A lot remains unknown about the Batwa, an ethnic minority in Uganda’s remote southwest, that lived in the thick jungle which later came to be Bwindi impenetrable national park, home to over half of the world’s mountain gorillas. As years evolve, what was once their customs and culture have increasingly become dilute, to near extinction.
Their language, dressing, food and general lifestyle today is in sharp contrast with what it once was.
Fair to say, it is a tribe that could soon be wiped out. Known for their very short physique and an oddly resilient lifestyle, the Batwa were forest people. They survived on collecting fruits and wild creatures for food, depended on herbs for medicine and had traditional spirits they worshipped. Their lives became entangled with the wild, so much that when in 1991 the Ugandan government resolved to move them out of the Bwindi forest in order to integrate with the rest of the civilized society, they were strongly opposed to the idea. To this day.
When I interacted recently with Kakuru David, 63, a Mutwa who now lives in a community of Batwa in Kitahurira, Mpungu sub-county, Kanungu district, these sentiments were quite apparent. He leads a Batwa community of about 11 homesteads (60 people in total) that survives in Mpungu sector. He told me they have never really come to terms with the fact that they lost their heritage.
And even though three decades have passed since they were pushed out of the forest, the impact of this still manifests vividly in their interaction with the civilized world. They neither go to health facilities nor do they subscribe to the mainstream religious faiths.
“In the forest, we used to do handiwork. We had hot springs which served as our healing areas. The different tree species and vegetation provided materials for our basic items. We also got food and meat,” he told SoftPower News during the launch of a centre that could be the remaining hope in preserving the Batwa traditions.
Kakuru says that in their original habitat, they fed on other wild species except gorillas and other primates which he still terms as “brothers with whom we coexisted”.
“In the same forest, we had oak trees which were sacred for our ancestors. They worshipped them. We have lost all that. We can no longer collect herbs because access is now restricted,” he said.
“We were pained that government chased us from a place that we had inherited and the authorities didn’t bother to compensate us”.
The 63-year-old says it is unfair that while government has made reparations towards other cultural institutions like Buganda and Tooro for properties expropriated by previous governments, the Batwa have been hung out to dry. The small land on which the Mpungu Batwa community settles was provided by charities.
“We’ve been locked out. We lack land. Government could at least apportion us a place where we can educate our kids about their culture”.
“We never go to the forest because the price for trespassing is too high especially for us the Batwa. Authorities will arrest you and throw you in jail because we wouldn’t afford paying the fines involved,” Kakuru said in a tone of despair.
They have neither benefitted from government programs, he adds.
But one lady who has now devoted her time to this sidelined community is hoping to change this trend. Christine ‘Tina’ Katushabe has set up a centre which will preserve information, artifacts and other features about the Batwa, for posterity. There, visitors will relive the past.
The centre was launched recently in Mpungu at the edge of Bwindi forest. An isolated grass thatched hut sits next to scattered settlements of the locals, on one end, and on the other, the thick forest that covers over 300 square kilometres. The centre was designed with a traditional look, perhaps to give visitors a true sense of the kind of lifestyle the Batwa led before they were compelled to opt for civilization.
Three entrances (with no doors) lead you to the only room there is. You’ll find traditional household items like baskets, clay pots, calabashes, gourds, wooden mugs and bark cloth. You’ll also see spears which were used for hunting. One section has some of the herbs on which the Batwa depended for good health.
Tina says the centre will be of interest to some of the tourists who visit Bwindi but cannot afford gorilla tracking.
“There are people who would want to see this beautiful (Batwa) culture, get to know their story, spend a night with them,” Katushabe said.
There is no particular account regarding the origin of the Batwa people. And according to Tina, this is because their history was never written.
“Batwa is a language that was not written, so you can’t say their origin was this time. The only story we know is what we have heard and what they say. All I know is – they used to live in Bwindi national park”.
Even then, they never had permanent settlement.
Being the gatherers they were, they moved constantly in hunt for food.
“That’s why when Bwindi was gazzetted as a national park, some moved to Congo, some moved to Rwanda and others stayed in Uganda. You cannot say this is how they speak. When they came out of the forest, they adopted the languages in communities where they settled,” she says.
Their evolution hasn’t spared their physical features which at one time set them apart. This is partly due to the food and other conditions they adapted to.
Dynamics in travel and tourism world over are changing dramatically and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) is trying to keep up with the trends. Uganda is increasingly moving towards selling experiences that don’t fall under the conventional tourist attractions like wildlife, safaris, geographic features. Instead, the country is positioning itself as a destination for among others cultural tourism given its cultural diversity.
Tina however is concerned by how Uganda is selling its culture. In her opinion, until people like the Batwa get to tell their own stories during international expos and exhibitions, indigenous cultures will continue to be misrepresented.
“Someone looked at the Batwa and commented that they look like ‘Basamize’ (worshippers of traditional spirits). But that’s their culture and they are proud of it,” said Tina.
“Batwa are unique because they didn’t have any kind of technology but they survived for longer years. On the contrary, civilized people are dying regardless of technology”.
“Ugandans think tourists want to see gorillas, green nature, but they are interested in so many things. If you are keen on the pictures tourists take, you will realize their interest isn’t the ordinary things that we consider beautiful. They want to see things that represent Africa and its culture”.
Initially, Tina who hosts tourists for home stays at her Ihamba Residence which overlooks Bwindi forest, took these visitors on guided tours to the Batwa homesteads. There, the visitors interacted with what’s left of the Batwa lifestyle and also bought some of the artifacts made by them for memorabilia. It was a win-win – for the country’s purse and that of the Batwa.
Kakuru says the centre will now act as a central place to exhibit such artifacts as well as other aspects of their culture, to tourists.
“The money we get is used to buy more materials and the rest is used to buy some food”.
Tina, through her ‘Change A Life Bwindi’, an organization that supports women through skills development for income generation, is engaging Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to work out a mechanism on how the Batwa can be granted access into Bwindi forest to get seeds for herbs that ordinarily can’t be found in the community.
“We need to preserve what used to be their food and medicine. These kids they have given birth to are paying a lot. They don’t know about their culture. This is something I’m proud that I’m starting this centre. We want to keep their culture authentic”.
Tina is convinced that with good marketing, the Batwa centre in Kitahurira has the potential of raking in revenue that will help transform the lives of Batwa and enable their kids go to better schools. She says at the moment, the state of their homes is saddening.
She’s planning to create a ‘Batwa Night’, where tourists get to spend an entire night with Batwa in their community to get an up-close experience with their culture.
As she tells the story of what it has taken to establish the centre, Tina can’t help but shed tears. Her landmark project hangs in balance because her organization is yet to complete the payment for the land on which the centre sits.
“The land was sold to us at Shs 60 million. We only paid Shs 30 million. He (land owner) gave us only one year to have completed payment and this period ends on 20th of this month. Initially, the land measured to one acre. But when we failed to pay the balance, the owner reclaimed part of the land pending clearance,” a teary Tina narrated.
She’s been involved with Batwa since 2018 when she attended an event where they were exhibiting their crafts. She felt the need to help them better the quality of their works and get them a market. During the numerous skills trainings that followed, she learnt more about their culture and eventually, the idea of a cultural centre was conceived.
“Our plan was big. To have a learning centre, train them (Batwa) on how to do tailoring, basket weaving, mushroom projects, in order to sustain themselves. But when you have less land, it becomes a challenge”.
The launch of the centre was attended by Kinkizi West MP James Kaberuka, UWA officials as well as local leaders who all hailed the move as a step in the right direction.
Kakuru says his community is just a piece of the several other Batwa communities scattered across the districts of Kanungu, Kabale and Kisoro.