These hunter-gatherer people are Uganda’s oldest people, believed to have inhabited Uganda for the last 4,000 years, long before the Bantu and Nilotic migrations that brought Uganda’s other peoples.
Anthropologists have estimated that pygmy tribes like the Batwa have existed in Africa’s equatorial forests for 60,000 years or more. In this part of the continent, they have lived in the forested areas of what are now, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Uganda in what is now Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
The history of these ‘people of the forest’ is long, rich, inseparable from the forest, and somewhat tragic. In pre-colonial times, before the partition of East Africa, the Batwa paid tribute to the Kingdom of Rwanda and also held positions at court, as entertainers, advisers and even warriors.
As the officially recognised keepers of the forest, they collected tax in kind from traders that sought to cross the forest. They survived by hunting small game like antelopes using small arrows and a variety of traps, supplemented by honey, plants and fruit that they collected from the forest. They dressed in animal skins and bark, used medicinal herbs when they were ill, and prayed to their ancestral spirits that resided in the forest. The Batwa were fairly nomadic inside the forest, living in small communities inside simple huts made using leaves and branches.
With the advent of the colonial era, the Batwa’s harmonious existence experienced its first major threat. The British-imposed land regulations of 1897 replaced documented land ownership replaced customary ownership of land, and without even knowing it; the Batwa immediately lost their claim to the forest as a home. In the 1930’s, the colonial government declared vast swathes of Southwestern Uganda to be forest reserves, including Bwindi and Mgahinga as a forest reserve and game sanctuary respectively. Some Batwa were forced to leave the forest immediately. By the 1947 Forest Act and the 1952 National Parks Act, the remaining Batwa were permitted only to have access to the designated forests, but never to claim ownership of them.
In 1991 when both Bwindi and Mgahinga were elevated to national park status, the Batwa received the worst news yet that would forever change their lives; they would all have to leave the forest and never return, not even to visit. In 1994, UNESCO declared the Bwindi a World Heritage Site. The reason for their eviction was that they were a threat to the survival of the critically endangered mountain gorillas in two main ways; their traps and snares endangered the gorillas, and because gorillas share 94.5% of their DNA with humans they are highly susceptible to human infection. Ironically, the Batwa had always lived in complete harmony with the forest and all its animals including the gorillas, and their lifestyle if anything worked in harmony with the conservation of the environment and the gorillas.
Following their forceful eviction from the forests, the Batwa became conservation refugees and scattered throughout Western Uganda, and many of them died within the first year of living outside the forest.
Of the estimated 6,700 Batwa that were estimated to have been evicted from the forest, only about 4,000 remain with the largest community of 1,000 in Kanungu district, which includes Bwindi. Ugandan law does not protect nomadic people, so they were left with no land to claim and when offered compensation, they did not understand the value of it and consequently squandered it.
Today the Batwa are completely dependent on the tribes that inhabit the densely populated areas that neighbour the forests. Without no other skill but hunting and gathering inside the forest, the Batwa are struggling to cope with understanding livelihoods that involve agriculture, education, modern medicine, land and property ownership, and everything in between. They are now a marginalised people living as squatters on the park boundaries, not allowed to enter the forests, and dependent on NGO’s and donors for survival.
Although the Batwa still dream about going back into their forest to continue their harmonious and complete existence, the forests have shrunk too much to be able to sustain both people and the gorilla’s.
Batwa Cultural Trail
A small win for the Batwa, (but a big one for local and foreign tourists alike) is this trail that is now giving them back some control, permission to enter some areas of the parks, and a well-deserved stake in the tourism that benefits the region. The initiative that was launched by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the United Organisation for Batwa Development has enabled Batwa that live on the boundaries of the two parks to receive payments that allow them to buy necessities for their families.
For the Batwa, these trails are a way for them to continue to educate their children on the ways of the forest; and to share their amazing heritage with the world. The Batwa trails can be taken in Mgahinga, and in Bwindi at Buhoma and Buniga.
What you will see and learn
Visitors on the Batwa Trail should expect to see the forest differently, through the eyes of the Batwa guides that point out and demonstrate exactly how one survives entirely on a forest. Demonstrations include how hunting with traditional bow and arrow was done, how traps and nets were made, how honey was gathered, how fires are made and food cooked and how natural shelters were built.
The magical diversity of flora in the forests is well known to the Batwa who easily point out the barks, roots, berries and fruits that they survived on for food, medicine for all manner of common and complicated ailments, and even clothing. Perhaps it is because of their harmonious existence with nature that the Batwa love to sing, dance and entertain with performances that tell of their ancient love for the forest and everything that it gave them.
The Mgahinga trail leads to Garama cave, a 200m-long lave tube below the mountain, which was once home to the Batwa king, but now rends itself to an underground auditorium where visitors can experience a genuine Batwa performance as Batwa men and women sing and dance like they did for their king centuries ago.