Understanding slavery & slave trade

Slavery is an institution or a practice in which people own other people directly or indirectly. Ownership has an element of belonging. You belong to me and therefore I own you because, for example, I protect you or, in some cases, because I employ you. In return, the owned person submits to or accepts to be dominated by the owner and works hard as a slave.

A slave is a helpless victim to or of some dominating influence. A slave is also a contemptible person. Contempt is an act or mental attitude of despising another person and a contemptible person is an individual who deserves to be despised. To despise means to regard some one as inferior or worthless.

When someone from one ethnic group brags that he is worth 1000 people from another ethnic group, he is saying that members of the latter ethnic group are inferior or worthless. The inferior people become helpless victims in the process – hence slaves.

Slavery is an old institution with roots in pre-historic times (before writing was invented). Slavery reached its peak in Greece and the Roman Empire and declined during the middle Ages. The colonization of the New World (North and South America) resulted in a resurgence of slavery and slave trade.

Slave trade means capturing, transporting and selling of people as slaves. Slave trade in African history has been described as a way in which foreigners exploited Africans as slave labor. Leaders would often sell their subjects. East Africa had been a human hunting ground for 2000 years before slave trade was outlawed in the region.

Slave hunters included Asians, Arabs, Swahilis and Europeans who collaborated with African leaders. It is estimated that by the time the Portuguese reached the East African coast in the 15th century, twelve million Africans had been shipped across the Indian Ocean. They were sold in Egypt, Turkey, Arabia, India and Persia. Slave trade resulted in population decline as many Africans were taken away while many others died in slave wars.

The slavers in Eastern and Central Africa travelled across central Tanzania through south west Uganda including Ntungamo, Rukungiri and Kanungu districts.

Paul Ngorogoza (1998) has provided useful information about the involvement of Bahororo in Rukungiri and Kanungu districts and parts of DRC. He wrote that Makobore’s army led by Miranda was used to subdue rebellious areas in Makobore’s kingdom including capturing concubines (a form of slavery) from Congo. Makobore was described as a restless man who forcefully extended his rule over Butumbi in then Kinkiizi area.

By mid-19th century East African coastal traders had entered south-western Uganda. They were introduced to the area by Baziba and Bahaya. They brought guns among other products which they sold in exchange for ivory, salt and slaves. South-western Uganda was full of elephants. Trading in ivory became the monopoly of kings and rulers in the area. Coastal traders served in inter-state wars as well. “For example Makobore, the king of Rujumbura, employed them [coastal traders] in his raids against Butumbi and Kayonza.

“The important social effect of the coming of the coastal traders on the peoples of south-western Uganda was arms trade. Weaker societies were raided for slaves while inter-state warfare became rampant” (B. A. Ogot 1976).

Let us now look briefly at the indirect methods of slavery including the psychological dimension drawing from John Hanning Speke’s book of 1863. Speke reported that Wahuma (Bahima) imposed the epithet (term of abuse) of Wiru (Bairu), or slaves upon Bantu people in the Lake Victoria region. Bairu had to supply food and clothing (from bark material) to Bahima. Bantu people were confined to tilling the land and produce food for Bahima rulers and their kith and kin.

The inferiority of Bantu dubbed Bairu by Bahima was reinforced through the myth of a test that was given by the king to his three sons to determine their hereditary functions. The sons were Kakama, Kahima, and Kairu. Kakama came on top in the test and was declared king, Kahima came second and was declared herder of the king’s cattle and Kairu (singular for Bairu) came last and was declared the servant or slave of his two brothers in perpetuity.

This myth was carried into Rwanda and Burundi by Batutsi (cousins of Bahima) where Bantu were dubbed Bahutu the equivalent of Bairu in south-west Uganda. This myth was taught in any public institutions and became a permanent feature. You still hear in the Great Lakes region remarks such as” inferior Bairu only good at tilling the ground and for their hard menial labor”. Present day utterances that one Muhima or Mututsi or Muhororo is worth 1000 Bahutu or Bairu are common, so is the pronouncement that Bairu are suited for tilling the land as mentioned above.

It is only those who have decided not to hear these utterances that are in denial. Bairu and Bahutu are still treated as slaves (or servants at best) irrespective of their education, experience and even prosperity.

Slavery as an institution or practice (at least in the sense of despising Bairu and Bahutu as inferior) still exists in the Great Lakes region. It has been alleged that Bairu do not deserve quality education or higher level training because it is a waste (they do not need sophisticated education to till the land!).

European reporters have kept these complexes and abuses alive. For example, writing about Rwanda as recently as 2007 Gill Davies observed that hard work tilling the land is a prized attribute of both Bahutu men and women. He added that the taller, thinner and light-skinned Tutsi with a strong warrior tradition migrated into the area five hundred years ago and subjugated the Hutu, ruled as royalty, establishing cattle ownership as a symbol of prestige which is still in evidence today.

Similar remarks have been made regarding relations between Bairu on the one hand, and Bahima and Bahororo on the other hand in south west Uganda.

Slavery and slave trade are still alive. According to UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) “Although slavery has been formally abolished from the world, the trade in human misery continues. Today it is called ‘human trafficking’” (Rebecca Ferguson 2006).

Superiority and inferiority complexes are also still alive and well but practiced mostly in subtle ways. There are some people who consider the ‘inferior’ people in the region as barbarians.

The existence of superiority and inferiority complexes is confirmed by John Reader (1997) who wrote that the superiority of cattle herders (Bahima, Bahororo and Batutsi) over cultivators (Bahutu and Bairu) in the Great Lakes region persists to this day.

Since independence and especially following the capture of power in Uganda in 1986 and in Rwanda in 1994 by Bahororo and Batutsi cousins respectively, the pastoralist elites have seized every opportunity to perpetuate superiority and inferiority complexes, making Bahutu and Bairu to increasingly become resentful.

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