Pygmy tribe ventures from jungle

HOW does music with a sense of hope, emerge from world disasters, both natural and manmade? Former Evening Star photographer Nicky Lewin has just returned from studying the pygmies of Rwanda, and features editor TRACEY SPARLING reports on his cathartic musical mission.

HOW does music with a sense of hope, emerge from world disasters, both natural and manmade? Former Evening Star photographer Nicky Lewin has just returned from studying the pygmies of Rwanda, and features editor TRACEY SPARLING reports on his cathartic musical mission.

IN the early 1980s, Nicky Lewin's music career seemed set to take off.

He and his band had signed a publishing deal with the then unknown outside of the industry Simon Cowell. Yet a couple of years later Nicky had decided to follow his life's other passion, photography, seeing life on the road with the Mujahideen as the preferable option. From Afghanistan in 1988, Nicky went on to supply national newspapers with pictures of Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Rwanda, Zaire, The Congo and Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami as previously reported in the Evening Star.

As well as his press work, Nicky has worked a lot for humanitarian organisation Care International, twice winning the prestigious InterAction Humanitarian Photography Award.

His most recent trip with them was to the hills of Rwanda, to help the native Batwa tribe interact with the rest of the world for the first time. The images he produced capture their innocence and spirit, and after years of heartbreaking assignments, including one to the Congo when he saw children dying in the streets, Nicky found the experience restored his faith in the work.

He said: “In my mind I was not been going to do this any more, but then this job came along and it was a joy. It covers an extremely exciting programme in a transitional place, with people who are absolutely unspoiled and unique. It was truly the best job I have ever covered.”

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A famously small race, the Batwa are often not as small as the pygmies stereotyped by the outside world - most average around 5ft to 5ft3ins in height.

For entertainment, the community sings and dances, and Nicky said: “The harmonies are strangely beautiful, and the rhythms are both infectious and intriguing.

“The complex beats are hammered out on water cans, lumps of wood, and accompanied by hand clapping and foot stamping. The dust rises and soloists improvise with skill and precision. Their subjects range from a welcome to their guests to stories of Batwa life and history.”

Music always remained an important part of Nicky's life. Indeed recently he has been finding it an antidote to all the horror and suffering that makes up much of his work.

Music will come to him sometimes under the worst circumstances - which at first felt inappropriate. But Nicky has now decided that this music has to come out, and, despite still being an electric guitarist, he now blends an international hybrid of the music he was exposed to on his travels with the western music he has always listened to.

Nicky decided that the best way of expressing this sub-conscious music was the Spanish guitar, and with Flamenco being such an important bridge between east and west, he set out to explore this extremely taxing style. The fluid set of songs Espérer is the outcome of this very cathartic labour, reflecting all the emotions Nicky has shared with those caught up in manmade and natural humanitarian disasters around the world.

Espérer was performed for the first time at the Corn Exchange last week as part of Braincandy - a programme to showcase diverse creative talent in and around Ipswich.

Accompanied by projections of Nicky's photography, the performance is one man's unique insight in to the ravages of world upheaval, from AIDS to civil war to Tsunami. The damage, distress and turbulence created both by man and nature are all reflected in this work, however, as the name suggests, the overriding factor that comes out of this work is that of hope.

Bookings in and around the East Anglian region are currently being made, before a proposed national tour this winter.

The tiny country of Rwanda lies east of the huge forests of central Africa, known as the “Land of 1,000 Hills'. During 1994, one of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century struck this green and little known country, when the Tutsi and Hutu native people were thrown into a power struggle that led to dreadful consequences. Around a million people died in 100 days and another million fled for neighbouring countries as refugees.

A remarkable healing process is taking place 12 years later. Rather than let the seeds of racial hatred simmer, the Rwandan authorities are facing full on the problems that dogged this small land. Now, an infectious feeling of great optimism is sweeping the country, as trade and law and order improves by the day. Racial tensions are almost none existent as the government's plans to re-educate the population take hold.

The famous tea export market is now being matched by coffee exports and a more recent trade opportunity, flower exports. Old corruption problems have been addressed and the country is fast becoming a must place to visit for westerners who fancy the African experience.

The jewel in the crown is is undoubtedly the famed and unique gorillas. Rwandans are hugely proud of these fine creatures that inhabit the forested hills along the borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

Yet one minority group that has so far slipped the net in this atmosphere of change are the Batwa people, better known in the west as Pygmies. Around 34,000 of these forest-dwelling hunter gatherers live in Rwanda. For various reasons, including deforestation and the turmoil of recent years, the Batwa people are now at the crossroads of change. As newcomers to the modern way of life they face several basic problems in order to compete and survive.

Without the ability to read and write they are hugely disadvantaged. This leaves them impotent to run and develop decent business projects as they don't know how to tackle legal documents or know their rights. It leaves them wide open to sharp practice as money can be a mystery to many of them.

Tasks as simple as catching a bus can be confusing as they can't read road signs and understand where the bus is going.

With this in mind, CARE Rwanda is launching a literacy program for groups which have been missed by the authorities.

One such group is the Women's Group of Kinigi. A lively group of colourfully dressed ladies listen intently as CARE staff outline the program and tell them what is on offer. When asked 'who is interested?' 100 per cent of the 30 or so ladies enthusiastically raise their hands.

When the meeting is finished and forthcoming program has been outlined, the ladies break into a fabulous display of song and dance to celebrate new hope for the future.

They want to hear about human rights, literacy, and decent water. No handouts are on offer and none are asked for. This is about building a future on solid and equal basis, something the Batwa people crave with a passion.

CASE STUDY. In the small town of Haruna, a group of about 30 women wait with anticipation for the CARE team to arrive. They are to be informed of the forthcoming reading and writing program and also receive a lesson in human rights and Rwandan equality laws.

As CARE regional co-ordinator Christine Bamurange and project manager Sam Munyankindi go through the important information, the women listen with great interest as they sit on benches placed on the black volcanic rock ground. Their dress is colourful and lively, the beautifully patterned cotton shawls impossible to ignore.

36-year-old Nyirabaremera Hadidga tells her story of hardship bought about in part by a lack of education. The work is scarce and her husband takes vegetables and other crops to the market across steep hills, when the work is available.

Nyirabaremera has four children aged 17, 10, seven, and 10 months. She cannot read or write and is very keen to learn for a variety of reasons. She would like to be able to read road signs, to be able to look for work and income further afield.

If her children write her a letter she could read it in private rather than ask somebody else to read her the confidential information.

Only one of her four children has been to school as she can't afford the fees to send the others. If she could read and write she could partake in political elections and apply for official documents such as land rights, and she would be able to understand what was in these documents rather than take the word of somebody else.

She would also like to read the bible and better know God's word.

Among the joyous singing and dancing, one voice rings loud and clear above the rest.

A tiny woman of slight build in bright yellow-patterned cotton sings with such passion and glee that the onlooker is immediately drawn to her presence. This is 30-year-old Betty Beatrice Mukandori.

During the 1994 genocide her husband was hacked to death by crazed killers. She was eight months pregnant at the time. For the next month she ran in all directions, fleeing the executers who for some reason saw Batwa people as fair prey. Tragically, when she gave birth to the baby it was stillborn, probably due to the trauma of the previous four weeks.

Since then, she has had no regular home and often relies on other people to give her shelter for a night or sleeps in derelict buildings. Sometimes she has found work for which she is paid in food. Other times it is regular for her to go two days without eating. Water is also a major problem and she has had to overcome sickness on a regular basis.

On a good day she sells other peoples pots for proper currency as income. At times she has been chased out of markets and towns by locals.

With no-one to help her, Betty's story is one of unrelenting survival and remarkable human spirit.

Her radiant smile belies the terrible life she has been dealt. Her thirst for life is as inspirational as it is confounding. This amazing woman has managed to pick up small amounts of reading and writing and after six hours in the company of CARE Rwanda staff, she was already speaking small amounts of English.

Her personal wish is to build and own a proper house with brick walls, kitchen and bedroom. But for all that life has dealt this astonishing woman, Betty's dreams are for others. More than anything she wishes to learn to read and write, and then teach the Batwa people so that their lives can improve.