In the year 1992, the Batwa were living in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park of Uganda. Plans were in high gear to gazette both forests as national parks. There was intense debate on the fate of the Batwa, a pygmoid tribe that used to live as hunters and fruit gatherers in the impenetrable jungles. Finally the Batwa were evicted from the forest and forcefully settled in the neighboring villages that are adjacent to the park. The Batwa started living a life that was totally different from their “usual life” of the forest. Within the forests, they were hunters and fruit gatherers. They started living a life which involved cultivating the hilly slopes in order to grow their won food! They never built houses in the forest! They started building their own houses. In order to earn a living, they even started working on the established farms that belonged to the Bakiga and Bafumbira.
Today it is over 25 years, and the Batwa are the most marginalised people in Uganda. It is surprising that the Batwa live in total poverty and less has been done to help them get out of this biting poverty! On my last visit to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, it was saddening to get to know that young Batwa girls engage in prostitution in order to earn a living! During the day, men call them “dwarfs” and at night call them mistresses! Even in this commercial sex business, the girls are bought at any price! As long a potential customer is offering a legal tender note with the “Bank of Uganda” …, these young girls can sell their bodies! And when they get pregnant, the men who used them cannot take the responsibility of looking after them! They are used just to kill their lusts!
Who Are the Batwa?
The Batwa are the original inhabitants of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virunga Region. They used to live in harmony with the gorillas! They coexisted with the wildlife in the national parks and though they were hunters, they used to sustainably use the resources within the parks. The Batwa never hunted the gorillas, the animals that took away their rights! When they were forced out of the forest, they were left with nothing. Though the Batwa way of life was based on hunting and gathering fruits, the government of Uganda never compensated them inorder to help them resettle in the new settlements. Without land of their own or the skills to compete in the modern market place, the Batwa have become marginalized, living in extreme poverty on the park’s boundaries, looking in where they used to live.
Discrimination against the Batwa is deeply rooted and goes all the way to the government! In most parts of Uganda short people are not respected! You can find people laughing over short people! This is the same with the way the neighboring communities or tribes look at the Batwa. They have no respect at all and are seen as lazy , thieves, pot smoking and drunkards. Non-Batwa refuse to marry Batwa men or women, yet non-Batwa rape Batwa women (over 50% of Batwa women claim to have been raped – non-Batwa falsely believe they would be cured of AIDS having sex with a Batwa woman (this has resulted in non-pygmy children being born into the community).
The non Batwa refuse to share a meal with them and there are random acts of violence and harassment committed against the Batwa. The clinics also refuse to treat them when sick. The mortality rate of the Batwa was very high at a much younger and infant mortality was simply through the roof. There are less 3000 Batwa people today, and there are some concerned people and agencies doing their best to revive the Batwa spirit of old that lived in a harmonious coexistence with the forest, the animals, including the endangered mountain gorillas. The foreign non-profit agencies like the one started by the American medical missionaries Dr. Scott and Carol Kellerman, who have dedicated themselves to serving the Batwa people in south west Uganda since 2002.
Even though the Batwa people are not allowed in the forest, the things have changed , in 2011, UWA assisted by money from United States Agency for international Development and Netherland’s Embassy in Kampala began the now famous Batwa cultural trail in Mgahinga national park. Here the members of the Batwa communities lead the tourists through the forest in the shadows of the Virunga volcanoes and teach the visitors about their ancient ways of hunting and gathering and the Batwa Guides get to return to the Rainforest and keep their traditions alive, at least in spirit. The Batwa communities also receive half of the Batwa Trail Fees.
The other activities enjoyed by the tourists that visit the Batwa include the Buniga Batwa forest walk and the village visit program as well as the Batwa experience which was set up by kellerman Foundation outside Bwindi forest and half day Batwa experience that have benefited the Batwa community and have improved their life styles.
Credits: This is a guest post by Michael Makonzi, travel advisor working with Go Gorilla Trekking, one of the local tour operators aiming at promoting responsible gorilla tourism in East and Central Africa.