Literacy Action Development Association (Uganda)

Among the many struggling populations in Uganda, the small indigenous communities often face the most complicated challenges. Because indigenous culture is so often inextricably linked to the natural world, environmental conflicts can hit these people the hardest.

Until the mid 20th Century, the Banyabutumbi lived in the forests just east of Lake Edward in western Uganda. When the government established Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Banyabutumbi were forcibly removed from the park and relocated to less forested areas nearby. They learned to farm, but without land of their own they became an impoverished community with limited access to basic necessities. In turn the Banyatumbi have put an unsustainable strain on nearby natural resources.

“The various stresses on their food and water supply have caused them to over-fish and deplete the forest and ecosystems that they can access, because what they originally had was denied,” says Arthur Mbabazi, Executive director of Literacy Action and Development Agency (LADA), a Ugandan community-based organization acting on behalf of the Banyabutumbi.

Until recently, the community has relied on water sources within the National Park. Women and children often spent most of their day traveling to and from surface water sources that may be several miles from their homes, leaving little time for school or other activities that bolster the community. They also had to compete for water with wild animals—elephants, hippopotamuses and apes—and attacks were common.

They often resorted to gathering water from stagnant trenches closer to home, where disease was rampant. Bilharzias, typhoid, malaria, sleeping sickness, cholera, dysentery, trachoma, and acute diarrhea took a devastating toll on the community. Many households were forced to spend precious income on medical treatment, and to lose valuable work hours caring for the sick.

As a resettled community, few in numbers and low on the government’s list of priorities, the Banyabutumbi cannot rely on social services to ease their water problems. They had the will to take care of themselves, but lacked the capital and the skills. LADA and First Peoples Worldwide have begun to help bridge that gap.

LADA received almost $20,000 from First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund, which they have used to help the Banyabutumbi build the beginnings of a sustainable water infrastructure.

As part of their FPW-funded project, LADA recruited masons from the community—both male and female—and taught them how to build rainwater collection tanks steps from their homes. The project also funded the construction of hand pump stations that completely cover small open water sources, making them inaccessible to wild animals. The community constructed 14 rainwater harvesting tanks, each with a 5,000-liter capacity, and 2 water wells with hand pumps—all under the supervision of a committee of Banyabutumbi elders. In all, the project provides the community with 25,200,000 liters of clean water annually. The newly-trained masons now generate income using their skills, and can continue to build safe water infrastructure for the community.

Another aspect of the project focused specifically on sanitation and hygiene. LADA organized five demonstrations of the safe water chain, emphasizing the importance of careful collection, handling and storage of drinking and cooking water. Overall, LADA estimates that the project is now saving an average of US$42,666 per year in treatment of water-borne illnesses.

Because water sources are now close to home, children have more time to attend school. The women who risked animal attacks in the park now safely wash their families’ clothes beside the hand pump stations. With less time devoted to caring for sick relatives, those working in the fields are able to work more consistently providing food for the community.

LADA’s project is not just about helping the Banyabutumbi acquire basic necessities; it is also about helping the community live sustainably and in harmony with the natural surroundings on which they depend. Workshops organized by LADA taught members of the community how to build and operate fuel-saving stoves, which make the work of cooking healthier and more efficient while reducing the amount of firewood they must collect from the forests. By centralizing water gathering around closed sources and collecting rain within the villages, the Banyabutumbi have also reduced their impact on the natural water sources used by wildlife.

Ever-conscious of their responsibility to live sustainably, LADA and the Banyabutumbi also recognize that reducing deforestation and localizing water resources mitigates their contribution to global warming.

“The Banyabutumbi can be said to be natural conservationists, as the use of their traditional methods in enhancing [their] livelihoods are interlinked with their culture and the environment,” says Mbabazi. “Due to [these] inter-linkages, the community can easily be involved in issues of conservation alongside other development partners working in the area.”

The involvement of all members of the community, what LADA calls a “bottom-up” approach to development, was key to the project’s success. The Banyabutumbi showed extraordinary dedication and solidarity in addressing their immediate needs, even through considerable hardship due to famine.  “We constructed rain water harvesting tanks at a time when the community lacked food, but as it was part of their contribution to provide lunch to masons, the people worked even harder so they could provide for their families and the masons working towards their community’s development,” says Mbabazi.

He says that allowing members of the community to direct and support their own projects creates a sense of project ownership and cultural solidarity that is essential to the success of any community development effort.

“Through this project, we have managed to bring them together to work for the common good, and in so doing they have had time to reflect on their culture, which was so fast eroding away due to integration with other communities,” says Mbabazi. He added that the Banyabutumbi often sang traditional songs while they worked on this project together.

Since their ancestral origins in the forest, the Banyabutumbi have been known throughout their region as rainmakers. During a long dry spell, they believe that some among them have the power to bring back the rain that sustains their land and their livelihoods. Having taken steps to ensure that when the rain does come it can sustain their community, the Banyabutumbi have cause to sing.

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