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Towards integration: Zimbabwe’s forgotten indigenous community

August 12, 2022
topic:Indigenous people
tags:#Zimbabwe, #Indigenous People's Day, #indigenous people, #Doma indigenous community, #integration, #gender equality, #Reproductive Rights
by:Cyril Zenda
In the Kanyemba area in northeastern Zimbabwe, along the Zambezi River that forms the border with Zambia lives the Doma community, one of the country’s only two indigenous peoples. It is a hunter-gatherer community that has, for centuries, eked out a penurious existence on the margins of society. As modernity swallows up everything in its wake, this forgotten community is finally being remembered

But unlike other rural communities in the country where mobile phone connection is the only service they struggle to access, to the Doma community, the basics of modern life such as roads, schools and clinics are among those things that they only dream of. 

For centuries, the Doma have lived this way in the forest – isolated from the rest of the nation – with little to no clothing or shelter. They have survived on hunting and gathering, and this has continued to this day where they do without modern conveniences such as electricity, potable water or even toilets.

While the government does not identify any specific group as indigenous, emphasising that all Zimbabweans are indigenous peoples, the Doma self-identify as indigenous. Their tribe numbers an estimated 1,500 according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), a non-governmental human rights organisation. The IWGIA explains that virtually all members of the Doma community live below the poverty line and – together with the Tshwa, another indigenous group – they comprise some of the poorest people in the country. Both communities have histories of hunting and gathering and their households are now trying diversified economies, including informal agricultural work for other groups, pastoralism, tourism and small-scale business enterprises.

However, after decades of neglect, the government, some religious groups and some non-profits have started reaching out to this community with the intention of integrating it into mainstream society. 

For FairPlanet, Cyril Zenda interviewed Arthur Gwagwa, an international academic who has done research for the Minority Rights Group on Zimbabwe’s indigenous and minority peoples, asking him to share what he discovered about the Doma community.

FairPlanet: Who are the Doma People?

Arthur Gwagwa: The Doma or vaDoma (singular muDoma), also known as Dema, are a tribe living in the Kanyemba region in the north of Zimbabwe, especially in the Hurungwe and Chiporiro districts around the basins of Mwazamutanda River. They are one of the only two traditional hunter-gatherers indigenous to Zimbabwe. 

A substantial minority of vaDoma has a condition known as ectrodactyly, in which the middle three toes are absent and the two outer ones are turned in, resulting in the tribe being known as the “two-toed” or “ostrich-footed” tribe. Due to the vaDoma tribe’s isolation, they have developed and maintained ectrodactyly, and their comparatively small gene pool has resulted in the condition being much more frequent than elsewhere.

What did your research discover about the indigenous people of Zimbabwe?

In my research I found out the Doma community remains one of the most excluded and disadvantaged based on all social indicators. The average person in Zimbabwe does not know the Doma community exists.

Can you describe the exclusion and disadvantages that this community suffers?

Mashonaland Central (Province) generally scores low on development indicators, but this is acute in the Doma community. This under-development is in part also attributable to the reclusive nature of these people, some of whom have been running away from public services for years. The community is not represented at any level. It is not well documented: for example, most of them do not know their age or when they were born. They have a challenge with animals, they complain that the animals - especially elephants and lions - are encroaching into their territory but it appears they are encroaching into the animals’ habitation. 

Most children do not go to school, which is 15 kilometres away, and absence from school has been worsened by the fear of wild animals. 

Then there are also health issues. Some, if not most of the girls, marry at 14/15 (years) and do not access antenatal services, leading to home deliveries. Some of them have a genetic defect as they have only two or three toes and fingers. The defect has been passed on due to inter-marriages and some that happens within a close family unit. Mingling with the neighbouring Korekore and Karanga (tribes) has exposed them to HIV and AIDS. 

The average Zimbabwean does not know the Doma people exist.

So far, what interventions have helped this community?

There are efforts to work with the Africa WildLife Foundation to help raise awareness on human-wildlife conflict and with the Registrar General’s Office to help with registration of birth certificates and national identity cards through mobile outreach sessions.

There is also a need to prioritise the work of local groups working on integration and the work of outside groups that have good knowledge of cultural practices in their historical context. A good example is the work that is being done by groups like the Katswe Sistahood (a regional non-profit that works with women and girls in the Doma community), especially its unique approach to inclusion through the lenses of gender and youth. It is important to engage adolescents since social norms and attitudes, including towards gender, are shaped during this formative period. Katswe Sistahood’s work recognises that women’s rights are human rights, and through external support they will be in a position to understand the community’s needs in order to tailor their support in a more targeted manner. A targeted and cross-cutting feminist approach recognise that women’s rights are human rights that promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is the most effective approach to eradicating poverty and achieving the Sustainable Development goals. To achieve this, there is a need to empower women and girls to reach their full potential so they can earn their own livelihoods, which will benefit families and their community. 

As part of the feminist approach, there are ongoing efforts to improve the lives of women and girls, seeking to to put an end to child marriages, to increase an understanding of sexual and reproductive rights, to provide maternal, newborn and child health, to promote access to education, to support women’s inclusion in local peace negotiations (including in human-animal conflict), and in programmes aimed at improving community resilience to the effects of climate change. It is transformative and activist: unequal power relations and systemic discrimination, as well as harmful norms and practices are being challenged, and a broad range of stakeholders—including men and boys— are being engaged.

Most children do not go to school, which is 15 kilometres away.

How can the Doma community be integrated into mainstream society without losing their identity and cultural heritage?

The government should work with local groups in a non-dominating way. At the same time, the Doma should realise that freedom is not equivalent to non-interference. Like the feminist concept of relational autonomy, the concept of freedom as non-domination refers to a set of social relations. Non-domination is the position that someone enjoys when they live in the presence of other people and when, by virtue of social design, none of those others dominates them.

How Can This Be Achieved?

By relying on the ‘do no harm’ conflict-sensitive approach and the need to advance national cohesion, support should not be used to further separate the indigenous people or place their needs above everyone else’s, but for them to integrate in the mainstream society on mutual and negotiated terms, and in a manner that respects their human rights, including cultural rights. The larger social and political society should not seek to co-opt them into dominant ethnic groups, as has happened historically, but instead work towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and building relationships between major ethnic groups and the Indigenous People - all based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.

Thank you very much for sharing this with our readers.

My pleasure.

Photo by Henrik Hansen

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Many individuals of The Doma tribe are affected with ectrodactyly, in which the middle three toes are absent and the two outer ones are turned in.
© The Sunday Mail Zimbabwe
Many individuals of The Doma tribe are affected with ectrodactyly, in which the middle three toes are absent and the two outer ones are turned in.
Embed from Getty Images
Some women in Zimbabwe lack access to education due to gender segregation. The Katswe Sistahood non-profit seeks to promote gender equality and equal opportunities in the region.
© Getty Images / Gideon Mendel
Embed from Getty Images
The Doma community have challenges with the region's wildlife, such as elephants, which they believe are encroaching on their camps and territories.
© Getty Images / Vicki Jauron
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