Batwa Today in Echuya Forest

by Steve
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A picture of the Batwa of Echuya Forest.

The Batwa Today is a unique experience visiting the Batwa who live near the Echuya Forest.  If you’re looking for an authentic cultural exchange, this is the one to take!!  One of the principles of the Gorilla Highlands Initiative (GHI) is to protect the cultures and wellbeing of the region’s disadvantaged people.  Also, the GHI works with local communities such as the Batwa to make sure they benefit from tourism working to provide ways for income as well as self-respect.

There is an annual meeting with the Batwa community to gain their input into the activities that are being offered to visitors as well as how much they will earn.  It’s also a time to review what has been working well and what needs to be improved.

Who are the Batwa?

The Batwa are a group of people better known to people from other parts of the world as Pygmies.  The Batwa are one of the oldest group of peoples in Africa.  Their origin has been debated throughout the years but is unknown.

A picture of Steve with the Batwa in Uganda.

Steve with the Batwa in Uganda

They were hunters who lived in the forest.  They are shorter than the average person, hence the name Pygmies, though they prefer to be referred to by their ethnic or tribal name.  Throughout history, the Batwa have been viewed as inferior.  This view particularly started with colonial leaders in the mid 19th century.

There has also been much discrimination, exploitation and ethnic cleansing of the Batwa (Pygmy) tribe.  Did you know that Belgian authorities captured pygmy children and shipped them to zoos throughout Europe?  And one young man, Ota Benga, was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in the United States in 1904!!!

Why Belgian Authorities?  Because Belgium was one of the countries that colonized Rwanda after invading the German colony during World War I.  During the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, approximately 30% of the Batwa population in Rwanda was killed.

The Echuya Batwa

The Echuya Batwa live in the Batwa community of Rwamahano near the Echuya Forest Reserve in southwestern Uganda.  They are an endangered group that hunted and lived in the forest.  As their traditional forest lands came under government ownership, they were forced to live elsewhere.  In 1992, the national parks in Uganda were established to protect the mountain gorillas.  By doing this, the Batwa were forced from their land without input or compensation.

Today they are considered marginalized people.  They are landless, suffer from extreme poverty, lack of education and healthcare.  There have been attempts by the government to change this and some progress has been made, but it is still a very sad story.

Batwa Today

The Batwa Today program with Gorilla Highlands gives an opportunity for the Batwa to tell their story and to learn from visitors.  In this post, you will see that music is an integral part of their lives.  And it’s an important part of mine too, so it was a real treat.

As soon as our group arrived, the Batwa people, young and old, greeted us with their music while some of our group joined in.

The Echuya Forest

This Batwa community lives on the very edge of the Echuya Forest.  With our two Batwa guides and our translators, we began our trek to learn more about what it was like to live in and off the forest lands.

A picture of the Batwa Guides and Translators for Batwa Today

Batwa Guides and Translators

One of our first stops was to learn more about how the Batwa were able to care for themselves using natural ingredients from the forest.  We learned about the medicinal value of herbs, plants and roots.  Our group had learned about similar techniques during our history and culture trek around Lake Bunyonyi.

For instance, one type of leaf could be given to an unmarried pregnant girl to cause a miscarriage.  While their traditional way of dealing with this might not be acceptable to many people, it was a much better way of handling the situation than leaving them on Punishment Island in Lake Bunyonyi.

Another form of traditional medicine the Batwa would use in the forest was a leaf that could be given to them after they had contracted malaria.

A picture of the guides explaining about the Batwa Healing Practices.

Learning about the Batwa Healing Practices

While what they call Bamboo Disease is not necessarily a healing ingredient, it was used to keep husbands in line if their eyes would stray for another woman.  A woman would take the bulbous growth,  which can be seen on the bamboo tree in the image below, scrape some of it off and put it into a man’s drink or food.  After that, the man  would only have eyes for you!!

A picture of Bamboo Disease and how the Batwa used it.

Learning about Bamboo Disease

The Batwa Forest Sanctuary

The Batwa Forest Sanctuary was a place where meat was slaughtered after hunting and shared with others from the community.  Hunting took place with bows and arrows and sometimes with dogs.  Bells would be attached to the dogs so the Batwa knew where the dogs were in the very thick vegetation.

A picture of the Batwa guides explaining about the Forest Sanctuary.

The Batwa Forest Sanctuary

Traditional Homes and Today’s Homes

The Batwa used to live in traditional homes made of grass and branches as can be seen in the picture below.

A picture of a Batwa Traditional Home.

Batwa Traditional Home

But today they live in homes scattered throughout the hillside.  So we began our journey……..Up……

A Picture of our Group Beginning the Climb to Meet with the Batwa.

Beginning the Climb to Meet with the Batwa

And up!!!

A Picture of the Group Making Another Climb to Meet with the Batwa.

And More Climbing to Meet with the Batwa

But along the way, there were some beautiful views.  Part way up to the crest where the community meeting was to take place, there was a view of the volcano Mount Muhabura covered in clouds.

A Picture of a View of Mount Muhabura from near Echuya Forest.

A View of Mount Muhabura

And further down the path, two Batwa women were cultivating their field.  All of this done by hand.

A picture of the Batwa women working in the field above Lake Bunyonyi.

Batwa Women Working in the Field above Lake Bunyonyi

But the view of the valley was absolutely beautiful.

A view of Lake Bunyonyi from near the Echuya Forest.

View of Lake Bunyonyi from near the Echuya Forest

I’m finding that I’m not in shape for this altitude.  The height of this crest is about 2,486 meters (8,156 feet).  I’ve also realized that my knees enjoy going uphill and my lungs enjoy going downhill.  And I can’t get the two to work together!!!

Dancing and Music Again!!

At the top of the hill, we were met with more dancing and song.  As you can see, they enjoy it very much!!

And the kids?  Well, they start feeling the beat at a very early age.  I think they enjoyed being on camera!

After the dancing, we all gathered around and had an introduction to our cultural exchange by one of the Batwa leaders and the Gorilla Highlands staff.

A picture of the leaders ias they started the community meeting of the Batwa.

The Beginning of the Community Meeting

After learning more about each other, we walked back down the hill.  The Batwa were singing and dancing to the beat of the drum all the way down.  And there was one more serenade before we headed back to Edirisa.  This video features the woman on the drum.

A great day of cultural exchange and a fun day of music and dance!

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