The myth of the forest people
The Rukeri community of Batwa Pygmies gathers on a rocky hillock. The air is cool and the wind howls bitterly as they huddle beneath a temperamental mauve sky. Men, women and children sit on the rough terrain, perched precariously between jagged rocks. They chatter quietly. Occasionally a new-born will cry, only for the sound to be muffled out by the raging wind. The men wear sweaters and rain jackets and the women are wrapped up tightly in patterned shawls. Young children sit together in little groups, fidgeting and bare-footed. This landscape in south-western Uganda is barren, its coarse scrubland far removed from the rest of Uganda’s emerald green farmland.
It is a sharp contrast to the land they were forced to leave – the lush, nourishing slopes of the Mgahinga forest, now designated a national park to protect the mountain gorilla.
The question is how the Batwa, the original hunter-gatherers of Uganda who had lived in the forest for thousands of years, came to find themselves living in such bleak poverty, their human rights secondary to those of apes.
An expressive middle-aged man with sharp eyes and wispy grey hair begins to tell a story. His name is Steven Serutoke, a Batwa leader from Mgahinga forest. For a small fee he teaches tourists about the Batwa’s unique culture. He always opens with a fable, otherwise known as the Batwa creation story to explain why he and many of his tribe feel his people always fall on hard times.
This is the story tourists first hear when they visit Rukeri. But, far from being responsible for their own downfall as the fable suggests, the Rukeri are hardly to blame for being forced to live on such infertile land. They, along with other Pygmy tribes in West Africa, have found themselves victims of the modern trend towards eco-tourism and nature conservation.
A quick history of the Batwa
Originally called “pygmies” by European colonisers due to their small stature, Batwa communities now live around the forests of Uganda, DRC, Rwanda and even Burundi.
Recent studies have found that the Batwa’s height is a genetic trait they share with other forest hunter-gatherer groups across Central Africa and Asia. Their small stature is the product of generations adapting to life in the forest.
Expulsion from the forests
Other than a few unflattering characterizations in Hollywood movies such as “Gorillas in the Mist,” little is known of the Batwa in the western world. The Batwa are the original indigenous forest people of Uganda and parts of East and West Africa. Due to their exceptional knowledge of their environment they were often referred to as ‘The Keepers of the Forest’.
In 1992 the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest became a National Park and a World Heritage Site to protect the mountain gorillas. The same happened in Mgahinga forest where Steven’s family used to live. After the creation of the parks, the Batwa were expelled from the forest by the government and received no compensation. The majority now live in scattered squatter settlements on the outskirts of the forest and have struggled to adapt to a modern way of living. They have very little land of their own and mainly work on the local Bachiga (Ugandan agriculturalist) farms for their food, where they face unbridled discrimination, are ostracized and are often cheated out of their due pay by the farmers. When they lived in the forest they had plentiful food. They hunted small game and had access to an abundance of honey and wild yams. Now they are conservation refugees and have had to adapt, in a relatively short space of time with very little help, to a totally alien way of living.
Tourism has become one of the leading foreign exchange earners for Uganda. It constitutes about nine per cent of the GDP and it is almost overtaking the traditional exports of copper and coffee. Uganda is keen to market this further and tourism is embedded in their plans for economic growth. The parks, where the Batwa used to live, are the biggest earners as most visitors come to Uganda for the wildlife. Gorilla trekking is particularly big business in Uganda and visitors pay 600 US dollars to spend a day in the forests searching for a glimpse of them. It is not hard to understand the commercial and environmental appeal of protecting the forests by designating them national parks. In doing so, however, a whole indigenous people have lost the place they called home for thousands of years.
It is not just Rukeri which is suffering. Visit a range of Batwa settlements throughout Uganda and the poverty is palpable. In the settlement of Kebiremu in Bwindi, the Batwa children are noticeably poorer than the other rural children and they run about in tattered rags. Their food source - a few scrawny chickens, roasted cassava and giant jackfruit – seems barely sufficient to sustain them. A small orphaned boy is being looked after by his elderly grandmother. As she cradles him, he suckles on her shriveled teat. He is wearing a girl’s dress, a hand me down and all this little family can afford.
The grandmother’s name is Annette Ntahusigaye and she claims it is particularly hard for the Batwa to receive medical care.
“As a woman, we used to have medicinal herbs and delivered our own babies in the forest,” she says. “Now we no longer have our herbs. We are told to go to the hospital but it is far away and we don’t have transport or money to pay when we get there. We are still sidelined.”
Help for the Batwa of Bwindi
However poor the Batwa are now, their problems were even worse back in the 1990s when they were first cast out of the forest and before charities and NGOs stepped in to help.
In 2000 missionary worker Dr Scott Kellermann visited southwestern Uganda to survey the Batwa population living around Bwindi National Park. He made a shocking discovery: almost twenty per cent of Batwa babies died within a month of birth. Forty per cent of children would die before the age of five and adults would only live to be 28 on average. The life expectancy for Bachiga Ugandans, meanwhile, was 48.
Dr Kellermann set up a foundation to provide services for the region of Bwindi with the Batwa in mind. He founded the Bwindi Community Hospital, a medical facility now run entirely by Ugandans and an incredibly successful nursing school. Thanks to the hospital, the mortality rate for children aged under five living in that area has dropped to just six per cent.
Alongside building the Bwindi Community Hospital, Kellermann also founded the Batwa Development Programme (BDP), a charity run by western aid workers and local Ugandans, including Batwa leaders, to improve the lives of the local communities. These NGO workers spend extensive time in the field with the Batwa and know only too well what challenges they face.
One such worker is Levi Busingye. He was brought up alongside the Batwa as a child (unusually his parents did not discriminate against the indigenous people) and has had an affection for them ever since. “I remember there was an old woman who used to carry me on her back like my mother,” he says fondly. “My parents used to let the Batwa live on their land, so I grew up loving them.”
Busingye, a charismatic presence, facilitates all the Batwa Development Programme projects, particularly helping the settlements with regard to agriculture, health and education. Tall and cheery, he is very popular among the Batwa community and often thinks of himself as an honorary mutwa (the singular of Batwa). His eyes, however, betray a sadness as he explains the Batwa’s predicament.
“The Batwa is a clan or tribe like any other tribe in Uganda but they are a marginalized group,” he explains. “It is only in recent times that you will see a mutwa selling his or her own food.
“When the Batwa first left the forest, they were beggars and you would just give them rags or the food that you wouldn’t eat yourself. They really are the poorest of the poor.”
Busingye and the BDP are helping the Batwa as best they can. They often lay bricks to give the settlements sturdier housing, raise funds to buy farm animals and frequently facilitate Batwa children in being sponsored by western donors so that some Batwa, at least, may become better educated.
Another BDP member, Constance Koshaba, works at the Batwa Women’s Centre in Bwindi. A warm, educated lady, she helps to teach the women skills, such as how to make crafts, jewellery, soap and clothing so that they have a better chance of getting work and selling their own products.
Koshaba is particularly scathing of the government’s involvement in the expulsion of the Batwa from their forest homes and the lack of compensation offered to tribes. “When they are constructing a new road and a piece of land is being taken away from someone, the government usually compensates that person,” she explains. “What about the Batwa? The forest was their home and they were made homeless.”
The issue of education (or lack of it) is of particular concern for the BDP. According to Busingye, although Batwa children are not actively discriminated against in schools by being segregated from other Ugandans, the reality is that very few families can afford to send their children to school at all.
“If a mutwa child doesn’t have any food to take with him to school then he will not manage, he won’t be able to concentrate,” he sighs. “When a mutwa doesn’t have money for books, then he cannot manage.
“When the Batwa are educated and speak for themselves, they will do better. Land can come later, education is key.”
Busingye’s insistence on education as the key to a prosperous future is unquestionably sound and yet, for the Batwa, land is still everything: a provider of sustenance and space. Perhaps only displaced peoples can truly appreciate this longing for a lost homeland and the need to return to their native soil.
Voices from the Forest
No-one embodies this more than James Barangiranas from the Kitaniro settlement in Bwindi. An elderly man with an impish face and an infectious smile, he frequently returns to the forest even at the risk to his own life. It is now illegal for the Batwa to enter the forest but James is nonchalant about the dangers.
“We need to go in there for things,” he shrugs. “Recently I was crossing with my dog to the other side of the forest and that dog was shot by the rangers. They thought I was hunting but I wasn’t. I know that anytime I go to the forest, my life is in danger.”
Barangiranas is nostalgic about life in the forest and has happy memories of roasting sweet yams and catching fish from the river.
“Sometimes I cry. I used to get my animals from the forest and now I have none. I miss the forest.”
For Barangiranas and other Batwa, farm animals are expensive to buy and sustain and the resulting lack of livestock is particularly frustrating for them, considering they live on the outskirts of a forest full of meat.
He reserves his bitterness for the government, claiming they have done nothing for the Batwa.
“They are not good. They could have done much to help the Batwa but they have done nothing,” he says. He also fears that the culture of the Batwa is about to be lost. When asked if he would return to the forest, he claps his hands animatedly. “I would run immediately into the forest and I wouldn’t look back,” he declares fiercely.
Nearby is a large wooden shack where many of the Batwa community are at work. One young woman stands over a steaming tub of posho, a Ugandan food staple, pummeling it with a staff every now and then, breaking up the gelatinous maize and scooping large portions into red plastic bowls. A rich bean stew simmers alongside it, providing much needed protein for the hard day’s labor. Scattered Batwa children snooze on straw mats in the afternoon heat, their tiny bodies covered lovingly in dusty shawls.
The Batwa Development Programme, in an effort to get the Batwa earning more and to enable them to become self-sufficient, has helped set up a small carpentry business for them. The people work hard sawing and stripping wood, hammering away at the furniture.
Geoffrey Mahano is Kitaniro’s chairman. He moves away from the carpentry to sit alongside Godfrey Marema a younger Batwa community member. Like Barangiranas, he has little love for the Ugandan authorities.
Marema agrees that the Batwa are still far behind the rest of Uganda.
“I would love to see our Batwa children developing like the non Batwa because we are still primitive,” he laments. “I want to see the Batwa taking steps for a higher level where one day a mutwa will be driving his own vehicle. Wherever you go, you will never see or hear of a mutwa driving a vehicle.”
He believes passionately that there are no equal opportunities for the Batwa. “When we work, we work for rich farming families and when it comes for time to pay we are separated,” he says. “The Batwa are paid little money and the non Batwa are paid highly even though we have done the same job, even when we have done a better job.”
What little help the Batwa do get is closely monitored by the Church of Uganda (Uganda’s dominant religion is Christianity) which is not something Mahano is fond of.
“I would love to see the Batwa independent,” he says cautiously. “The Batwa projects are still under supervision of the diocese. I want to see the Batwa owning their own properties.”
The NGO frustration
Most of the NGOs looking after the Batwa, like the Batwa Development Programme, are founded by churches and western helpers. Rachel Kinney is an American aid worker who formerly handled the finances of the BDP. She is highly intelligent with sharp piercing eyes, a Christian who felt a calling to volunteer in Uganda. She has strong views on indigenous groups and compensation. Being American, she compares the treatment of the Batwa to the treatment of Native Americans, finding the trajectory to be very similar.
“Of course they’re not going to compensate them if they’re pushing them out so they can create an industry for tracking mountain gorillas and raking in a whole bunch of money for their own benefit,” she scoffs. “It’s very similar to what they did in America with the Indians - here let me give you a bunch of blankets covered in smallpox so I can get you off my land and do a Western expansion and I don’t care if you die or don’t die.
Kinney thinks one main problem hindering Batwa development is tourism. As more tourists visit Bwindi park in search of the mountain gorilla, a few hear of the Batwa and visit the communities. Often the Batwa will perform a traditional dance for tourists and receive some money in return. Rachel believes this has created a culture of ‘giveaways’ and that some Batwa communities are becoming dependent on money handouts.
“The tourist groups who come and visit and promise them things cause issues,” she claims. “The communities around here expect tourists to give them things such as alcohol and food. The more we give them the less they are able to do things on their own, which is a huge problem.”
The Government’s stance
In Uganda’s capital city Kampala, the gleaming, modern Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) office stands out from the other seventies style crumbling government buildings. Most are shabby, with rickety lifts and bare, dusty offices. This building is clean, shiny and has clearly benefited from a large injection of money.
We put the tribes’ concerns to Mr Jossy Muhangi, head of publicity for the UWA. He is softly spoken and has countless photos of Uganda’s beautiful national parks in his spacious office. He is defensive about the Batwa, claiming that their tendency is to resist change and that there is a general land shortage in Uganda which accounts for the limited assistance afforded them.
“Generally I can say that in some areas we have land pressure. Even the Bachiga don’t have enough land,” he claims. “That’s why they try and till the soil on top of the mountains. The population density around the national parks is too much, there is land pressure so I cannot say that the government has done enough for the Batwa - but we are trying.”
Muhangi insists that the UWA cares about preserving the Batwa’s unique culture. When asked for examples, he names Kisoro as a shining beacon of government involvement. For the Batwa living around Mgahinga forest, the UWA has developed the Batwa Cultural Tourism Experience where the Batwa dance for tourists, guide them and demonstrate to visitors how they used to live. Muhangi says that he wanted the Batwa engaging in some income-generating activities and that the money filters down to the Kisoro community at large. He considers Kisoro a great success story in terms of assimilating the Batwa.
Kisoro is constantly cited by the Ugandan government as a great success story and yet this is the area where the Rukeri community lives on that blustery terrain, on barren land where nothing grows. Some of the villagers work in the government’s flagship cultural tourism project, called the Batwa Trail, where visitors pay 80 US dollars each to learn about forest living. Half of that money goes to the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the other half is paid into a Batwa Trail account. The money is used to pay the dancers, singers and guides on the trail.
The men work for around 8000 Ugandan shillings per day and women even less at 6000. That is less than 3 US dollars a day. This money is collated and they are then paid at the end of the month. When it is peak season such as July and August, some may work for ten days a month depending on the number of visitors.
Steven Serutoke, the man who tells tourists the colorful Batwa fable, works for the program. He explains that the work is sporadic and underpaid.
“8000 shillings (8 pounds) is quite little and it can’t settle all the family problems, like paying for school fees, food, clothing, these basic needs,” he says. “It should be at least 15,000 to 20,000 shillings per day per person.”
He knows that most of the more sought after jobs in the national parks go to the non Batwa. It is far more lucrative being a ranger, helping tourists trek gorillas but, despite having the greatest knowledge of the gorillas and the forest, the Batwa men are overlooked for jobs.
“We are the former forest dwellers. We are the custodians of the forest,” says Serutoke. “After eviction, forget about compensation, we don’t even get jobs as guides in the game reserves even though we know the forest better than anyone, we lived there, we know each and every corner.”
The Kisoro community
This lack of control similarly extends to politics. As Henry Neza, aid worker for the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU) in Kisoro explains, one of the biggest issues facing these communities is the lack of representation in politics.
He advocates for affirmative action programs, as the Batwa currently have no one to speak for them and this impacts on their job prospects.
“They should obviously have representation at local government level,” he says incredulously. “When you look at the parliament, no one speaks for the Batwa. Everyone has representatives except the marginalized groups.”
Neza is particularly frustrated that, despite having unique knowledge and being the traditional custodians of the forest, the Batwa are rarely offered jobs in the national parks.
It is unquestionably clear from visiting the various settlements that most Batwa feel neglected by the government and believe they have been, and still are being, treated like second-class citizens.
Hope for the future
Even though the current situation for the Batwa is bleak, there is some hope for the future.
The settlements of Mpungo and Nteko in Bwindi are further away from the park and tourists and are noticeably more self-sufficient. Much of this is due to the fact that the Batwa in these settlements, with the help of the BDP, have managed to secure some land to rear their own crops. They interact with the local farmers and are not as isolated. They have learnt the agricultural practices of the Bachiga workers and are flourishing.
The beautiful settlement of Mpungo is far away from the park entrance. The people farm Irish potatoes and cassava in organized little rows and own farm animals. The mere presence of a few pigs is enough to set them apart from other areas.
They even have managed to buy an old Singer sewing machine so the Mpungo women can learn to make and mend clothes. As a result they look healthier, cleaner and more content than their counterparts in other settlements. Their chairman, Justus Kamara, explains why they thrive whilst others struggle.
“You see other settlements and many of them are close to other Batwa. They don’t associate with the Bachiga and develop,” he shrugs. “We stay with the Bachiga so we interact with them, we share with them. That is why we have copied the Bachiga way of living - that is why we are successful compared to other settlements.”
Nteko is another settlement in Bwindi that is prospering. Like Mpungo, Nteko is far away from the tourist area and the park entrance and it is an extremely industrious settlement. The men at Nteko rise at dawn to go and work on the farms. It is noticeable that at both Nteko and Mpungo, during the day, most of the children are in school, in stark contrast to other areas where bored children roam around freely.
Christopher Kagundu, the chief of the Nteko settlement, is a little more pragmatic than most about the Batwa’s state of affairs. “Of course we lost a lot when we left the forest and we miss many things,” he says. “However we have gained education and are spending more time with the non Batwa.”
This settlement even chairs meetings between the Batwa and nearby non Batwa villagers and they all sit together and discuss how to better their agricultural practices. It feels surprisingly inclusive and distinctive.
“Our culture is unique but our settlement has adapted because we have changed some of our ways,” Kagundu points out. “Because we lived in the forest and we had plentiful food, the Batwa became people who don’t plan for the future, who just think about what to eat today, who don’t plan for tomorrow and who don’t have much income.“ Now this settlement has learned quickly the importance of saving crops, of thinking ahead and it has clearly served them well.
Women lead the way
It is easy to forget that these people were only brought into the modern world some 23 years ago and with little help they have had to adapt quickly. When they receive the help they need to better their circumstances, they can and do succeed.
Sylvia Kokunda is a prime example of this. She was only the second mutwa in Uganda to attend university. Highly intelligent and educated, she has overcome severe hardships and stigmatization to become a symbol of hope in her community and had western sponsorship to fund her schooling.
Kokunda is a young, elegant woman with crisp English and a magnetic smile and she managed to complete her studies whilst dealing with the birth of her daughter Mercy, whose father was non Batwa.
“I had Mercy in my advanced level of learning. I was in Senior Five so I did my Senior Six exams when I was breastfeeding,” she says. “It affected my performance and I did not do very well. So I went back to my school and then I re sat Senior Six. I sat my A level exams twice, did well and then I went to the university with good grades.”
She would like to go back to school to study for a master’s degree to train to be a lawyer. It is her dream job and her face lights up as she talks about it.
“I have seen how the Batwa have been mistreated here, they are always cheated,” she says animatedly. “At times the Bachiga come and mistreat them, and they don’t have a say, they don’t know the rules, so if I become a lawyer, at least I can inform my local people, my Batwa about the law, I can teach them about the law. Then I can as well try to fight for their rights.”
Kokunda works at the Batwa Development Program with Levi Busingye in Bwindi as an agriculture manager, helping implement programs in vegetable growing and animal rearing. She has even given a speech at the United Nations in New York on the plight of her people, which she enjoyed immensely although she admits to being scared by the subway.
Sylvia Kokunda is a determined and successful woman but she is, unfortunately, a rarity in the Batwa community.
The forgotten tribe
Almost a quarter of Uganda’s people live below the poverty line. The Batwa, like many other small communities in Uganda, fare even worse. They have been relegated to the outskirts of society, seen as a burden and are often belittled for their traditional way of life. They share this experience with indigenous groups the world over and yet the Batwa are unusual in that they are largely unknown and undoubtedly of less concern to westerners than the mountain gorilla, the cause célèbre for which they have had had to make way.
The Ugandan government claims it is helping the best it can but little headway is being made in providing these people with land they can farm or in improving their employment prospects. With the help of dedicated NGOs and the right assistance, the Batwa have proved that they can succeed, but these successes are far too few.
As tourism booms for Uganda’s national parks and visitors flock to see the mountain gorillas, many Batwa caution that the price of a thrilling encounter with a gorilla in the wild is not just the $600 dent in a visitor’s pocket, it is also the humanitarian cost to an ancient people, displaced, living in poverty and largely forgotten by the authorities.