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COVID-19 and Indigenous Women in East Africa: Emerging Impacts, Responses and Opportunities

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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, calls have been made for continuing analyses of its impacts on and dynamics among the world’s most vulnerable groups and peoples. Indigenous peoples have been recognized as one of the groups at heightened risk for COVID-19 and its many adverse socio-economic and other impacts. This brief summarizes emerging evidence on the impact, responses and opportunities related to COVID-19 among Indigenous people in East Africa.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the East African Community (EAC) occurred in March 2020 in Nairobi, Kenya. Since then, the pandemic has continued to spread, albeit with much reduced case incidence, morbidity and mortality than were initially anticipated. Countries in the region responded to COVID-19 with curfews, closure of schools, lockdowns, mask mandates and strict measures on physical distancing. Currently, however, state engagement with the pandemic in East Africa can, at best, be described as uneven. While Rwanda continues to implement a reasonably robust public health response to the pandemic, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli declared the country “coronavirus-free” in June 2020, forestalling access to evidence on the pandemic in the country. In the meantime, the virus continues to spread in the region with major socioeconomic implications for different groups, including Indigenous peoples.

Defined as “distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy or from which they have been displaced,” Indigenous peoples often depend on access and rights to their traditional lands and the natural resources that such lands hold. Many of these people live in hard-to-reach, geographically isolated areas and experience political and social neglect.

Indigenous communities live in 35 countries in Africa, often as hunter-gatherers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and agro-pastoralists. While they own, occupy or use only a small area of the continent, they safeguard much of its remaining biodiversity. Indigenous peoples rely on their ancestral knowledge and expertise to adapt to, mitigate or reduce climate, disaster, health and several other risks.

East Africa hosts millions of Africa’s Indigenous people. In Ethiopia, Indigenous peoples comprise 15 percent of the country’s estimated population of over 105 million. They are primarily pastoralists and sedentary farmers in the Ethiopian lowlands and several huntergatherer communities, including the forest-dwelling Majang and Anuak. Kenya’s Indigenous peoples form 25 percent of its population. Mainly pastoralists, huntergatherers, fisherfolk and small farming communities, they include the Turkana, Rendille, Borana, Maasai, Samburu, Ilchamus, Somali, Gabra, Pokot, Endorois, Ogiek, Sengwer, Yiaku, Waata and Awer. In Rwanda, the Batwa people, an indigenous, forest-living group, number about 33,000. Tanzania is home to over half a million Indigenous people including hunter-gatherers like the Akie and Hadzabe, and pastoralists such as the Parakuyo, Barabaig and Maasai. An estimated 1.2 million Indigenous people live in Uganda. These include the Benet, Batwa, Ik and the Karamojong and Basongora pastoralists. Substantial numbers of Indigenous people are also found in other Eastern African countries, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Although their livelihoods diverge, East Africa’s Indigenous peoples are united by a shared history of vulnerability, marginalization, land tenure insecurity, poverty and inadequate political representation. They regularly experience poor social services delivery, discrimination, exclusion, dispossession, and demeaning stereotypes. In Tanzania, the Indigenous Barbaig pastoralists in Hanan’g District were evicted by the state from their 10,000 acres of pastureland to make way for the National Agriculture and Food Corporation (NAFCO)—a now-defunct governmentowned corporation—to cultivate wheat with financial support from the Government of Canada. In Rwanda, the Batwa continue to suffer discrimination and mistreatment by the majority Hutu and Tutsi who call them abasigajwe iynuma n’amateka (those left behind by civilization).