Slavery was abolished so too must the epithet of Bairu

Slavery is a condition in which the life, liberty and fortune of an individual is held within the absolute power of another individual. Slavery is derived from slav because Slavs in Europe were frequently enslaved during the Dark Ages (500-1000 AD). Aristotle embarrassingly justified that some people are slaves by nature. In many situations slaves worked long hours from sunrise to sunset and suffered harsh punishment which included lashings, short rations and threats to sell members of the slave’s family. Slavery broke the spirit of many slaves but many others vowed to resist and end it. Slavery generated fear and hate. Because slavery and slave trade were evil, they were abolished during the 19th century and declared illegal.

How did Bantu become Bairu (slaves)?

John Hanning Speke wrote in his book titled The Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863 and reprinted in 2006) that Bahima imposed the epithet (term of abuse) of Bairu or slaves on Bantu people they found in the areas bordering on Lake Victoria. Bahima imposed the epithet of Bairu because Bantu people had to supply food and clothing to Bahima masters. Subsequent extensive intermarriages between Bahima and Baganda, Bahima and Banyoro and Bahima and Batoro produced new communities of mixed farmers ending the master/slave relationship in Buganda, Bunyoro and Tooro.

The term Bairu was subsequently restricted to Bantu people of southwest Uganda in Ankole, Rujumbura and Kinkizi. Batutsi carried the epithet southwards into Rwanda and Burundi where Bantu people there are called Bahutu (slaves). Unlike in Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro, Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo in southwest Uganda did not marry Bantu women to produce new mixed communities and end the master/slave relationship.

To avoid confusion, when we talk about Bairu we refer to Bantu people whose ancestors arrived in southwest Uganda from West Africa via Congo 3000 years ago. This group does not include the Nilotic (originally Luo) Bantu-speaking people who arrived in the area 600 years ago from southern Sudan and have remained distinct because their men do not marry Bairu women.

In Rujumbura of south west Uganda, Bahororo (Batutsi from Rwanda) arrived in 1800 and applied the epithet of Bairu to the people they found there who until then were known by their clan names.

As noted above, Bahima imposed the epithet of Bairu on Bantu so they produce and supply food to their Bahima masters. Similarly Bahororo did the same thing when they arrived in Rujumbura where they found people with vibrant mixed economies engaged in agriculture, herding and manufacturing enterprises. They were in good health in large part because they ate well and they were relatively peaceful through various inter-clan methods of protection and cooperation.

With military superiority and later with support from Arab and Swahili slave hunters and European weapons, Bahororo quickly defeated Bantu people, stripped them of their grazing lands and reduced them largely to crop cultivators in order to supply food to their Bahororo masters. Because of the decision taken by Bahima and Bahororo, Bantu people in south west Uganda were converted from mixed farmers to cultivators. Their institutions of governance were also destroyed and Bantu were reduced to slaves.

Bahororo took away Bairu’s grazing land which meant loss of their short horn cattle that had served as a source of food, clothing, wealth accumulation and store of value. Arab and Swahili ivory and slave traders also brought with them manufactured products that destroyed local industries thus turning Bairu completely into cultivators.

Now you can see how Bantu people were turned into slaves and cultivators by Bahima and Bahororo in south west Uganda.

The colonial demands of taxation and free labor on public works on top of Bahima and Bahororo demands for food who remained Bairu masters under the British system of indirect rule made the situation worse. They worked long hours and were regularly punished by canning, fines, imprisonment or some combination.

Independence did not end this master/slave relationship. Although Bairu do not produce food for Bahororo any more, the latter have compensated themselves and kept Bairu down using many methods. To keep Bantu people down Bahororo have continued to call them Bairu which is psychologically devastating. Even uneducated Bahororo still regard all Bairu as slaves below their dignity and they say so openly! As noted in an earlier article on my blog, canning or lashing of Bairu people has been reintroduced. People in Rujumbura have been killed for demanding better food, for exercising their political rights and others have committed suicide for their inability to pay taxes because to them death is better than torture in jail.

We are demanding that Uganda appropriate authorities abolish the epithet of Bairu (slaves) because it is illegal.

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