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 Batwa, Twa in Rwanda were the Original People of the Rainforests. Today they have become Conservation Refugees evicted from their Traditional Hunting and Gathering Grounds – the Rainforests of Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo. Much of this was done at the behest of Conservationists who convinced governments that the Batwa could not live in coexistence with Mountain Gorillas.
The movie “Gorillas in the mist” painted the Batwa as Gorilla Killers, a label that has stuck until present times.
The question that needs to be asked is, “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 long before Bantu ethnic groups came to southwest Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and DR Congo.
The Batwa People have their own creation story. In it, their creator gave some people height, others prosperous land, but when the Creator 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 again.
Visiting the Batwa People – the People of the Rainforest in Uganda, you are helping to keep the ancient Batwa Traditions and Culture alive. You provide a little income, infrastructure, and support to the neglected and maligned First People of the Forest. We suggest that you tip the guides and buy some souvenirs from them at the end of your time with them. Be sure to visit where they are staying to see what it means to live outside of their traditional dwelling places. The Poorest tourist is much better off than the wealthiest Mutwa. No Mutwa could afford what tourists pay for a gorilla permit, much less a safari.
The Batwa People – the original People of the Rainforest, are often referred to as Pygmies by locals. They, not Bantu ethnic groups were the first inhabitants of the Afromontane Rainforests of Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo, and Burundi.
For thousands of years, they lived, gathered, and hunted in the Rainforests. They lived in harmony with their beloved forests and wildlife, including the Mountain Gorillas. They left a low ecological footprint behind them only taking what they needed to exist. They did not build permanent structures or villages except for the natural Garama Cave which provided a protective shelter during times of strife and war.
The Batwa (Twa in Rwanda) led a simple and harmonious way of life with nature without farming and livestock keeping. They relied on the Rainforest for their existence, only taking what was needed. A Batwa is saying goes like this, “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. After their eviction from the Forest, such things happened before, and money was used as an incentive. Today the Batwa are stigmatized as Gorilla Killers and Poachers and are readily blamed for poaching in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla Park. They are seen by other, taller ethnic groups as lesser than, as inferior, as lazy, squatters and thieves,
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, and they were also able to tax caravans and traders coming through their area.
Life for the Batwa People changed drastically in 1991. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest were established to protect 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 that included the “First People of the Rainforest” were evicted. The Batwa received no compensation in the form of land or money, and it was done at the insistence of conservationists.
The non-Batwa Farmers who for years had destroyed the now Parklands received compensation and land rights. In contrast, the Batwa, who had lived for centuries in forests without destroying the Ecosystem, received nothing. There was no recognition by the Ugandan Government for 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. The surrounding communities would have moved deeper and deeper into the parks to build houses and farms, destroying forests and Gorilla habitats.
Since 1991, the original people who lived in Coexistence with the forests, wildlife, and gorillas, who took what they needed, were left with nothing. The Batwa, without land – without a way of life that had been hunting and gathering.
On the one hand, they are citizens of Uganda. On the other hand, they are a people without rights, without compensation for their losses. Today, they live outside of their ancient homelands as squatters at the mercy of others. As outcasts, the Batwa were now a people without an identity, reduced to begging, poaching, stealing, and working for others as indentured Servants.
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 at 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. Batwa’s receive no respect and are seen as lazy, thieves, Pot Smoking (traditionally done before a hunt), drunkards.
Non-Batwa refuses to marry the Batwa men or women. Yet, Batwa women have been by other Ethnic groups falsely believing they would be cured of HIV-AIDS.
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 age and infant mortality was through the roof. Bwindi Community Hospital, thanks to the Kellerman Foundation has and is changing that. It serves the Batwa all tribes
After some years, the Batwa cultural ways, 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 honey, traditional medicine, and traditional skills were no longer taught to the young Batwa people because there was no access to the ancient forests.
The Batwa people have a small voice and no representation in governing bodies. There are Batwa organizations within Uganda that speak out and mak
e a difference on their behalf. The Dream is still to go back into the Forest and live in Coexistence with their environment, including the Mountain Gorillas, where they hope to peacefully exist with the Mountain Gorillas. The Batwa Dream is to go back into their Forest. The Batwa people want to live in harmonious existence with the Forest and Primates.
The Dream is still to go back into the Forest and live in Coexistence with their environment, including the Mountain Gorillas, where they hope to 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. In particular, locations, gathering in the Forest might be something else to look at but not hunting.
There are less than 3,000 Batwa People in Uganda 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, and endangered Mountain Gorillas.
Foreign Nonprofit Agencies such as the one started by the American medical missionaries Dr. Scott and Carol Kellerman have dedicated themselves to serving the Batwa People in southwest Uganda since 2002. The Kellermans 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:
The Batwa people cannot live in the Forests. Their cultural ways have been rapidly diminishing since their eviction. However, things are changing a bit. In 2011, Uganda Wildlife Authority, assisted by money from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Netherlands 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 and teach the visitors about their ancient ways of hunting and gathering. The Batwa Guides get to return to the Rainforest and keep their traditions alive, at least in spirit. The Batwa communities receive half of the Batwa Trail Fees, and tips are accepted.
The International Gorilla Conservation Programme worked with the Batwa Community, and it began the Buniga Batwa Forest Walk and village visit program. It is at the south end of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and Buniga Forest is not part of Bwindi National Park. However, the vegetation, wildlife, and primates are similar, and one sees a few chimpanzees. At the same time, the Forest Walk with Batwa Guides keeps the tradition and cultural ways of the Batwa People alive.
There is also the Batwa Experience, which the Kellerman Foundation set up outside of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. 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 benefit in a small way from tourism and make a living that keeps them from poaching and turns them toward conservation of the Forest and the wildlife and Primates.
Simple Question: Why not train some of the Batwa as Park Rangers?
Over the years, since the Batwa Trail began, some of our clients and guests on Safari have asked “Why are there no Batwa Rangers. That is not just the case in Uganda but in Rwanda, and DR Congo. If you would ask, you might get such answers as lack of education, lack of English. All things that can be done.
Walter Baumgärtel, we have referred to as the father of Gorilla Tourism in Uganda. He was the proprietor of Travellers Rest Hotel in Kisoro. The early Travellers Rest Hotel became a base frequented by George Schaller, Bernhard Grzimek, Raymond Dart, and now the famous Dian Fossey, among many others.
Dian Fossey went as far as to call Walter Baumgärtel’s Travellers Rest Hotel “her second home.” She further wrote, “His Travellers Rest Hotel had been an oasis to many scientists preceding me … I had met Walter on my first safari in 1963, and during the six-and-a-half-month study in 1967 had grown to think of him as one of the kindest and most endearing friends I had made in Africa.”
Walter Baumgärtel wanted to see the Mountain Gorillas and eventually received permission from the British Colonial Government to do so. Reuben Rwazangire, a Mutwa became his beloved guide and tracker. Others followed suit. If that was possible then, why not in the 21st Century?
2021 – Batwa People win their case in Uganda’s Constitutional Court – 2nd highest court in the country:
The court ruled that the Batwa people had been wrongfully evicted without compensation of any kind
The Batwa community lawyer Onyango Owor r says he expects the Batwa will ultimately will receive some financial compensation and access to the forest lands for cultural practices like religion, medicine, and use of artifacts, and tracking animals, but it may take several more years depending on the outcome of an appeal filed to the Supreme Court by Uganda’s attorney general, Wildlife Authority and National Forestry Authority.
Bashir Hangi, communications manager of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the government agency in charge of managing Ugandan wildlife, doesn’t see anything changing. “We believe the evidence is sufficient to maintain the status quo,” he says in a written response. “We have no compensation plan for them.”
Upon hearing the court outcome in court, Batwa communities around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Mgahinga Gorilla Park and elsewhere rejoiced and celebrated the victory. Let us hope that some restoration and compensation will be made.
Visiting the Batwa People – the First People of the Rainforest in Uganda
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a great park – the scenery 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 – the Batwa Pygmy people. It will enable them some meaningful income to make a difference in their lives.
Take the Batwa Trail, learn the Batwa Ways, and end with dancing in the Garama Cave, where a song of the 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 is usually a 5-hour Trail, and its reviews are excellent. The intent has been for authenticity as the Batwa People demonstrate how they used to live here.
Be sure to tip guides and buy some souvenirs being sold.
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.
Once again, the forest walk here is very informative about the Batwa People and their ways. This includes visiting the village from which they come and where you see beehives and crafts made.
The African Wildlife Fund began this activity to assist the Batwa Community in this area and keep them from poaching antelopes in the parks. One must keep in mind that the Batwa are fully aware of visitors’ fees for Gorilla Trekking. At the same time, they are excluded from the Forest. However, 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 and how the Batwa People used to live, prepare food, and 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 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. The Kellerman Foundation helped to create this one-of-a-kind experience. The experience will give you unique insights into the lives of this community.
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 of how Batwa lived in the Forest for thousands of years until they were evicted from them without compensation in 1991 ad 1992. They became Conservation Refugees watching Gorilla Trekkers spend thousands of dollars while the Batwa were outside looking at 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 to tourists and 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 partake 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.
Ota Benga – a Pygmy on display at the Bronx Zoo in a cage with an Orangutan
Below is the story of Ota Benga, a Mbuti from the Ituri8 forest that spills into Uganda. It is a disgusting account but reflects how the Pygmies, including the Batwa, have been seen by others.
- Ota Benga was captured in March 1904 by US trader Samuel Verner from what was then Belgian Congo, Ituri Forest. His age is not known. He may have been 12 or 13
- Taken by ship to New Orleans to be shown later that year at World’s Fair in St Louis with eight other young males
- The fair continued into the winter months when the group was kept without adequate clothing or shelter.
- In September 1906, Ota Benga was exhibited for 20 days in New York’s Bronx Zoo, attracting huge crowds.
- Outrage from Christian ministers ended his incarceration, and he was moved to New York’s Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, run by African American Reverend James H Gordon.
- In January 1910, he went to live at the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College for black students in Virginia.
- He taught neighborhood boys how to hunt and fish and told stories of his adventures back home.
- He later reportedly became depressed with his longing for home and, in March 1916, shot himself with a gun he had hidden. He was thought to be around 25 years old .
Source: Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga
Just this month the Bambuti people near the Ituri Forest were raided, raided, butchered and body parts were taken for Witchcraft purposes. This by people that want to wipe out ethnic communities such as the Batwa.
If you are interested in a visit with the Batwa People while Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla Park – don’t hesitate to get in touch with us