Using art to help communities: The Benet Story
What do you do as a minority community in a greater Uganda when you find yourself landless and your heritage about to be extinguished? The Benet people, high up on mount Elgon in the district of Kapchorwa, have chosen to tackle their fight for recognition and preservation of culture through art, being helped by two Dutch artists, Arno Peeters and Iris Honderdos.
Written by Elizabeth Namakula
When you meet Arno and Iris—they are a couple—you are tempted to conclude they are two white people without better use of their time than to frolic on Mt Elgon among a little known indigenous tribe to satisfy whatever fancy whim that drives people from developed countries to the third world.
However, on close inspection, theirs has been a noble goal driven by passion to help others through art.
Four hundred members of the Benet indigenous people were in February 2008 forcibly resettled from a 1,500 hectare area within the Mount Elgon National Park. The people were allegedly evicted without alternate land allocation and received no compensation.
It is the latest chapter of a longer story: The evicted people were part of a larger group of Benet people who 25 years earlier had been resettled by the Obote government into what became known as the Benet Resettlement Area, to make way for what would be the Mount Elgon National Park.
The 2008 evictions allegedly occurred despite the fact that, according to a 27 October 2005 Consent Judgment and Decree of the Ugandan High Court, the 1,500 hectare area in question had to be withdrawn from its designation as a National Park area, and the indigenous Benet inhabitants therein were entitled to stay within the area undisturbed and carry out their agricultural activities.
(For more information, click here.)
The temporary resettlement area to which the Benet were moved is reportedly inadequate for them to sustain their traditional agricultural practices and maintain their traditional livelihoods.
In some resettlement areas, Benet families were given inadequate amounts of land for subsistence; and, according to information received, in one resettlement within a privately owned area, they have not been allowed to cultivate any crops. For fear of mud slides, like those in Bududa, they are prohibited to set up permanent housing units by both the private landowner and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
On 22nd December 2012 the Benet artwork installation was presented by the artists to the Benet people, the Residential District Commissioners of Kween and Kapchorwa District, and the media.
The artwork installation includes these elements:
The baskets are mounted on the stems and symbolize ancient trade among the Benet. Benet women used to trade them for either money or food. A basket could be exchanged for the amount of maize, wheat or rice it could hold.
Baskets are still used to greet visitors as a symbol of good will.
Each basket has a pointed end painted white, red and green, each with a different meaning. White stands for the elders and prophets, black stands for their judges, green for herbal healers, and red for all those that died in the evictions.
The poles stand for the Benet ancestral heritage, which is the paramount identity that they refer to. When they are many, they resemble a forest. They are grouped 4 times 4, a holy numerical value within the Benet society.
Anything 4 times 4 is considered to be good, for example; before circumcision a boy needs to run around his hut four times before the ritual can take place.
Each pole represents a deceased member of the Benet.
Children’s drawings on cardboard
The drawings are made by the Benet children, each to represent a favorite animal of fancy.
The children were asked to imagine what they would do if they had land or ten thousand shillings. For land they drew plants and animals, and for the money they mostly said they wanted clothes and shoes.
All this is communicated in the drawings which are crowded on cardboard. This is translated as a lack of space, reflective of their environment.
Seedlings mean that if you can plant, then you have a future and you are forward-looking. Since most of the Benets reside in the forests up on Mount Elgon, the forest is a central part to their livelihoods as traditionally, they are gatherers.
The soundtrack includes music filled with a natural ambience and narratives by the elders and school children, telling the stories of Benet cultural norms and ritual of the past.
Sarah Cherukut, who has been working with the two artists, interprets the soundtrack as follows:
“The food we used to eat was honey and milk. After making baskets, we could bring them to the people on the lower slopes (Bunambutye) during harvesting seasons, where we could exchange them with food (e.g. maize) that we could not grow up on the mountain.”
During ancient days, people could not go to the hospitals for treatment, instead we could collect our local herbs from the forest and cure them inside our houses; we could not easily fall sick and people could become 150 years old!
In Benet society, there was no police needed. There were elders who were responsible for all things that could happen community wide; they would come and settle issues, especially when two families fought or a killing had occurred. Such issues could be compensated with cows, also to avoid future challenges like sicknesses and death that might reign over them.”
Elderly woman 1:
“In the forests we had many cows, which could provide milk and cow dung, which was used to smear houses; this was because we found our grandmothers doing the same.
The challenge we have now is that most of our cows have been stolen by the park rangers and others have died… we are lacking more land to tend the few animals we have.
Here circumcision was valued as a ritual. Different people from different communities would come together and be informed of which cow was to be slaughtered as a sign of happiness, ordered by our prophets… Not every animal was allowed e.g. a black cow could be used to chase away bad omen and curses.”
“Caves during the past were very crucial to the Benet People in the following ways: Caves could act as places to be lived in by the people. Many rituals would be performed; women who had produced twins were kept in the caves.
Animals would lick soda ash from the cave-walls, after which they could produce more milk and blood, which was eaten and enjoyed by the people so we would not easily fall sick. But nowadays this has disappeared hence we are requesting the government to allow us go back to our former places, in order to resume our practices.”
Elderly woman 1:
“Because there were no antenatal services, a pregnant woman was given local medicine from tree-skins to eat until the time for delivery was reached; we have a belief that our medicine works stronger and those trees should not allowed to be cut from the forests.”
The purpose of the artworks
Of the installation Arno says:
“This artwork about the Benet is part of the project called Development with Identity, sponsored by the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in the Netherlands, an independent center for knowledge and expertise in the areas of Intercultural Cooperation and home to the world’s most prominent ethnographic museums.”
According to the couple, 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 for these changes. This results in local site-specific community-based installations, accompanied by video and sound,” Iris adds.
Did the artwork invoke any reactions from the representatives of the government that were present?
“When a group of men, including some elders, got up and tuned their instruments and proceeded in dance, the rest of the Benet people joined in, some waving their baskets like Acholi calabashes. They sang; calling for the restoration of their culture, praising the benefits of the forest and issuing a stern warning to women not to be loose. The Resident District Commissioner of Kapchorwa, Mrs Jane Frances Kuka, couldn’t help but joined in herself.”
Later the RDC was to say:
“Before 1998, the Benet people were not like this. They have come a long way. We do acknowledge that the delay of implementation of a solution by the government has been a problem. Seeing the art symbols today, I have a clear picture of the Benet people now, and I do apologize on behalf of the government for those that have lost their lives in the struggle.”
Cherotwo Jossyn, speaking on behalf of the LC5 chairperson of Kapchorwa District, said:
“At first I didn’t understand the concerns of the Benet, but art goes a longer way than words can ever do. At the point we are at now, the Benet should be resettled peacefully.”
About the artists
Iris Honderdos has global experience producing community-based art on location. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Utrecht. Iris makes three-dimensional installation artwork, often combining her interests as a photographer and video-artist.
Arno Peeters is a composer and sound artist. He is a producer and editor for Dutch National Radio. His company offers services for radio, feature films and video games. His surround sound and interactive audio applications have featured at international festivals.
Since 2004, the two artists have been working together and their method of working has proven to be suitable for alternative research. Relying on participatory observation and communication techniques to learn about the emotional currents and relations that shape the community they are working in. They have worked with minors in Czech Republic, villages in Finland and also with HIV-infected women in Vietnam.
Makerere Art Gallery / IHCR will host the exhibition Rooted, opening January 18 2013 at 4pm, until January 31. For more information, click here.
Elizabeth Namakula is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda. Her short story “A World of Our Own” was recently published in the Femrite-collection “World of Our Own”.
All images by courtesy of the artists.