I've had some email correspondence recently with Everiste, one of the many fascinating people I met while in Uganda as part of the Amahoro-Africa conference in May. Everiste, I was fascinated to discover, is a pygmy, which is to say that he is part of the Twa tribe, one of the earliest tribes to inhabit the Great Lakes region of East Africa. Everiste is taller than me, so he challenged some of my images of pygmies from the moment I met him. How perfect that he is named after the tallest mountain on the planet!
He also challenged many of the stereotypes of the Africans on the trip. I found out that the Twa suffer a great deal of discrimination within African society. Everiste is from Barundi, and he said that in his country the Twa are a landless people. For many generations they made their living by crafting pottery out of clay which they dug from the river bank, and so they lived in largely temporary structures near rivers. Now that pottery is no longer an essential item for daily life in Barundi, they are even more destitute than they were. Very few continue their education into secondary school, and Everiste said he was one of only 5 Twa students at the unversity.
I talked to Everiste while on an 11 hour bus ride between Kampala, Uganda and Kigali, Rwanda. Like many Barundians, he is much more fluent in French than in English, so our conversation was assisted by Josephine, another Barundian who was sitting next to me, patting Everiste on the back in support as he talked. He told me about the ways in which Twa children are discouraged from going to school by the intense teasing of other children and the extreme discrimination of teachers who often regard Twa as mentally deficient and not capable of learning. Josephine underscored much of what he said, and told a story of an adult Twa woman she knew who, as a child, had been put to work as a servant of her whole classroom when she had attempted to go to school. She was clearly sympathetic to Everiste's work to help his community develop.
"The most important thing my community needs is...is..." Everiste stumbled, looking for the word "education". But before he could find the word, Josephine jumped to he assistance declaring with conviction, "You need SOAP!"
It was a funny moment for the Americans listening, but it did speak volumes about what the Twa are up against, even from sympathetic Africans of other tribes.
Everiste was involved with a number of compelling projects to help the Twa--everything from building a boarding school for 40 secondary school students to sponsoring a dinner for all the Twa considering continuing their education. He is looking for support for all these projects. To learn more, talk to me and I will give you his email address.