One afternoon in early 2014, I took the photo of the boy who has always appeared on our website front page — his name is Beckham. Something about his haunting but beautiful face and eyes moved my heart deeply.
I was a freelance journalist on assignment, reporting under a Mongabay Special Reporting Grant about how human livelihoods and conservation can coexist, or in some cases not. Beckham is a Batwa "pygmy" child living in a village at the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which I visited during my initial few weeks in Uganda. Mountain gorillas had been my favorite animal since I was a teenager; I loved watching National Geographic documentaries on Dian Fossey and the mountain gorillas, and devoured her book Gorillas in the Mist. In college, I even wrote a letter, and received a response, from her immediate successor, Diane Doran, after Fossey was murdered in her work protecting the gorillas.
I wanted to do research on mountain gorillas. Yet when I finally made it to Uganda to track them decades later and saw the aftermath of conservation in the lives of the Batwa, I was gutted. Why had I, having earned a Master's degree in Wildlife Ecology, and later worked on a Ph.D. towards Ecology, never even heard the term "conservation refugees" - people who are displaced in the name of conservation? In the name of my beloved mountain gorillas?
The Removal of the Batwa from their Ancestral Homeland
As I researched my story, I learned more about why the Batwa are suffering to such an extreme degree and why some call them the most marginalized and discriminated against tribe in the world. I wrote about their plight in these article: "Is the Human Cost of Saving Mountain Gorillas Too High," and also in this Reporter's Journal blog post for Mongabay.
Removing indigenous or local people for conservation is not unique to Uganda — it has happened around the world, including in the US, since colonization. The last of the Batwa living within their ancestral forest homeland — Bwindi Impenetrable Forest — were removed in 1991 when it was designated a national park to bring tourism dollars to the region and to save the disappearing gorillas. Yet with a basic lack of knowledge about living outside the forest, they died en masse. They were exposed to new diseases, including HIV, and new substances, including alcohol. They did not know how to grow crops, as they had always been hunter-gatherers, yet the government restricted all hunting of wildlife and access to the park for gathering medicinal products, or traditional foods like yams and wild honey.
By 2000, a medical survey found 40% of children under 5 died, and they had a life expectancy of 28, compared to 46 for Uganda's general population. As Mark Dowie writes in his book Conservation Refugees, "[E]viction inevitably forces adults into intractable poverty, alcoholism, and prostitution, leaving their children with malnutrition, disease, and death.” For these reasons, Dowie says eviction of indigenous peoples is akin to genocide."
I have seen poverty all around the world, I've seen dirty and poor yet still happy children. I'd trekked through Eastern Nepal, drove from Texas to the Yucatan and back, visiting the poorest parts of Mexico, and traveled by boat to the indigenous communities in Peru along tributaries of the Amazon. This was different.
Making The Move
While sharing tales of this life-shifting experience with my newfound Ugandan friends, I learned some of them sacrificed of their own small incomes to help pay for the education of orphans and kids whose parents could not afford school fees — which are out of reach for many. Sometimes these new friends of mine would go without meals so that they could help others. And yet we Americans spend more money on Starbucks coffee in a month that the entire village would make in a year from dancing for tourists and the hope that someone would buy one of their handmade baskets.
When I returned to the US, all I could think of was the excess "stuff" I had, and how far a small amount of money goes when helping in Africa if used effectively. I would stare at this photo of Beckham, heartbroken. He's so gorgeous and the photo captures so much. Friends started sending me donations and we started helping Beckham's family and other kids.
So I sold my house and most of my belongings, formalized Redemption Song Foundation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in September 2014 and moved to Uganda. Local friends helped me hire a young woman, Charity, who started out cooking and cleaning and translating for me, yet has become an integral part of the organization through hard work. And with her help, we established trust with the Batwa of Kalehe Village. Together, we identified needs and strengths, and we have worked hand-in-hand to help transform lives and the community.
Women who were positive for HIV+ yet not caring for themselves are now receiving treatment at Bwindi Community Hospital. Young children who dropped out of school have all been enrolled and are attending regularly. Villagers who could not afford to go to the hospital or who had not bought the relatively inexpensive health insurance are all now insured and caring for themselves. With a higher income partly due to our Artisan Coop where we buy baskets from them, the Batwa of Kalehe have increased health and have gained weight, can buy themselves African cloths and shoes, which gives them more clout in the local region. And single moms who were living in temporary thatched huts — the kinds they made in the forest for an itinerant lifestyle but that were never meant to be permanent — have solid mud and stick homes with metal roofs, which the entire village came together to build.
We have employed Batwa women in RSF and helped others with childcare and hospice care. And they now have clean water to drink from a major campaign — Clean Water for Christmas — and solar power from our Power to the People campaign! Life is still far from perfect and we operate on a shoestring budget with a very small staff, but lives are being changed from the inside out.
I like to believe that we who are driven by mission-type work can act as the hands and feet of Jesus — not to force Westernized views on people, but to simply love and show His love for those the world would know as the "least of these." Education allows people to make choices on their paths with greater knowledge and power.
We also buy baskets from women in the Bakiga tribe, have built a classroom at Rugando school, and provide menstrual pads to girls in various schools. We are not "changing the world," but we are helping to change their world, with God's love, personal and community empowerment, and social justice. You can watch a talk I gave at Lone Star College on Conservation Consequences below, or view the Powerpoint.
After three years in Uganda, I returned to the US in 2017. I trained my staff well and RSF is being run on the ground by Ugandan staff, including teachers who educate the youngest Batwa in our new Hope Stone Academy. I focus on fundraising and continuing to assist staff from afar. I visit periodically and bring baskets to the US for sale.
Why "Redemption Song"?
RSF aims to empower people and communities to rise above their circumstances. As Bob Marley sings in Redemption Song, "emancipate yourself from mental slavery, only yourselves can free your minds." And that lyric led to our mission: spreading hope by growing healthy communities and sustainable ecosystems in Uganda.
I felt like Marley's classic song embodied several principles I believed in, and RSF stands for - helping oneself through mental attitude, but also how the hand of the Almighty God ultimately helps us. Marley sings about how Christian spirituals, redemption songs, were so powerful as a means of strength to an oppressed diaspora, being enslaved and sent away on ships away from their homeland. Extreme poverty can enslave people because there is often no escape. Systematic discrimination keeps certain classes, tribes, and races down.
As Steve Corbett and Brian Finkert write in When Helping Hurts, "Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation, and desperation that are simply unparalleled in the rest of humanity. " And music is an integral part of the lives of the Batwa people. They sing and dance and drum and these physical actions bring joy and hope to their lives.
The Batwa of Kalehe are passionate, funny, resilient warriors, and they deserve dignity and respect — as do all people on earth. They are my family. Will you help us continue to empower them through hope and love?