The Batwa Pymies – Complete Guide about the Batwa Pygmy History and Culture, Batwa Trail Experience, Batwa People, Batwa tribe Uganda.
Also known as “pygmies” the Batwa are the original inhabitants of the montane rainforests in the southwestern part of Uganda and in the northern part of Rwanda and this is the reason to why they are also referred to as “The Keepers of the forest”. Before they were evicted from the forest in the 1990s, they lived there as hunters and gatherers and there practices did not cause any harm to the environment because they did not destroy land for purposes such as agriculture. Therefore, after eviction, life became very hard since they did not have land for activities such as farming to sustain their lives and they are some one of the poorest people in the world. The Batwa people lived in the forest of Bwindi in Uganda in Kisoro and Kabale districts with the mountain gorillas and other forest residents for thousands of years before they were evicted. They constructed huts using leaves and branches for shelter. Today, they are conservation refugees living outside the forest and their communities are one of the places visited by tourists to learn about their culture and traditional lifestyle.
The Batwa people are few in number and according to the population census of 2002, there was 6,000 Batwa in Uganda living in the districts of Kisoro, Kabale, Kanungu, Rungungiri and Bundibugyo but have become extinct and they to less than 3,000 today. Before they were evicted from the forests, there was ownership of an area of the forest by each clan where they collected food including vegetables, wild fruits, honey and mushrooms as well as herbal medicine. Batwa are short people with an average height of four feet.
Batwa were great protectors of the forest as they lived there with gorillas and other animals and constructed huts that did not require destruction of the forest until the bantu started occupying areas close to the forest and started to destroy the forest for purposes of material for house construction, charcoal and more.
In Rwanda, the Batwa are called “Twa”. These people were considered in at the time when Rwanda became a kingdom. In different ways, they used to pay tribute to the Tutsi King and they also attended the court of the king as advisers, warriors and dancers. The Batwa were given a task of dealing with encroachers on the forest by obtaining a payment from them.
In 1991, the government of Uganda evicted all people who lived in the forest and closest to the forest for protection of the wildlife as national parks, that is Bwindi and Mgahinga. The Bantu were compensated for their land yet they lived around the forest while destroying it to obtain resources whereas the Batwa were not compensated yet they actually protected and lived in harmony with the forest and all the animals especially the mountain gorillas. This was so unfortunate for them and life really became so difficult for them since resources to sustain their lives and herbal medicine were harvested from the forest. They started living a new life that was difficult for them since they did not have skills for other activities besides having no land and this made them very poor in their new communities. They became beggars, started stealing and also worked for other people as servants who paid them little wages. The Batwa were not supported by both the government and non-Batwa in the nearby communities and there were even no intermarriages with these people. However, these non-Batwa people believe that when people infected with HIV/AIDS get cured when they sleep with Batwa and this has forced them to always rape the Batwa women. This is one of the harsh violence the Batwa have faced from the non-Batwa in the surrounding communities.
Later on in 2001, American medical missionaries Dr Scott and Carol Kellermanns rescued them by purchasing land where different programs were established to improve the conditions of lives of these pygmies. Houses, hospitals and schools were constructed and water and sanitation projects developed and this greatly improved their situation.
As years past, their traditions and cultural ways of gathering and hunting were being threatened. It was only stories that were being left unlike in the past where these practices were passed on to the young ones by teaching them how to hunt and gather in the forest. The Batwa have not lost hope and still believe and have a dream that they will one time go back to the forest and live there again. However, this may never happen again because these primates need to be protected from contact with human beings. On the other hand, was good work that the forest was protected as national parks because the population increase of the people living around the forest is high and these would have surely have massively encroached and destroyed the resources of this natural rich forest.
The Batwa have continued to enjoy the resources and work from the Batwa Development Program (BDP) which is supported by Kellermann Foundation.
Keeping the history of the culture and traditions of the Batwa
When the Batwa were evicted from the forest, they did not have other places to go for hunting and gathering and these cultural ways and others started being lost. In 2011, Uganda Wildlife Authority, USAID and the Netherland’s embassy in Kampala collaborated and started the Batwa Cultural Trail to keep the backbone of their traditions and culture. There are Batwa guides who take visitors through the trail to areas where they lived in the forest before eviction and they demonstrate how they gathered, hunted and more. Half of the fee for this activity is allocated to Batwa communities.
Other activities that have been put in place to support the culuetr of the Batwa from extinction and also to support the lives of these people are the Batwa Experience which was set up by Kellermann Foundation just outside Bwindi and the Buniga Batwa forest Walk and village visit program also outside the park on the southern side of the forest. These tourism programs are a source of income which is used to support the Batwa hence improving their lives and engaging them in protection of the national parks.
A visit to the Batwa
There are several areas in Uganda where you can choose to visit the Batwa. They offer thrilling experiences for the tourists and also benefit the Batwa by earning them income and keeping their cultures, history and practices. These include;
The Batwa trail
This trail is located in Mgahinga national park and it offers an opportunity to learn about how the Batwa lived in the forest, how they hunted, how the gathered and you’ll also see how they dance in the caves. Walking through the trail is led by a Mutwa (singular for Batwa) guide.
The Batwa experience
This experience takes place in Buhoma just outside Bwindi forest. It lasts for about 5 hours where you learn about how they used to collect food and fruits from the forest, how they used to cook, harvest medicine and many other practices in the forest.
Buninga Batwa forest walk
This forest walk offers an opportunity to visit the villages of the Batwa and see what they do for a living including making crafts. You’ll be told stories about how they used to live in the forest and how they hunted and gathered food. The Buniga forest walk takes place in the southern part of Bwindi and you can take part in it if you are trekking for gorillas in Rushaga or Nkuringo sectors. This community program was started by the African Wildlife Fund and is sponsored by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. It has also been of great benefit to the Batwa and the park because it earns a living to cater for needs of the Batwa and this reduces poaching.