On 28 January I had the honour of being invited to an online screening of the short movie Nyama. The event was organised by Survival International and was followed by a Q&A session with the directors and the actors. Nyama is somewhat of a teaser of a larger film project called Small Gods, both directed by Asher Rosen and Ezra Mugisha.
The 15-minute film impressively displays the conflict between conservation efforts, tourism and livelihoods of local populations from the perspective of a Batwa woman. The Batwa are a Ugandan ethnic group of around 6,200 people who now live in the districts of Bundibugyo, Kabale, Kisoro and Rukungiri in south-western Uganda. While having lived in the what is now the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park forest for centuries, throughout the 1990s, they have been almost entirely dispossessed of their land for conservation purposes by the Ugandan government.
The relevance of the film cannot be overstated, especially in light of the recent exposure of human rights violations against villagers in Africa and Asia by WWF-funded rangers. But certainly, the issue itself is not new. Already in the past, the establishment of national parks has led to evictions and forced removals all over the world. But also climate change programmes, such as REDD+ have led to evictions and forced removal.
The story is set in the Virunga area across the borders of Uganda, Rwanda the Democratic Republic of Congo and follows the Batwa woman Florenz and her small son Tuyi (approx. 5-7 years old). The film opens with a hunting scene in which a wild pig is butchered by Florenz and Tuyi. Happily returning to their village in the middle of the forest, the pig’s hunt is being celebrated and a feast, accompanied by dancing, singing and laughing is starting.
But from the bushes, the celebration is watched by several soldier-like men. It becomes clear that they are rangers and that they do not have good intentions for the people in the forest. Suddenly, they burst out of the bushes and start rounding up the villagers. An official reads out a paper which prohibits hunting and living in these forests, because it is now used for conservation. While Florenz is in the group of villagers being round-up, her son manages to escape. A ranger follows him and seizes him shortly after. The ranger’s name is Bizimana and he returns Tuyi to his mother and the other villagers. Here it shows that Bizimana does not intend to harm anyone, but that he follows orders.
The next scene shows Florenz and Tuyi on bare feet in a nameless city where they seem to wander around aimlessly. They enter a supermarket and Tuyi is surprised to see the large variety of available goods. They open a glass of honey and eat it directly. They grab some other items and run out of the supermarket without paying the owner.
The next scene shows Florenz and Tuyi in a landfill where they look for new clothes for the boy. A vehicle with rangers drives by and both recognise Bizimana. They run after the car and Bizimana jumps off. He tries to persuade Florenz to take some of his money so that she can buy clothes and food. Florenz refuses his offer because she just wants to return to the forest where she can find food on her own. Bizimana struggles with the situation because he seems to have realised that Florenz and her son are significantly worse off than before.
The next scene shows Florenz being helped into a cow hide garment. She is now part of a group of people who all wear similar garments and who have spears in their hands. It becomes clear that they are now part of a tourist venture, because they accompany a caucasian couple into the ‘wilderness’, also followed by a ranger. In the wilderness, they present some ‘traditional’ goods to the couple which seems to be very impressed by the ‘authenticity’ of their experience. Florenz is requested to throw a spear at a tree. She wonders about this request, because the spear is not usable for hunting and she does not see the point in throwing the spear at a tree. Yet, her view is being ignored, because the tourists want to see the spear being thrown.
The last scene shows Florenz and the others, singing and hitting drums. Florenz looks desperate, but also angry and proud. She complies, but the fury in her cannot be ignored.
With this, Nyama ends.
Review and Q&A with the directors and actors
Before the film was screened and the viewers were informed that it was going to be a short movie I was somewhat sceptical as to the way, this complex topic could be dealt with adequately. But, alas, I my scepticism was quickly extinguished, because even though the film is very short, I think the entire problematique of conservation, tourism and the livelihoods of local, indigenous peoples could not be presented in a more comprehensive and impressive way. The low budget of the film have made it a poignant journey into a truly conflict-laden topic.
Throughout the Q&A with the directors and actors of the film it became clear that whilst, for instance, Florenz is acting, she is re-playing her own family’s history which was removed from Bwindi Forest in the 1990s. In that sense, even though she her name is indeed Florenz in real life, she does not play herself, but rather her mother or even grandmother. This makes the acting very authentic and one can see that even though she is acting, it goes beyond this. Consequently, the film is ‘real’, it is not a story, but a documentary-like film, a ‘no comment’-accompaniment of a Batwa woman, even though the vast majority of Batwa do not live in the forest anymore, as director Asher Rosen noted.
Of course, the film points fingers at the rangers. Especially in the opening scene the audience quickly takes sides with the celebrating villagers. When Tuyi escaped and subsequently caught by Bizimana, I was expecting him to get hurt because of the sheer evil the rangers seem to portray. But here the directors did not follow the easy-to-walk street of shaming, but instead they show the ambiguity of the rangers’ views, exemplified by Bizimana’s character. That makes one wonder: do the rangers like what they do? And if not, why do they do it? During the Q&A, the audience asked whether this ambiguity is based on the fact that rangers may be recruited under pressure, which would explain their behaviour. Florenz remarked that money is the driving force behind their actions and, yes, while they (or some) do sympathise with the people who are removed from their homes, the orders from their superiors are simply more important.
The question remains: how can governments and organisations from all over the world still support this ‘fortress conservation’? In an era when human rights are an important steering mechanism for governance decisions, this appears illogical, especially for countries that, at least on paper, have high human rights standards. But it appears that the problems associated with conservation and livelihoods simply has not entered the minds of the public. As was remarked during the Q&A, those that do not know what is happening easily consider people living in the conservation areas as a nuisance because of their environmental footprint. That is, they use the land, the plants and animals roaming in the area, which appears to stand in contrast to full-scale conservation. Florenz noted that when living in the forest, the forest provides for the people living in it. As a consequence, people rather look after the ecosystem than destroying it, because without the forest, their foundation of life would break away.
While the topic at hand is certainly an extremely serious one, I could not help but smile a little when the tourists were entering the scene. I did not smile because it thought it was funny, but rather because of the naivety with which they approached their ‘authentic’ African experience. This scene showed the potentially dark nature of tourism and once again underlines the ‘museification’ of culture(s), which is taking place all over the world. In other words, people from particularly the Western Hemisphere romanticise ‘exotic’ cultures and continue to create a notion of ‘the other’ which is oh so different from oneself. And with this, the harsh realities and impacts of past colonialism as much as ongoing imperialist conservation efforts are swept under the rug — knowingly or unknowingly.
I wish that Nyama will be screened in schools, universities, to conservation NGOs, governments, businesses and simply ordinary people all over the world in order to make the tripartite conflict between conservation, tourism and livelihoods more visible. As was noted by the actors in the Q&A, Batwa never really had a voice and therefore, these practices continue. It is indeed time to change that and to empower the voice of the, as Gayatri Spivak would say, ‘subaltern’, to let them speak for themselves. It is imperative that all conservation efforts and all tourist ventures listen to this voice.