate for support from the relevant COVID 19 District Task Forces and other development partners, who are responsible for providing material support to communities and for monitoring their use.

The impact of COVID 19 on Indigenous Minority Groups in Uganda

As Uganda responds to this rapidly evolving pandemic, and in view of the pre-existing living conditions of IMGs, these groups now face the consequences of double discrimination – arising from these pre-existing conditions, and now aggravated by poor access to COVID-19-related services.

Distribution of food items. The government has undertaken a relief programme that involves the distribution of food items, starting with vulnerable people in the urban centres and subsequent roll-out to other districts. By the end of July 2020, the State had not distributed food to IMGs. Yet several IMGs already face food insecurity, as a result of the loss of their traditional land, occupations and ways of life. Only well wishers have distributed to some of the IMG communities.

Language and access to information. Most public communication on COVID-related matters is made in English and/or the language of the dominant ethnic group where IMGs reside. Certain categories of people within IMGs (especially women and elders) have consequently been excluded from receiving this information. Ngakarimojong, the dominant language in Karamoja is for instance used to reach out to several IMGs in the region including the Napore, Nyangiya, Ngokutio, Ik and the Tepeth. In the Rwenzori region, Kwamba, the language of the Bamba (an IMG) is used as a medium of communication to the other IMGs in the region, including the Batwa, Babwisi and Bavanoma. Furthermore, public health communications and security regulations have been widely delivered through radios, television, posters and on social media platforms, yet few of the IMGs are able to access these messages through such channels, as most of them live in remote areas and do not possess the necessary communication tools.

Traditional ceremonies and heritage resources. Social distancing and avoidance of gatherings have restricted traditional ceremonies. Because of discrimination and distant locations from district headquarters, IMGs have not been able to secure the necessary travel permissions, as other dominant groups near urban centres have been able to. ‘…recently we lost one of our most prominent elders who composed the Kebu Anthem but, due to COVID 19, we could not mourn and celebrate his life the way we thought he deserved’, said a Kebu elder. Similarly, among the Ngokutio, the cultural rites and ceremonies undertaken by women to prevent pests, such as desert locusts, have stopped and these have eaten their produce. With gatherings restricted, the Elders’ Council among the Ik has not met to resolve disputes, one of their important roles.

Education.While educational policies have already in many cases discriminated against IMG languages and therefore identities (in spite of the “thematic curriculum”), during the COVID 19 pandemic, Government and academic institutions have implemented ‘digital learning’ methods, mainly through radios, television, print and online media. Access to these forms of learning are beyond the reach of IMGs. For example, in the 14 villages of the Basongora in Nyakatonzi Sub-county in Kasese District, only three homes have a television set. Among some communities, purchasing a radio is a luxury; where some IMG families can afford access to information via radios, the dominant languages used on these media outlets are usually those of the dominant ethnic groups.

Recommendations by Indigenous Minority Groups

“We stress the importance of providing us with adequate, accessible, and culturally appropriate information on the pandemic, including through the use of indigenous languages; and to be included in the design and implementation of response measures; and to be given better access to medicines, vaccines, medical equipment, and other healthcare services. Specifically on health related matters, the policy on mask distribution should be promptly implemented; and we should be provided with clean water and disinfectants given our vulnerability in terms of living at border points.”

COVID 19-related public communication messages should be developed in consultation with IMGs. Certain terms, including “social distancing” and “quarantine” need to be collectively translated and appreciated by the local communities.

Government should avail messages through a variety of channels, including in print (placed at villages road junctions or community notice boards) and on radio; and ensure accessibility to these messages is facilitated: purchase of a radio for each family is recommended.

An IMG representative should be included on the district task force; and consult them in efforts to prevent, cure and discuss the aftermath of the pandemic.

We therefore that the principles of equality and non-discrimination, as well as affirmative action, guide Government and NGOs intervention in the prevention, management and possible cure of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CCFU’s work with Indigenous Minority Groups in Uganda

CCFU’s work with 21 IMGs over the past 11 years has led to the establishment of IMG platforms in the Rwenzori and Karamoja regions, and of a National Civil Society and Government Coalition to Protect the Rights of IMGs. It has also included the documentation of oral histories, support to museums, and engaging policy makers at district and national levels to improve the living conditions of IMGs and advocate for better observance of their cultural rights.