The Batwa: Pygmy people of Bwindi

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Uganda’s Bwindi National Park is home to some of the world’s last mountain gorillas and once was home to the Batwa People – the original People of the Rainforest. KATE WEBSTER treks into the forest to spend time with both gorillas and Batwa People.

I reached Bwindi National Park at dusk, a journey that took many hours along the dusty, rough roads of Uganda. The drive was scenic, winding through villages of mud huts mixed with the occasional splash of coloured door, to rolling hills of tea plantations. Nearing the national park, the villages became more sparsely scattered amongst the hills and the roads turned more treacherous. The temperature had dropped as we climbed higher into the
mountains. Arriving at Chameleon Hill Lodge in the dying light, I was in awe at the view. The lodge sits perched on the hill overlooking Lake Mutanda with the Virunga Volcanoes as a magnificent backdrop. The mist clung to the lake and surrounding mountains as I stared out at the view – the ‘Gorillas in The Mist’, I recently watched made complete sense.

I couldn’t help but think about the journey that lay ahead of me. It had been a long day travelling, and with the early morning start, it was early to bed. Waking at sunrise, I was already packed from the night before in anticipation of the early start. In daylight, the Chameleon Hill Lodge revealed its true colours. Literally – the flamboyant, colourful and vibrant lodge was quite the unique place to rest one’s weary head. Individual chalets lined down the hill and flaunted their own identity and colour scheme with high quality, hand-made
furnishings that boasted a unique Euro- African style. The friendly staff set me on my way with a packed lunch, and it was time for the hour-drive deeper into the National Park. Once at the departure point, I was met with a team of trackers and porters before being briefed on the trek. A permit for gorilla trekking will set you back
USD$600, and a porter USD$15. I was soon to learn the USD$15 for the porter was money best spent.

Located in southwestern Uganda in the Kanungu District, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the world’s largest primeval forests. Bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Virunga Volcanoes, Bwindi is one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth and has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its biological significance. I am told by my driver Moses, the name “Bwindi” was derived from the Runyakitara
language, meaning “impenetrable”. To hear that word impenetrable forest conjures up images of a dense undergrowth, a kaleidoscope of greens, vines and vegetation intertwined so dense it takes a machete to cut a path through. This is exactly what met me at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, as I embarked
on a six-hour trek in search of the region’s infamous mountain gorillas and the Batwa pygmies who once shared the forest with them. These mountain gorillas are only found in this region of the world, so I felt privileged to be spending time with them in their natural environment. The family I spent time with is called the Bweza family
and consist of 12 gorillas in total.

While not all 12 were present, I turned my attention to the left of me, where I spotted two silverbacks. They were well hidden in the foliage, content on laying back, legs sprawled as they relaxed they had made from the ground creeping vines. They seemed so at home in this forest of theirs. Until recently, Bwindi’s mountain gorillas shared their forest with the Batwa People – the original People of the Rainforest. Also known as Batwa pygmies, they are a tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in its caves and trees for more than 4,000 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. Although they never hunted the gorillas, the Batwa’s proximity increased the risk of infection to animals and when the National Park was gazetted in 1991, the Batwa were evicted from the forest to protect the primates. They had become conservation refugees. With no land rights or compensation, they were left to fend for themselves, living in a society that stigmatised them and for which they were totally unprepared. They are now one of the most endangered group of people in the world.

My encounter with the Batwa Pygmies was a colourful and musical event. Having hiked down from the forest, to be greeted by four elders and ushered towards the rest of the group was a welcoming experience. I personally felt uncomfortable calling them pygmies, even though they use the term themselves. Yes, they were smaller than myself and I am vertically challenged at just 5 foot 4. It did not take long before the singing and dancing commenced, the older women taking centre stage at the front as they soaked up the adoration of their
audience. I got the feeling they were enjoying themselves, as evident in the faces in front of me that radiated sheer joy during their dancing display, full of jumps and rhythmic stomping, passionate, energetic and energising.

This was not a tacky tourist sideshow, as I later learnt the importance of the dancing for Batwa children, most of whom have never set foot in their ancestors’ forest homeland. The elders demonstrate their traditions, hoping they will be preserved in childhood memory. In order to preserve the culture of the Batwa people as they are adapting to their new way of life, tourism is playing its part. For those trekkers who come to see the mountain gorillas, spending time with those who once shared their rainforest is equally as important. I purchased a hand-carved gorilla from one of the Batwa elders, a symbolic reminder that these gentle, wonderful people and the gorillas are both as important as each other to preserve for generations to come.

This article was written by KATE WEBSTER.

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