The Batwa Pygmy Peo­ple of Bwindi

Nomad Africa Magazine - - Inside Issue11 -

ireached 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 EuroAfrican 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 privi-

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.

leged 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 in the nest 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.

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