Visiting an African tribe conjures up any number of National Geographic-style images: a tall, blanket-draped Maasai standing over the East African savannah; a red-skinned Himba woman holding her plump baby in the Namibian desert; maybe West African drummers wrapped in colourful fabric, moving to a complex rhythm. It is supposed to be an enriching experience, life-affirming even, encouraging us to marvel at exotic cultural traditions, and learn how happy lives are lived in often inhospitable environments, in spite of drought, persecution and poverty.
Of course, as tourists we will rarely see the complete picture. The happy tribes are on display, a celebration of indigenous culture, while the truly marginalised are kept hidden from view. Their unfortunate circumstances may be the result of civil war, of evictions from tribal land, of environmental catastrophes or ethnic prejudice – it doesn’t matter. Whatever the story is, it will be a sad one. And people don’t want to be sad when they are on holiday.
We want happy stories – such as Uganda’s successful protection of over half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. Once highly threatened, gorilla numbers are now increasing again thanks to the creation of two national parks in the south west of the country – Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla. Visitors pay $500 to enter the parks and visit one of the habituated gorilla groups, and Uganda is rightfully proud of what it has achieved.
But the gorillas were not the only inhabitants of the forests. The Batwa pygmies, who call themselves the “first people”, also lived there. An example in sustainable living, the Batwa were nomadic hunter-gatherers who had developed advanced hunting and trapping methods to capture small game in the forest – antelope, forest hogs. Their profound knowledge of the forest allowed them to harvest honey, fruit and roots for food, as well as knowing which plants alleviated which illnesses, and which could be used for building temporary shelters. They had lived alongside gorillas for centuries, but it seems it was decided that they could not live alongside tourists. When the parks were gazetted in 1991, the Batwa were moved out of the forest.
Southwestern Uganda is one of Africa’s most densely populated regions. The fertile soil, nourished by the surrounding Virunga Volcanoes, is jammed with farmland and homesteads, and there was no land left over for the Batwa. They ended up living in the smallest huts imaginable on the edge of fields, and forced to work on the farms. The Batwa have their own language, no farming skills, and are also victims of racism – their pygmy stature and unusual features belying their ethnicity. They are stereotyped as lazy, alcoholic, dirty, uncivilised and violent, an embarrassment to Uganda’s self-image, as a country which is itself trying to move on from an uneasy, often violent past.
My first meeting with the Batwa was at the entrance to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, on a typically cold, drizzly afternoon. Our guide had told them to meet us an hour before we actually intended being there, reasoning that they would be at least an hour late. He was right; they were also drunk. They were curious to meet me though, and excited about the tourism project I was helping them market – the Batwa Trail, in which Batwa guides lead visitors through the forest and introduce them to their former hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But an argument quickly ensued, men and women shouting at the translator, and after leaving I was rather confused and uneasy about how successful this tourism project would be.
The following morning we were back at the park gate, unsure as to what we would find. But two Batwa guides arrived in smart brown uniforms, accompanied by several other Batwa men, and we began the brisk march up the volcano’s slope into the forest. The guides, Stephen and George, stopped periodically to give demonstrations – filling a bamboo cup with water, pointing out a tasty mushroom. They were smiling, friendly, and keen to share their unrivalled knowledge. Quite simply, they were excited to be back in their forest. Although all spoken communication had to go through our translator, Stephen and George proved to be excellent actors. Spearing an imaginary buffalo was a demonstration in cooperation – George crept silently towards his dangerous “prey” and threw his spear before jumping into a tree to escape the angry, injured beast. He dangled hilariously from a branch as we all laughed along with him, and the other tribe members finished off the job. I remembered the angry shouting from the day before, and had a sudden understanding of how much the Batwa had lost – hunting wasn’t simply a means of survival, it was time for bonding and teamwork and – it seemed – making each other laugh.
Stephen and George made fire – an exhausting process that required both of them plus the translator taking turns to rapidly spin a pointed stick until the dried grass became warm, then smoked, and finally flames appeared. This burning package was wrapped in leaves and placed into an imagined hive to smoke out the bees – once again, the Batwa acted out running away from the “swarm”, laughing hard as they swatted invisible bees.
We then took a detour outside the park to a cluster of huts on a hillside, overlooking the fairytale landscape of Kisoro. This part would not be included on the real tours, we were informed – and it soon became evident why.
Stephen’s wives lived here – each had her own hut for herself and her children, provided by the local government. But the huts were barely worthy of that title – a sorry heap of wood, mud and fabric, they couldn’t possibly be big enough for one person to squeeze inside, let alone a family. Mgahinga is at 2,500m altitude, the nights are bitterly cold and it rains frequently. I recalled reading that the Batwa’s average lifespan was 28 – and it was becoming clear why. Small children with distended bellies stumbled around the huts, wearing only rags. These were not the cheeky Ugandan kids who chased me in the streets calling”mzungu!” and asking for pens and sweets. They had no idea what a white tourist was – and they didn’t seem to care. My horror at the huts seemed justified when my Ugandan colleague – who herself had grown up poor in a mud brick hut in a rural area – expressed her absolute shock.
“I had no idea it was this bad…” she said. “Now I know why they are always drinking!”
With the crumbling huts and the children’s expressions on our minds, we made our way back to the park entrance for the final stage of the tour. We were led into the Garama Cave – once the hiding place of the Batwa king – a natural creation which seemed designed for human presence. The ceiling was just the right height, the floor was flat and even, and fresh, clean water flowed down the walls. As we walked deeper into the cave, we were asked to turn off our torches. Now in complete darkness, I stood still and waited. After a few moments, a soft hum began to echo through the chambers – a soothing sound, almost unidentifiable. The hum became louder – women singing – and the echo rolled around us in all directions, bouncing off the cave walls. The singing rose again in volume, and lights glowed faintly, revealing women walking towards us from the depths of the cave. The song was the most chilling thing I have ever heard – the voices were sad yet powerful, and the darkness and echoes of the cave gave added poignancy. As the voices faded gently into silence, and the ringing stopped, I found myself completely unable to speak and close to tears. Looking at my companions, they seemed to be feeling the same way.
I later found out that the song would be sung by the women to comfort their families as they sheltered in the cave while under attack from other tribes. “Haunting” is a word often used to describe music, but for me this song really is – I can hear the women’s voices in my head three years on, and I still get goosebumps each time I recall it. The song had bridged our cultural and linguistic barriers, and expressed something universally human. I was so happy that the Batwa Trail had given the women the chance to come back to the cave and sing their song as it should be.
A final song of welcome – much more joyous than the cave song – was sung to us outside the cave entrance, with energetic dancing and beaming smiles, and finally we parted ways.
I loved the tour – it was informative, entertaining and took me through some astounding landscapes. But it was also incredibly thought-provoking and, at times, uncomfortable. It’s been 22 years since the Batwa were evicted from their home and cut off from their livelihoods. They are in an impossible situation – learning the local language, getting jobs on farms and sending their kids to school is the “progress” that they are supposed to be making. But this means abandoning all hope of salvaging their culture – the language, the hunting techniques, the profound knowledge of the forest. The Batwa Trail, for now, offers them the chance to revisit the forest and pass some traditions onto their children, but the nasty truth is that in order to survive, the tribe must integrate into modern Ugandan culture, meaning that within the next ten years the Batwa, as they were, will cease to exist entirely. This is a heavy price to pay for a happy conservation story.
- The Batwa Trail takes place in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, in southwestern Uganda. The two closest lodgings are Volcanoes Mount Gahinga Lodge (high-end) and Amajyambere Iwacu, a budget, community-run camp with cabins, dorms and camping. There are also numerous accommodation options in nearby Kisoro town.
- The tour can be booked through either of these accommodations, or directly through the Uganda Wildlife Authority, who manages the country’s national parks.
- The hike takes place at around 2,500m altitude and takes 6-8 hours (including breaks for demonstrations and lunch), so you should be in good shape and wear sturdy footwear. Warm, waterproof layers as well as a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen are also recommended – Mgahinga gets cold, but it’s still on the equator and you can burn easily.
- Lunch, drinks and tips for guides are not included. You should be able to request a packed lunch from your accommodation the day before.
- The United Organisation for Batwa Development (UOBDU) has more information about the Batwa. It is a locally-based organisation which aims to support the Batwa and improve their living conditions.