Batwa Pygmies: Life Outside Bwindi Forest Uganda

There are few places I’d be willing to return in the short space of a month and Bwindi Impenetrable National park is one of them. I had high hopes of discovering new scenes of the forest and learning about the Batwa in the area during my stay at Mahogany Springs lodge.

I met up with Gerald at 9:00am who took me on the hour-long Batwa experience tour.

The Batwa are short-statured Pygmies who lived in harmony with the forest and it’s creatures including the mountain gorillas. Known as the “Keepers of the forest”, they survived by hunting small game using small traps, arrows or nets and gathered plants and fruits in the forest.

They roamed the forest in search of fresh food and supplies. They lived in small huts built out of leaves and branches and relocated when the food began to run low or one of the tribe members passed away. The tribe leader was distinguished by his hut which was more elevated to oversee the group.

The forest was gazetted in 1991 and later designated a World Heritage Site in 1994. This led to their eviction from their home, in order to protect the endangered mountain gorillas and local wildlife. The strong community of 6,700 was moved into resettlement camps with limited access to land or health services.

Spending the day with Gerald gave me a glimpse into how they are currently living, now scattered outside the forest that had provided comfort for so many years. I can only imagine what it must have been like after feeling sheltered by the forest for so long, to now be forced to cope and make sense of day to day life outside their home.

When Gerald and I approached the area that has been set up to demonstrate how they lived, we were welcomed with lively dance and songs by a group of 9 Batwa who are now intermarried with the people in the area.

During this song and dance, the leader tells us a bit about their culture as he lights a smoking pipe. This he does by rubbing his hands on a small stick several times until smoke appears. This illustration reminded me of our social studies lesson in primary school.

In this area, the Batwa have intermarried with efforts to fit in. However, they have limited opportunities with no education.

These tough conditions later caused the Batwa men to turn to alcoholism, leading to increased domestic violence and sexual promiscuity. With little access to farm-able land, many live in extreme poverty. This makes them depend mostly on the generosity of those around them.

Allan a.k.a “Ka-Goat”

After we watched the dances and looked at some of the handmade crafts like jewelry and small dolls they make to sell to visitors, I met a man called Allan, also known as Ka-goat. He offered to show us his home. It is a short hike up the hill with some pretty landscape views.

We pass his pig and climb up to a mud hut resting on the hill. Inside, he lives with his wife three young children. They all share a bed and are expecting another baby soon. He mentions that she is one of the dancers in the group. Dancing is one of the ways they get their income.

Thankfully, the children were sponsored to go to primary school and their healthcare is catered for by a hospital that was set up by an American called Scott. It gives me hope knowing that their children are receiving an education. What I wonder is, what is happening with the Batwa who are unemployed.

I learn from Gerald that there are groups of people that have come up to address their unemployment issues. Some vocational training schools have been set up for them to learn skills like tailoring to then run their own businesses.

As we walk back down the hill, I think about how the Batwa have managed remain persistent in finding a better life despite their hardships.

I definitely have not shared their whole story or fully understood their situation with just this visit, but I have begun to appreciate their ways of life more. This is what I hoped I could do more of, with my travel to Bwindi, so I could share their story.

I have some unanswered questions that would take me back… Are there organizations supporting these people and how exactly? Can some Batwa be employed as guides in the forest? How can the Uganda Tourism Board and other bodies support these people and preserve their culture?

If you would like to have a similar experience or take a nature walk, I recommend Gerald (+256785738080)

Have a great week,

Karen

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