See the Ancient Forest through the Eyes of its First People – the Batwa People
Can Gorillas – Forest Conservation – Tourism and the Batwa People Coexist?
Visiting the Batwa People – the Original People of the Rainforests have become Conservation Refugees evicted from their Traditional Hunting and Gathering Grounds – the Rainforests of Uganda and Rwanda.
Can Gorillas – Forest Conservation – Tourism and the Batwa People Coexist? The answer is a resounding yes. The Batwa and Gorillas coexisted for thousands of years.
The Batwa People have their own creation story, in it there creator gave some people height, others prosperous land, but when he got to the Batwa, there were no more such gifts, so he gave them the Rainforest. When the Government evicted them in the 1990s, they felt God had rejected them.
Visiting the Batwa People – the People of the Rainforest in Uganda, you are helping to keep the Batwa – Traditions and Culture alive.
Not only that, but you are providing income, infrastructure, and giving support to the neglected and maligned First People of the Forest.
The Batwa People Batwa People – the original People of the Rainforest, are Pygmies, who were the first inhabitants of the montane Rainforests of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi. They lived, gathered, and hunted in the Rainforests for thousands of years. There was no farming. There was no destruction of the forest, no charcoal making, their shelters did not disturb the environment, they lived in harmony with their beloved forests, wildlife including the Mountain Gorillas, and left a low ecological footprint behind them.
The Batwa Pygmies (Twa in Rwanda) led a simple and harmonious way of life with nature without farming, livestock keeping, they relied on the Rainforest for their existence only taking what was needed. A Batwa is saying, “A Mutwa (Singular Batwa) loves the forest as much as he loves his own body.”
Many Ugandans call Batwa, as do conservationists, “Killers of Gorillas.” The Batwa do not and have not eaten Gorillas. Instead, they coexisted with them for centuries. Any Gorilla Hunting that the Batwa did was done so at the instigation of Westerners. Such things happened before after their eviction from the forest. Money was used as an incentive.
Today the Batwa are stigmatized as Gorilla Killers and Poachers and are readily blamed for any poaching that takes place in either Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla Park.
Here is the reality, the Batwa people were keepers and protectors of the forest until the Bantu People came to the area. The Bantu tribes were the ones who cut down the forests, cultivated and grazed their cattle on fields that were once their precious Rainforests. The Batwa coexisted with Gorillas, Chimpanzees, and every other animal, bird, in the now parks.
When Rwanda became a Kingdom (the kingdom’s northern border was in present-day Uganda), the Batwa would pay tribute to the Tutsi King in various ways. They were even included in the court of the King as advisers, dancers, and warriors. They were allowed to extract payment from those encroaching on the forest. They were also able to tax caravans, traders coming through their area.
Life for the Batwa People changed drastically in 1991 when Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest were established for the protection of the Forests, Wildlife, and Primates such as the Mountain Gorillas.
In 1992 all those living on Park Land in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and that included the “First People of the Rainforest” – the Batwa received no compensation in the form of land or money. It was done at the insistence of conservationists.
The non-Batwa Farmers who for years had destroyed the now Park-lands received compensation and land-rights, while the Batwa who had lived for centuries in forests without destroying the Ecosystem received nothing. There was no recognition by the Ugandan Government about their historical claims to the land.
The need to protect the forests in the parks was great. Today in the 21st Century, the forest would no longer exist without gorilla conservation, which protects the habitats of Gorillas, without Gorilla Tourism being a source of money for that conservation work.
The area around both parks is densely populated, and the surrounding communities would have moved deeper and deeper into the parks to build houses and farms, destroying forests and the Gorilla habitats.
Since 1991, the original people who lived in coexistence with the forests, wildlife, gorillas, who took what they needed, were left with nothing. The Batwa, without land – without a way of life which had been one of hunting and gathering.
On the one hand, they are citizens of Uganda, while on the other hand, they are a people without rights, without compensations for their losses. Today, they are living outside of their ancient homelands as squatters at the mercy of others. As outcasts, the Batwa Pygmies were now a people without an identity reduced to begging, poaching, stealing, and working for others as indentured Servants who paid them a mere pittance and not a fair wage for their work.
Without land of their own or the skills to compete in the modern marketplace, the Batwa have become marginalized, existing in extreme poverty on the parks’ boundaries, looking in where they used to live. The other tribal communities are, for the most part – non-supportive.
Prejudice against the Batwa is profoundly rooted in the surrounding communities. It goes all the way to government and other parts of Uganda where Batwa’s have no respect at all and seen as lazy, thieves, Pot Smoking (traditionally done before a hunt), drunkards.
Non-Batwa refuses to marry Batwa men or women. Yet it is common that-Batwa rape Batwa women. The same will also malign the character of Bwatwa.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).
Non-Batwa refuses to even have a meal with them. There are random acts of violence and harassment committed against the Batwa.
Even clinics refused treatment of Batwa People. The mortality rate of Batwa people was very high at a much younger and infant mortality was merely through the roof.
After some years, the Batwa cultural ways, the ways of gathering and hunting were in danger of being lost. The young people began to grow up in a world where they would hear the stories of old but never experienced the ways of the forest for themselves, all they saw was the misery and abject poverty in which they grew.
The ways of hunting, gathering, even of honey, traditional medicine, traditional skills all were no longer taught to the young Batwa people because there is no access to the ancient forests.
The Batwa people have gotten a small voice. There are Batwa organizations within Uganda that are speaking out and making a difference on their behalf. The Dream still is to go back into the forest and live in Coexistence with their environment, and that includes the Mountain Gorillas where they hope is once again peacefully exist with the Mountain Gorillas.
The Batwa Dream is to go back into their Forest. To once again live in harmonious existence with the Forest, Wildlife, and Gorillas.
The Dream still is to go back into the forest and live in Coexistence with their environment, and that includes the Mountain Gorillas where they hope is once again peacefully exist with the Mountain Gorillas. Something that will most likely never happen. The Forests have shrunk too much to sustain both people and gorillas. There is also the possibility in a smaller forest environment where the Batwa could transmit diseases to the gorillas, especially the habituated ones. Gathering in the forest in particular locations might be something else to look at but not hunting.
There are less than 3,000 Batwa People today. Yes, People can also become extinct. Some concerned people and agencies are doing their best to revive the Batwa Spirit of old that lived in harmonious coexistence with the Forest, the animals, including the endangered Mountain Gorillas.
Foreign Nonprofit Agencies such as the one started by the American medical missionaries Dr. Scott and Carol Kellerman, who have dedicated themselves to serving the Batwa People in southwest Uganda since 2002. The Kellerman’s purchased land and established programs to improve conditions for the tribe—home-building, schools, a hospital (Bwindi Community Hospital) and clinics, water and sanitation projects, income generation, and the promotion of indigenous rights.
These activities are now being assumed by the Batwa people and other local staff through the Batwa Development Program (BDP). It is supported by the Kellermann Foundation, a US-based nonprofit organization.
A Ray of Hope for the Batwa People – Visiting the Batwa People – the People of the Rainforest in Uganda keeping the ways of old alive:
Though the Batwa people are not allowed to live in the Forests that make up the parks, though the Batwa cultural ways are rapidly diminishing since their eviction. However, things are changing, in 2011 Uganda Wildlife Authority assisted by money from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Netherland’s Embassy in Kampala began the now-famous Batwa Cultural Trail in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Where members of the Batwa Community lead 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. Tips are accepted.
The International Gorilla Conservation Programme worked with the Batwa Community and began the Buniga Batwa Forest Walk and village visit program. It is at the south end of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Buniga Forest is not part of Bwindi National Park. However, the vegetation, wildlife, and primates are similar, and one sees a few chimpanzees while on the Forest Walk with Batwa Guides keeping the tradition and cultural ways of the Batwa People alive.
There is also the Batwa Experience, which was set up by the Kellerman Foundation outside of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and the half-day Batwa Experience has benefited the Batwa Community and those that made the Batwa Experience a part of their time in the ancient Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Today Batwa Communities are benefiting from tourism and making a living that keeps them from poaching and turns them toward conservation of the forest and the wildlife and Primates.
Below you will find 3 activities in South West Uganda where you can learn the ancient Batwa ways and traditions in their beloved Forest. Enjoy your time with the Batwa people and the Mountain Gorillas.
Visiting the Batwa People – the People of the Rainforest in Uganda
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a great park – the scenery that you encounter as you venture with your Batwa Guides is merely incredible.
The Batwa Trail allows you to see the forest through the eyes of the first people of – the Batwa Pygmy people and allows them some meaningful income that will make a difference in their lives.
Take the Batwa Trail, learn the Batwa Ways, end with dancing in the Garama Cave where a song of lament, of not living in the forest, is brought forth by the women.
You, in turn, learn the ancient ways of hunting and gathering that the Batwa People used and how they lived in the old forest.
This usually is a 5-hour Trail, and the reviews of it are excellent. The intent has been for authenticity as the Batwa People demonstrate how they used to live here.
The Buniga Forest Walk with the Batwa people is near Kisoro – easily accessed from the southern area of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, such as Nkuringo – Rushaga – from around Lake Mutanda or Kisoro.
The forest walk here once again is very informative about the Batwa People and their ways, and this includes a visit to the village from which they come from and where you see beehives and crafts made.
The African Wildlife Fund began this activity to assist the Batwa Community in this area and to keep them from poaching antelopes in the parks. Something that had to be resorted to to survive. One must keep in mind that the Batwa are fully aware of the fees that visitors pay for Gorilla Trekking while they are excluded from the forest, though a small percentage of funds are shared with them, often never reaching every community member.
Another enriching experience with the first people of the forest. This activity is a community program sponsored by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.
The Batwa Experience takes place just outside of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and includes hunting and gathering ways, but also about how the Batwa People used to live, prepare food, collect their medicine from plants, roots, and bark.
The Batwa experience takes place in Buhoma – and those who take part in this 5 hour plus experience love it and take with them some great memories
Any of the above Batwa Walks with the original people of the forest can easily be added on to any safari around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla Park – we would be glad to do so.
It is an excellent interactive Cultural Experience in the Buhoma Area of the Forest.
This is a question that we are asked from time to time. They are undoubtedly different from the proverbial Masai Village Visit that many Visitors have done in Kenya or Tanzania. It is a reenactment as to how Batwa used to live in the forest for thousands of years until they were evicted from them without compensation in 1991 ad 1992 becoming Conservation Refugees watching Gorilla Trekkers spend thousands of dollars while they, the Batwa were on outside looking in what was once theirs.
The Batwa Visits allow Tourists to see the forest through the eyes of the first people of the Forest. It is meaningful not only tourists but to the Batwa since it will enable them to keep their culture alive in the 21st Century. It certainly is not poverty tourism meant to evoke pity from Visitors. Most that partake are very glad that they met the Batwa people during Gorilla Trekking in Uganda.
We think that it is a way that partial Dignity is restored to the maligned Batwa People.
If you are interested in a visit with the Batwa People while Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla Park – please contact us