Tacoma and the town of Bwindi, Uganda, are now firmly linked, thanks to innertubes, bottle caps and artistic enthusiasm.
Nine local artists, including two from Tacoma, have just returned from a month teaching art techniques to the Batwa tribe, who were displaced from their forest homelands by conservation laws and were in need of a new means of living. The result was better than anyone expected.
“Words cannot express our emotionality at the culmination of each session – we were so thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with such hardworking, receptive and innovative people,” says Lynn DiNino, one of the two Tacoma artists in the group.
Led by Seattle artist Marsha Conn, the group was inspired by the success of nonprofits such as Smile Power, which travels to developing countries with free toothbrushes and dental hygiene education. Planning and fundraising for a year beforehand, the nine artists wanted to bring art education instead. They included Smile Power volunteer Judy Chambers, Tacoma photographer/painter Jim Robbins and DiNino, a concrete sculptor.
“We wanted to help them make art they could sell to tourists,” DiNino said. “It also had to be adaptable to what they could get there.”
Armed with cash donations, the artists (who had paid for their own plane tickets) arrived in early January in Uganda’s capital of Kampala, where they bought two treadle sewing machines plus craft tools such as scissors and hammers. They then traveled to lush, mountainous Bwindi in the country’s southwest via an 11-hour bus trip on bumpy, dusty roads, and settled down at the local missionary hospital’s guest houses.
“It was hot but not sweltering,” says DiNino, “but it was pretty rustic.”
The indigenous occupants of Uganda’s southwestern forests, the Batwa became refugees in 1992 when the Bwindi Forest was made a World Heritage Site to protect the endangered mountain gorilla. Hunter-gatherers, the Batwa – often called pygmies, because of their 4-foot-11 stature – had no land title and no other means of income. They have since been supported by nonprofit organizations such as the Kellerman Foundation and Batwa Development Program, but they remain one of the poorest people in the world, with a life expectancy of 28 and annual income the equivalent of $25, according to the Kellerman Foundation.
Some live in Bwindi itself but many live in surrounding villages in mud huts, says DiNino, who visited a village with her group. They have learned farming, and have developed a tourist center to display their traditional treehouses and mountain food foraging, but income is still low and malnutrition is rife.
The idea of teaching the Batwa to create art for tourists did have some initial obstacles, says DiNino.
“The Batwa culture traditionally makes nothing but music and drama,” she explains. “Another problem is that until a few years ago, it was a culture that only lived in the present. It’s a challenge to get them to make something and leave it (at a store) to sell for future benefit.”
Nevertheless, the art-making worked brilliantly. Over two one-week shifts, the artists sat down with 42 brilliantly dressed Batwa men and women in the local concrete schoolhouse, armed with tools and supplies (and also toothbrushes, thanks to Smile Power). They’d brought a number of projects from home that could be replicated with local materials, such as a fabric-and-wire necklace or a woven bamboo mat. But the Batwa also came up with their own ideas. One of those was inspired by the only piece of jewelry DiNino had brought with her, a button necklace made by a friend.
“They just loved it, they came up and touched it,” DiNino recalls. “So I wondered what on Earth we could find for them to make it with.”
Looking around she realized the ground was littered with discarded bottle tops. Hammering them perfectly flat, using nails to poke holes, the Batwa came up with the idea to thread the tops onto sliced lengths of inner tubes, creating a chunky, folk art necklace.
Other projects included painting and drawing, etching an image onto foam to print cards, tying small rocks into fabric for necklaces, and cutting fabric shapes to apply to a “story” cloth. Translation was minimal but not really necessary – when you’re making art, says DiNino, “it’s easy to point and grunt.”
“The Batwa were energetic and receptive,” she says, “and very inventive. They’d often change something we’d made for the better.”
She particularly remembers Gladys, one Batwa woman who, having learned to make the bottle-top necklace, walked the 12 miles back to her village and returned the next day with a bundle full of them. The second time she returned, she had five bundles.
Jim Robbins was the other Tacoma artist who went with the group: An experienced artist-in-residence in many countries, he was impressed by the Batwa’s talents.
“It was highly successful,” Robbins says. “The Batwa are amazing, they’re on another level artistically. They felt a lot of self-esteem, and we developed personal links with them. They exceeded all our imaginings.”
But the project’s success didn’t stop with personal satisfaction. When the artworks were displayed in the Banda, the Bwindi shop created by the Batwa Development Program to sell souvenirs to gorilla-trek tourists, all merchandise sold in the first day for a $600 profit. Sales at the shop have since gone up by 20 percent, despite the low tourist season, says Banda manager Evelyne Habasa.
“The tourists love them,” Habasa says. “They are buying and can’t have enough of them. They are unique. I believe this is a very viable commercial project for the Batwa, and it should increase their incomes.”
The problem now is marketing. The energetic production pace of the Batwa doesn’t yet match tourist numbers, and Habasa would like to find other markets in the United States and elsewhere. The artists are in contact with local fair trade shops, and are exploring possibilities such as taking Batwa items to Ugandan gorilla-trek lodges for sale.
Trip leader Marsha Conn is writing grants for a return visit to work on marketing.
Says Habasa: “We need the artists around a few more times so we can take over and train the Batwa fully.”
Despite the exhaustion of the trip with its DIY showers and minimal electricity, DiNino would be willing to go back.
“For us it was so satisfying,” she says. “We loved those people.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com