FOR over 200 years, the Benet, also referred to as the Ndorobo, have lived on the slopes of Mt Elgon. The group is currently being evicted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), which claims that they settled in a wildlife protected area.
Who are the Benet?
This is the ethnic group of people living on the moor land of Mt. Elgon. They are closely related to the Sabiny-speaking people in Kapchorwa and the Kalenjin in Kenya.
Unlike the Sabiny, the Benet occupy the upper part of the mountain, some living as far as 6,000 feet above sea level.
In addition to being pastoralists, the Benet gather fruits, harvest honey and hunt wild game.
They began facing land problems in 1930 when the colonial government declared Mt. Elgon a crown forest. According to Andyema Banan, a Benet aged 57, this is when the marginalisation of his community started.
â€œOur ancestors lived in the forest. We are part of it. It is the park that encroached on us,â€ he explains.
â€œWe were carved into a forest reserve and just because we were few, we were left to rot in poverty while other areas developed,â€ he says.
A walk through the Benet area, located 45km from Kapchorwa town, proves Bananâ€™s statement. The roads are impassable and there are no schools or health centres. In the 1970s, the number that had hitherto been small, started growing, increasing pressure on land. The group started clearing the area for agriculture.
David Mukhwana, the Kapchorwa district land rights desk officer, says: â€œIt was at this point that the Government realised the negative effects of the community to the environment.â€
The Government then put in place 6,000 hectares of land as resettlement for the Benet between Kere and Kaptokwoi rivers.
â€œThe Benet were given 10 years to settle in the area. While some obliged, others remained in the reserve,â€ says Mukhwana.
Chebet Siraj, the district production secretary, says in 1983, the Government started the resettlement exercise that gazetted six zones, spelling out allocations for the Benet, the indigenous, the needy and the internally-displaced persons.
The Benet, however, say they were not included in the resettlement exercise, which lasted two years.
â€œWe were neither given a resettlement package nor ample time to clear the dense forest,â€ said David Kanda, the coordinator of the Benet lobby group.
He says 10 years later in 1993, when the land was surveyed again, it was discovered that more land had been given out than anticipated.
The fate of those allocated beyond the 6,000 hectares remains in balance.
It is this unresolved land question that has escalated the conflict between the community and the Government.
â€œThere is bad blood brewing between the indigenous settlers (Ndorobo) and the new ones who have been declared landless in their own land,â€ explains Kanda, one of the only three graduates in the community comprising about 9,000 people.
Kanda says the park authorities have been brutal in enforcing their policies.
â€œIncidences of shooting and killing people have been reported,â€ he said. The impounding of cattle and payment of hefty fines for those found grazing in the park, has aggravated the conflict.
â€œSince 1992 when the area beyond the 6,000 hectares was declared a protected zone, no development has been done, leaving residents in abject poverty,â€ said Chebet.
Children have to travel 15km to school. â€œThe drop- out rate is 90%, coupled with early marriages,â€ he said.
Girls marry off as early as 12 years. The overall literacy rate is as low as 1%.
Kanda, a graduate of Social Sciences from Makerere University (the third in the community), says a pressure group was formed to fight for the rights of the Benets.
â€œWe realised that unless we spoke for ourselves, nobody would do so. The pressure group united us and we speak as one voice,â€ he said.
Landless in own homeland: The woes of Mt Elgon dwellers