Echuya Batwa, also known as Batwa pygmies – believed to have migrated from the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo – live around Echuya Forest Reserve in Kisoro and Rubanda Districts of South-Western part of Uganda. As the original dwellers of this ancient jungle, the Batwa were known as “The Keepers of the Forest.”
They survived by hunting small game using arrows or nets and gathering plants and fruit in the rain forest. They lived in caves or huts constructed of leaves and branches, moving frequently in search of fresh supplies of food resources like honey, medicine, mushrooms, vegetables and wild fruits.
The Batwa lived in harmony with the forest and its creatures, including the mountain gorillas, for many years. Some anthropologists estimate that pygmy tribes such as the Batwa have existed in the equatorial forests of Africa for over 500,000 years. Their low-impact use of forest resources meant that their way of life was sustainable over thousands of years.
Social Life of the Batwa
The Batwa population in Uganda in 2002 was about 6000, with the majority living in the Southwestern districts especially in Kisoro. The size of the Batwa is quite different from other tribes in Uganda, the men and women rise to an average of four feet or less in height, the tallest man among the Batwa would be the shortest among the neighboring communities.
Despite living in separate settlements with a household size ranging from one person to 17 people per households, the Batwa have strong social relations and recognize themselves as a community.
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.
They 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.
However, things are changing, in 2011 Uganda Wildlife Authority assisted by 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.
Batwa Cultural Tourism
The Batwa Cultural trail allows members of the Batwa Community to lead tourists through the forest in the shadows of the Virunga Volcanoes and teach the visitors about their ancient ways of hunting and gathering. The trail ends with dancing in the Garama Cave where a song of lament – of not living in the forest – is presented by the women. The Batwa communities also receive half of the Batwa Trail Fees.
Local and international organizations worked with the Batwa Community and began the Buniga Batwa Forest Walk and village visit program. The Buniga Forest Walk with the Batwa people near Kisoro is accessed from the southern area of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest such as Nkuringo – Rushaga – from around Lake Mutanda or Kisoro. During the walk, detailed information about the Batwa People and their ways is shared. A visit to the villages from which they come from is one that should not be left out as you get to see beehives and crafts they make.
The Batwa Experience is another unique adventure that can take up to five hours or more and takes place near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The main activities here are not only hunting and gathering, but also moments to know about how the Batwa People used to live, feed, take medication from barks, plants and roots.
The Batwa engagement with tourists or visitors assists them to busy and gainfully benefiting in their communities, thus keeping them from poaching antelopes in the parks.
As time goes by, the Batwa ways of gathering and hunting are slowly getting lost; the young people now grow up in a world where they hear stories of they will never experience especially the forest. All they see is the squalor and abject poverty in which they grew up in.
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.
However, Batwa people have gotten a voice through Batwa organizations within Uganda that are championing causes aimed at upholding their culture and way of life. Their dream is to go back into the forest and live in coexistence with their environment and with the Mountain Gorillas.
Currently, the Batwa people are the poorest and most vulnerable in the world with a low life expectancy but high infant mortality rate.
It is reported that there are less than 3,000 Batwa people today and concerned people, agencies and organizations are doing their best to restore the Batwa Spirit of known where they lived in a peaceful coexistence with the forest and the animals.
Let us visit and support this community as it will go a long way not only promoting its cultural survival but containing it from extinction.