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Originally published Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 10:04 PM

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Jerry Large

Saving the Batwa with art

Marsha Conn plans to help Batwa pygmies make art for profit. The Batwa need the income because their old ways of making a living have been...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Marsha Conn plans to help Batwa pygmies make art for profit.

The Batwa need the income because their old ways of making a living have been denied them. Worse, they have to reshape their culture to fit a new existence.

In the early 1990s they were moved out of their homes so that gorillas could have the mountain forests they once shared.

Conn is a retired teacher from Seattle whose acquaintance with the Batwa came about by chance, as is often the case with significant events.

Chance is also the way she became a teacher.

She told me she was approaching graduation from Boston University when her parents asked, 'Well, now what are you going to do for a living?' She hadn't given it a thought. So she took her English lit degree and applied to graduate school. She emerged an English teacher.

Conn taught in Chicago schools for 20 years before moving to Seattle in 1986. She had always integrated art work into her teaching and did more of that here including teaching other teachers how to do it before settling in at Seattle's Hawthorne Elementary School.

She loves traveling and nearly every summer during her teaching career, she would take off to see some new part of the world.

A few years ago, a friend bid at an auction on a trip for four to Bolivia to benefit Renton-based Smiles Forever, which trains girls to do dental work.

Conn went along and did an art project for the young girls.

A show at the Columbia City Gallery of portraits done by the Bolivians sold out on opening night and the money went to the girls.

Conn saw the power of art to help people. She volunteered with a different group, International Smile Power Foundation, headquartered in Sammamish, which works in several countries, doing dental work. She joined its first trip to Uganda to treat people who once lived in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

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That is how she met the Batwa in 2006. They were the original inhabitants of the mountain forests of Central Africa, and were subjugated by Bantu-speaking people.

They were discriminated against but maintained some control over their circumstances because of their forest expertise.

When governments in countries around the area began protecting gorillas (and attracting tourists who want to see the gorillas), the Batwa lost out again.

Now they live in settlements outside the ancestral forests. Centuries of accumulated knowledge of the forests is no longer useful.

To gain the skills they need now, their children attend schools, often seated at rough benches in small rooms with dirt floors.

The first group Conn met "were the most poverty-stricken people I've ever seen."

When she came back to Seattle, an image stuck with her: a woman and her baby sitting on a blanket on the side of a road. A pile of beans beside them was all they owned. And Conn was back in the midst of all her possessions.

She's been back four times in the past couple of years and now she wants to make a bigger difference.

She recruited seven artist friends to go with her next January. The artists are Marita Dingus, Lynn DiNino, Cheryl Johnson, Shari Kaufman, Annie Moorehouse, Jim Robbins and Joan Robbins. Photographer Judy Chambers will document the project.

They'll work in two teams that will each spend two weeks in Bwindiro and two weeks in Kitariro.

"I hope to go there and collaborate with them, not tell them what to do," she said. She wants them to make "a product that will sell and yet is true to their culture."

She calls the project the Volunteer Artist Program. There'll be a fundraiser May 23 at the Columbia City Gallery. For more information, phone the gallery at 206-760-9843, or e-mail Conn, marshaconn@comcast.net.

On her four most recent trips Conn collected stories that she feared would be lost as their culture evolves and she's putting them together in a small book illustrated with Batwa art.

She believes art can help preserve the past and help the Batwa secure a better future, too.

The thought makes me smile.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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