Similarities in suffering between Rujumbura’s Bairu and Indigenous peoples

The indigenous peoples from all over the world are meeting (April 2010) at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. For the last six years I have attended their meetings. I have listened carefully to their stories and read their publications. Their common theme has been land that has economic and spiritual value. They are therefore trying to hang on to what is left and to utilize it according to their priorities. But they are facing daunting challenges from global demands. Their stories about the negative impact of losing their land are similar to what Rujumbura’s Bairu are experiencing as they lose more land to newcomers. I will compare the experiences of the two groups, draw conclusions and propose corrective actions.

The story of Indigenous people in the Great Lakes Region

Before Bantu-speaking people arrived in the area some 3000 years ago, the Great Lakes Region was occupied by indigenous people (the term ‘indigenous’ has not been accepted by governments in the region because it is considered divisive and the term ‘Pygmy’ has been rejected by indigenous people because it has derogatory meaning). For the purpose of this article, I will use indigenous people for lack of a better term.

The indigenous people roamed in the area gathering fruits, vegetables and honey and hunting wild game and catching wild fish for meat. They had plenty of naturally grown food in quality and quantity for a healthy, active and productive life.

The arrival of Bantu brought about some largely peaceful changes. Some indigenous people were absorbed through intermarriage with Bantu, others moved deeper into the forest or other safer places to continue with their own lives uninterrupted. There was still plenty of land and enough food for every indigenous person in the household. Scientific studies including by anthropologists do not show any signs of malnutrition confirming that they ate well until in recent years.

Population growth, expanding agricultural and mining operations, demarcating space for biodiversity conservation into national parks and forest reserves and conflicts in the region have adversely affected indigenous people. These developments have resulted in many killed, others losing all their land and the rest squeezed into limited space that does not offer plenty of foodstuffs as before. The consequences have been spreading and deepening abject poverty and its offshoots of hunger and under-nutrition and ill-health. Living in unsuitable homes and wearing clothes mostly unsuitable for the climate have led to new diseases for example jiggers because of living in dusty environments including houses and not wearing shoes. Wearing clothes is unhygienic because it blocks air circulation and leads to disease. When it rains on corrugated iron sheets the noise not used to creates discomfort. The instinct for survival has forced some to become thieves and to drink alcohol because of stress. Their cultural and spiritual values are disappearing fast as well as their numbers. As recorded in the United Nations report “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples”, dispossession of indigenous people in the Great Lakes Region (East and Central Africa) has resulted in abject poverty, discrimination, violence and cultural collapse. The population is declining because of extreme poverty, poor access to health care but most importantly to loss of their land and traditional livelihoods (United Nations 2009). Let us consider the story of Rujumbura’s Bairu noting comparisons with indigenous people.

The story of Rujumbura’s Bairu

Until the arrival of Bahororo (Batutsi from Rwanda) in 1800, the clans that lived in the area that were collectively dubbed Bairu (slaves) by Bahororo, occupied the entire area. For their livelihood, they grew crops; grazed short-horn cattle that gave milk, meat and hides, goats and sheep; manufactured a wide range of products based on local raw materials, collected wild fruits, vegetables and honey, caught wild fish and hunted wild game for meat just like the indigenous people did. Therefore, they had plenty of nutritious foodstuffs that grew naturally. They traded surplus in local and regional markets and accumulated wealth. They were well fed, wealthy and healthy and lived peacefully with neighbors because there was no need for conflict in this world of plenty.

The clans developed an appropriate governance system that maintained law and order, settled disputes when they arose and protected themselves should in the unlikely event some conflicts develop. So it is not true when Europeans and the Africans they trained write that these communities were stateless. Yes, they did not have presidents, cabinets, parliaments and the judiciary system as understood in the western world. But they had an efficient and non-corrupt system of governance that ensured equal access to the benefits of their labor. The elders ensured peace, justice, equality and settled disputes in a fair and transparent and participatory manner. There were no lords and serfs or slaves.

Actually, Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 which states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (United Nations 2002) was already in practice in the area when Bahororo refugees arrived in 1800 from former Mpororo kingdom which had disintegrated some 90 years earlier.

The arrival of Bahororo in Rujumbura in 1800

Fifty to ninety years after the collapse of Mpororo kingdom, Bahororo were driven out of the area by Bahima under the leadership of Bahinda clan. Since they had originated in Rwanda, they were familiar with the feudal system of lords and serfs that had dispossessed the indigenous people (dubbed Hutu or slaves/serfs) of their land, property and institutions like the king’s title of Mwami.

Bahororo had developed many years of fighting experience mostly in connection with stealing other people’s cattle or protecting theirs against being stolen. They also had a standing army (G. N. Uzoigwe1982) and quickly crushed resistance and ‘colonized’ the conquered clans. With the help of Arab slave hunters who had brought European weapons with them Makobore, a Muhororo (singular for Bahororo) chief was able to expand his territory. The clans he conquered were dubbed Bairu (slaves).

By collaborating with Arab slave hunters and traders Makobore and his close advisers like the prime minister implicitly or explicitly participated in slavery and slave trade.

Bairu lost their grazing land that was appropriated for grazing long-horn cattle preferred by the new comers over the short-horn type owned by Bairu. The short-horn cattle therefore disappeared and deprived Bairu of a rich source of protein through milk and meat and hides used for clothing. Bahororo monopolized eating goat meat previously consumed by indigenous people and deprived the latter group of that source of protein as well. Lack of animal protein (loss of beef, goat meat and milk) and vegetable protein in Bairu’s diet because much foodstuff went to feed the ruling class of Bahororo as tribute is believed to have contributed to Bairu’s short, and in many cases, stunted stature. This can be confirmed to be true because Bairu children born in wealthy families who are eating balanced diets are as tall and well built as any other normal child.

Further with the introduction of European manufactured products by Arabs, Bairu’s manufactured products were competed out of business. Consequently, Bairu were reduced to cultivation, not by choice but by forced dispossession and unfair competition.

Bahororo then moved to the next stage of dispossessing Bairu. They came up with the notion of ‘protection’. They advised Bairu that in order to protect them against ‘invaders’, Bairu had to produce food, drinks and provide free labor for Bahororo in exchange for that protection. This relationship is similar to the feudal system of lords and serfs in medieval Europe which was introduced in Rwanda by Batutsi and emulated in Rujumbura by Bahororo who are Batutsi from Rwanda. The consequence was further dispossession of their food and labor resulting in abject poverty, under-nutrition and ill-health and reduced productivity and total production.

Then enters British colonialism and Bairu become Bahororo

Uganda became a British protectorate in 1894 administered under a system of indirect rule using local chiefs. In Rujumbura, the British appointed Makobore as their chief civil servant to maintain law and order, collect taxes and supervise the construction of roads and public buildings using free local labor. Taxes and free labor came from Bairu as members of the ruling class were largely exempt from paying taxes and free labor because they did not perform menial work which is below their dignity. In addition Bairu continued to pay tribute in food, drinks and free labor to the chiefs at various levels (from the lowest parish or muruka, to gombolola or sub-county and to the highest saza or county level). Failure to comply was punished by heavy fines, caning and/or imprisonment.

How Bairu became Bahororo

For administrative purposes, the many clans in Kigezi district of which Rujumbura was a part were reduced into three language categories – Bakiga (those who speak Lukiga); Banyarwanda (those who speak Kinyarwanda); and Bahororo (those who speak Ruhororo). Through this administrative arrangement Bahororo migrants who became chiefs over the clans they found in the area turned their subjects into Bahororo, the identity the new rulers brought with them from Mpororo which as a state had long disappeared except in memory (G. N. Uzoigwe 1982).

So in Rujumbura there are four layers of communities grouped (1) in their clans (like Bakimbiri), (2) in their social class (Bairu or slaves/serfs), (3) in their ruling class (Bahororo migrants registered or called Bahima – there are no Bahima in Rujumbura) and (4) in their colonial administrative class (Bairu and Bahororo migrants lumped together).

In Bufumbira district the people there are now called Bafumbira because they do not want to be referred to as Banyarwanda a name imposed under colonial rule.

In Rujumbura because many people there did not understand how they became Bahororo have continued to use the term. However, it is now becoming clear how they got the name and the implications associated with it. They are trying to change that name. That is why you hear some (timidly still because the ruling class in Uganda are Bahororo) beginning to call themselves Banyarujumbura or Banyarukungiri to differentiate themselves from the ruling class that is Bahororo who came from Batutsi ruling class in Rwanda via the short-lived Mpororo kingdom. Let us resume the story of Bairu impoverishment and landlessness.

The arrival in Rujumbura of Bakiga migrants

Because of population pressure in the southern part of former Kigezi district due to excess births over deaths but perhaps more significantly due to migrations from Rwanda since the 1920s, a decision was taken to resettle some of them in other parts of Uganda including in Rujumbura, former Ankole district, Bunyoro and Toro. Since the mid 1950s Rujumbura has been receiving migrants from that region. Because they knew the importance of land, more than the indigenous people who had never felt pressure from land shortage, Bakiga began to acquire quickly large chunks of land and to invite their relatives to come and join them. Unoccupied land soon got exhausted and Bakiga began to buy from indigenous groups.

Impact of structural adjustment and land sales

The economic pressure under structural adjustment accelerated since 1987 that increased household expenditures beyond their regular incomes forced Bairu to sell their land and property such as goats. Under the concept of willing buyer and willing seller and the promotion of economic transformation from agriculture to industries and commercial enterprises in cities and towns, Bairu were hoodwinked into selling their land en masse besides obtaining loans without understanding the repayment terms including the meaning of variable interest rates and land mortgage.

Loans were used to pay school fees, medical expenses and even settle bride price for an old or a new wife! Very little if at all was invested in productive activities. When repayment was due, the borrowers who did not have the money got a shock when they were dispossessed of their land. Heads of landless households have deserted their families going far away to look for jobs they cannot find and are ashamed to return home empty handed.

The expansion of municipalities has eaten into Bairu land contributing to further landlessness. Resistance to selling land to the municipality is interpreted as undermining government anti-poverty policies and unpatriotic to make you feel guilty and sell. And Bairu are still selling their dwindling plots of land.


Thus a combination of Bahororo colonization and British colonization using Bahororo chiefs who continued to extract tribute on top of government taxes and free labor and tithes for the church reduced disposable income to such a low level that Bairu households could not eat enough much less send their children to school or have them treated when they fell sick. In these circumstances, in order to survive, they have been forced to sell the limited resources they have including land and livestock in part because they no longer have grazing land.

Without land and functional education to get them a job out of agriculture, Bairu are in a desperate situation.

Like indigenous people in the Great Lakes Region lack of land, property and employment has reduced many Bairu to a state of abject poverty, hunger, disease, alcoholism, violence and crime including petty theft to make ends meet. Social and cultural fabric has collapsed and Bairu like indigenous people are drifting toward a state of endangered species.


Given this dire situation in which Rujumbura’s Bairu and indigenous people in the Great Lakes Region find themselves, urgent steps are needed to help these two groups to start economic activities and build capacities to engage in non-agricultural activities. At the same time authorities and development partners need to help these people to desist from selling their remaining pieces of land by setting up microcredit facilities so that money can be mobilized for economic activities without selling land.

In their situation land remains their only asset and a source of livelihood.