An art installation about and with the Benet, Forest People of East Africa.

Here is the transcript and translation of the art installation seen in the video.

This project follows the lived experiences of Iris Honderdos, an installation-artist and her partner Arno Peeters, a composer and sound artist. The collaborating duo are self-described ‘community based’ artists from the Netherlands. Rooted is a journey that brings to light the disruptions that cultures face when they stand in the way of big projects. In this respect, Mt. Elgon, lush with beautiful trees, scenic views and cascading waterfalls is also the enviable heartland of the Benet community. As the Benet homeland, it is a perfect metaphor for what is wrong with the world today; poverty in the midst of plenty. In 1992 when Mt. Masaba (Elgon) was gazetted as National Park, violent evictions followed, leading to loss of lives and property.

Being Forest People, the idyllic lifestyle of the Benet was brutally excised out of coexistence with their life giving forest. Presently the assaults on indigenous communities throughout Uganda and globally arrive with increased militarisation and bulldozers under the guise of development projects. However seductive the lures of contemporary ideas of modernity, locals are usually unprepared for changes and muster any form of resistance in order to save their ways. There is a struggle to survive, and the memory of evictions becomes a form of protest. Culture is a strong balm to cope with the loss of cherished traditions and material possessions. This resilience is still resonant in ancient expressions like fine basketry, weaving, songs, dances and spoken word.

Mt. Elgon has been immortalized in popular fiction by best selling author Richard Preston. In his 1994 book The Hot Zone, parts of the book feature Kitum cave on Mt. Elgon as the habitat for the host of a hemorrhagic virus.

Whereas the international media is fixated on poverty, and its limitless inspiration for poverty barons, culture on the other hand offers more refreshing alternatives for dignified reflections on rather bitter situations.

Deyu African met up with Arno Peeters in an e-mail interview to look at how culture provides opportunities to meet the real needs of communities.

DA: How did your project materialise?

AP: Iris and I have been working as independent artists for years now, but our method of working has proven to be very suitable for alternative research, since we are using participatory observation and communication techniques to learn about emotional currents and relations that shape the community we are working with. We have worked with miners in the Czech Republic, villagers in Finland, but also HIV infected women in Vietnam.

This artwork about the Benet is part of the project Development with Identity from The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in The Netherlands, an independent centre of knowledge and expertise in the areas of international and intercultural cooperation and is also home to one of the world’s most prominent ethnographic museums.

The project aims to examine and counter stereotypes of indigenous people. We want to show, based on some concrete examples, how indigenous and minority cultures have changed across generations and examine the drivers of these changes. This result in local, site-specific community based installations, accompanied by video and sound.

The first part of this project took place in August this year in Meghalaya in northeast India where we worked with the Khasi people and for the second part we have been working with the Benet people in East Uganda. We want to take this opportunity to thank them for trusting us with their stories and without their help and that of the Royal Tropical Institute, none of this would have been possible!

The title of the project and final exhibition is rather ironic. What’s going on?

The Benets were ‘rooted’ up on Mount Elgon, where their life was in perfect balance. Than they were ‘uprooted’ to be planted down on the lower slopes. But many Benet have not taken root there, partly out of anxiety and uncertainty, but also since their roots are still attached to the soil of their forefathers. This seems to halt their progress as a community. Whether this is the result of pride, nostalgia or stubbornness or a mix of all, we cannot determine. But it is their true heritage, which will soon be forgotten if the roots are not watered well: that is why the seedlings in the installation are hanging just above the ground.

The situation of the Benet is very much tied to globalisation. There are legitimate arguments that poor countries need to open their markets to competition while native populations argue that it is merely the theft of territories in order to access natural resources. Can there be a middle ground that respects the cultures and practices of indigenous peoples?

In many cases, indigenous people are not part of the economic equation. In some regions there may be a preference to use other terms such as tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups or ‘adivasi’. This preference can have a political dimension: indigenous people can claim certain rights, including land and land use rights, that these other groups cannot claim. This hinders both effective development and cultural heritage programs. And here, stereotypes often have political meaning: they reflect power relations.

In the case of the Benet and Mount Elgon National Park, their ancient knowledge of the forest and it’s medicinal herbs could be used for conservation purposes and even serve eco-tourism, as has been successfully proven in e.g. Thailand and Ecuador. So if asked if there could be a middle ground, we’d say: eco-tourism.

Economic policies in Uganda currently prioritize profits over the lives of indigenous communities. Have your ideas about poverty expanded after seeing all the natural wealth that the Benet community has been alienated from?

‘Poor in Paradise’ is something we have seen before in other places in the world. But what has really touched us is the humble nature of the Benet. Up in Mengya we asked schoolchildren (P2 and up) what they would buy if they would have USX100.000 ($35) but they could not come up with anything, since the figure alone baffled them. When asked to draw what they’d buy with USX10.000, they started drawing shoes; most children go barefoot there, even with temperatures dropping well below 10 degrees. One boy also drew a small dress to go with it: if there would be some money left, it would be for his little sister.

Another important thing we have learned is how unfair it is to evict people from a place where they were living in perfect harmony with their environment (“no police, schools or hospitals were needed” they say) and to confront them with a world that is strange to them: the Benets had no sense of land-ownership, since all land used to be communal and they fell sick, since their immune system was not used to the different environment. And in the years that followed, access to education and healthcare has not been provided, although politicians have made shiny promises on many occasions.
The result is poor development, which make the Benet an easy target for stereotyping them as ’backwards’ or ‘encroachers’ etc.

All powerful art speaks to power. What do you hope to communicate to the government of Uganda and concessionaires both local and foreign about balancing the needs of local communities and profit?

It is paramount to cherish what is left of this vulnerable heritage: the Benets are captives of the land-issue, rendering many cultural expressions useless. There is no need for art, song or dance, let alone any material culture, when all efforts have to go to surviving on a daily basis.

Aside from settling the land issues in a proper way (as per Consent Judgment and Decree of the Ugandan High Court from 27 October 2005), it is evident that disrupting balanced ecosystems and communities only will create the need for more investments in the long term to battle social inequity and possible political unrest.

This project has been a collaboration in the vein of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera or our very own Wasswa Donald Augustin and Nabukenya Helen. Perhaps it would be more closer to home mentioning Rem Koolhaas and Madelon Vriesendorp? What are the creative advantages of working with a partner?

If you are already ‘synchronised’ by living together 24/7, as we do, it can give you the ability to reflect and ponder without too much explanation. You are also better aware of the artistic pitfalls, potholes and potentials of your partner, making warnings or critique much more direct and to the point.

And finally, a very clear advantage is of course sharing the workload efficiently, according to each other’s strength.

The final result of your endeavours in all cases becomes a permanent gift to the community.This is a brilliant move, what reactions do you get?

That strongly depends on who will be the final beneficiary: in Meghalaya (India) the artwork ended up in the biggest ethnographic museum in the region, which is a real bonus, since the information is permanently accessible for both the Khasi and outsiders, who in turn can learn about Khasi culture.

For the Benet, it would have been difficult, since a place is needed to put it up and constant explanation is needed, since without it the work soon could be used as firewood (no joke) and as of recent, no such place was available.

But two good developments have come to light: we have managed to work very cost-effectively, meaning we have budget enough to let the installation travel to Kampala where it will be on display at the Makerere Arts Department between January 18 -31st. Aside from having Mr. Kiptala Moses, who is a very important spokesman for the Benet, we also will try to let some Benet come over to the opening to demonstrate their fantastic dancing and singing.

And after this, the artwork will be ferried back to Kapchorwa, where, as we write, plans are materializing to build a small ‘Benet Cultural Centre’ in Mengya, where ‘Rooted’ will be on display for years to come. A better finale we could not have envisioned.

Would you ever do it again?

Every day if possible! But this year has been an exceptional busy year for us: we traveled to Sierra Leone, than to India, back again to Sierra Leone to wrap up our work there and than straight on for six weeks in Uganda. For just a short moment, we don’t mind being at home…

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  1. Pingback: Rooted – Documentation and Interview « Makerere Art Gallery / IHCR

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