Batwa Community: The Batwa Cultural Visit and Trail, Pygmies of Bwindi Forest
Thousands of visitors are drawn to the south-western part of Uganda to visit the beautiful Mountain gorillas within the country’s lush Bwindi Impenetrable National Park but there are a million and one reasons to make a stop at the nearby Batwa Community. Some of the last remaining members of this endangered pygmy tribe that once lived in the forests of Bwindi and Mgahinga can be visited during your Uganda safari.
A visit to the Batwa Community is not just a way of learning and getting an insight into their traditional practices while living in the verdant rainforest, that included hunter-gathering but also a way of supporting them. With the eviction from the forest, these people’s ancient way of life was completely changed with modernization and tourism. They are often referred as the “caretakers of the forest” of original “dwellers of the forest” currently found in the districts of Kisoro, Bundibugyo, Rukungiri and Kabale especially around Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable forests.
How the Batwa Lived in the Past
The endangered Batwa pygmies were originally a semi-nomadic tribe for several centuries and lived on the lower slopes of mountainous region of south-western Uganda. Their lifestyle was traditionally hunter-gatherer with their men using traditional arrows and bows/spears to hunt small antelopes, monkeys, bush pigs and birds whereas the women harvested for wild honey, sweet wild berries and fruits. All in all, their entire livelihood depended on the forest for shelter (small grass huts), clothing (dressing in animal skins), medicine (harvesting plant/tree roots, barks, leaves and stems).
As the other neighboring tribes (especially Bakiga) cleared forest boundaries/edges to create farmland and grazing areas, the Batwa pygmies were confined to smaller and smaller regions around the forest. This led to the declaration of the remaining forests into Protected Forest Reserves in the 1930s. This step positively affected the forest because cases of deforestation reduced and mountain gorillas were somewhat protected but it negatively affected the Batwa pygmies who lost rights over what they always knew as home.
The last nail on the coffin happened in 1991 when these Reserves were finally gazetted into Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks. The Batwa pygmies were eventually evicted from their homes with no support provided, no alternative livelihood and with no relocation to other areas. Suddenly they became criminals, strangers and squatters in their own home. They were forced out of the forest with threats of imprisonment, making them to live within the boundaries of the Parks as illegal squatters.
There are currently less than 10,000 Batwa left and now live in grass hut villages with no certainty of the future. They are unfortunately not included in the mainstream society, with limited access to healthcare, education, sanitation services and work. This made it hard for them to adjust to the modern times and treated as strangers. Therefore as you pay $700 for a permit to see mountain gorillas in the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks, you can pay a small fee to see the Batwa community to learn about their culture-how they live, tools and tricks used for survival for centuries in Uganda’s dense rainforests. Revenues from this activity help to solve their basic needs such as buying plots of land, education, healthcare and sanitation services.
Cultural Tours of Batwa Community
Small villages of Batwa pygmies are found around the boundaries of both Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks as well as close to Lake Bunyonyi. Majority of these pygmies welcome travellers to the areas with open arms and take them through their ancient lifestyle in the forest. When you visit Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, you will be taken through the iconic Batwa Cultural Trail that involves 5-6 hours of walking through the forest in the company of local Batwa guides. You will see how they lived, searched for food, hunted for animals, made local tools and harvested medicines out of plants. This walk is climaxed by a visit to the Garama Cave, extending for 200 meters long where the Batwa perform heart-warming songs in the echoing darkness of the Cave.
Visitors to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are offered the Batwa Cultural Experience lasting 3-4 hours to enjoy displays of fire-making skills, performances with traditional musical instruments, traditional hunting skills and drum making among others. With a Batwa translator you will hear the sorrowful stories of the Batwa and many others. To have a more intimate insight to the Batwa Community, book for a Batwa place of stay for relaxation and detailed thrill of their culture.