On the night of arrival at Kisoro, in Southwest Uganda, one of the Amajambere Community Camp managers introduced himself and the community activities that they organise. This includes a tour of the Batwa community and their activities. I had read a bit about their plight since their displacement from Mgahinga National Park after it was gazetted. The Batwa people are part of an extensive group across central Africa, called Twa, known for their hunter gathering lifestyle in the tropical rainforests. Their short height and consistent traditional way of life triggers puzzlement and derogatory attitudes from communities around them (and from the anthropologists who attempted to chronicle their origins and culture). It has thus added negative connotations such as the word ”pygmy”.
Most tragically, in 1992, this area was gazetted by the government as ”The Mgahinga Gorilla National Park” and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to protect the 350 endangered mountain gorillas within its boundaries. You need to think again about the meaning of heritage and the role of national and global organisations in shoving out peoples, who have been stewards of this habitat for hundreds of years, and paradoxically naming the area after gorillas instead of the peoples that have been respecting and protecting their environment all along. Such a move suits conservation tourism as an exploitative industry rather as a dual leisurely and educational activity.
The current state of the Batwa is quite sad, deprived of their traditional livelihood and thrust into a semi-modern, conservative, agrarian society; many who could not adapt resort to begging and succumb to alcoholism. Quite cynically, the camp manager mentioned that it is best to visit the local Batwa community before 9 am as most men would be too inebriated by 11 am. His reference to ”these Batwa” didn’t give me much confidence that they are being treated as equals amongst other communities. It put me off doing the community tours of the Batwa homes.
I wasn’t sure if I would do any tours in the park this morning as my feet were still in pain and blister ridden. I was determined to at least slide towards the park visitor centre to see what goes on there. After squeezing my mangled feet into the trekking boots, there was a better feeling of confidence in my feet. As I had breakfast I decided there and then to do something. At 9 am I headed towards the park gates. I asked the rangers assembled at the gate about the various excursions. I was then directed to the visitor’s centre, an elaborate building with information displays and a mini auditorium whose construction was heavily funded by foreign donors. Ironically, there were no UWA staff on duty on my arrival but two people also looking to get on an excursion.
One ranger, in military police-like uniform, turned up but just seemed to hang around. Finally someone in charge turned up with other colleagues and we, the three tourists, discussed our preferences with them. They looked at my trekking boots and announced that I needed to hire rubber boots since it rained a lot the night before. I said that I wanted to do the excursion that needed the least amount of walking. The Batwa ”Pygmy” Trail was the best, they said, so I reluctantly accepted it. It turned out that the other two were also interested in the Batwa Trail. They both were volunteering with an organisation contracted by the UNHCR to provide medical services to the refugees from DR Congo who were being sheltered at a camp just outside Kisoro Town. Mark is from Alaska, USA and Mary from Alberta, Canada. We assembled in the mini auditorium for a briefing. About seven people turned up: five Batwa men in traditional attire, one UWA ranger and a UWA guard/tourist police officer with an enormous rifle.
The presentation clearly announced that the UWA were representing the Batwa and were to transmit our questions to them. Luke mentioned that Daudi understood English but couldn’t articulate himself in the same language. To what extent this was true was less important than the unfortunate fact that we could not have frank and direct discussions on the current Batwa situation. It was to be a well orchestrated, almost stage-managed, trail with Luke towing the official UWA line. So we hit the trail starting by witnessing a Batwa ritual gratitude to God for all the bounty that exists within the forest. It is completed with a tap of the forehead on a branch. I too tapped my forehead on it just to go with the flow and as a mark of respect, something that I suspect is not well distributed around here…
A couple of meters down the trail, one of Batwa men got out a dagger and started digging out earth under a bush. Luke explained that they were extracting wild honey from stingless bees – how I have never heard of such a convenient method of honey extraction I have no idea! First, a hive of bees, then a hive of honey. The hive has a curious leaf like structure, completely different to the hexagon matrix of stinging beehives. By the way, it is not as yet possible to domesticate these bees for commercial honey production. I had a taste of the honey, which was dark with a consistent viscosity and pleasant, sweet, musky taste.
On a nearby stream another Batwa man pulled out a bunch of thick, wide bamboo sticks and collected water. They are naturally segmented and so water cannot leak downwards. The top was bunged with a clump of grass. We also learnt that both fresh and cooked food can be stored in these sticks for days when the hunt is long and food is not readily available. Now, the main reason that we had a guard with a rifle is to protect us from buffalo attacks in case we came across a herd. They usually are easily startled and resort to aggression if fleeing is not an option. Forest buffaloesare smaller but more aggressive than their savannah cousins. The guard normally fires in the air to scare them off. Buffaloes are part of the conservation equation, so shooting to kill is normally unthinkable.
The Batwa men now taught us how they make a fire. This involves 2 sticks: one with several slots etched along the length, one with a hollowed end and a sharp wooden pick nailed inside. The stick with the pick end is repeatedly spun, at the pick end, on one of the slots. The friction create saw dust. It is the saw dust that starts smouldering before creating a faint glow. The men normally immediately place dried twigs to kickstart a full fire. In this case, to my confusion, they chose to light a cigarette! Mark exclaimed that he hoped that they aren’t picking up this bad habit. I suspected that tobacco smoking might not be a traditional Batwa pastime, and certainly not the commercial sort. We got some nervous smiles as responses then we pressed on. Also within the same vicinity was a miniature, even by the diminutive Batwa scale, shrine where they pray to their spiritual deity. These prayers are usually led by the group leader but I understood that not much of that is practiced anymore since the gazetting of the park, or rather deportation of the Batwa. A short while later, we were shown a special leaf that the Batwa use before hunting to help calm the nerves. It literally lowers your blood pressure. Luke commented that it is like chocolate for the Batwa people, in other words a delicacy. This was obviously a comment for western touristic digestion. As I cringed, I realised that there is a certain degree of truth in the sense that chocolate does have medicinal qualities though I didn’t test the flavour of this particular leaf. We returned into the secondary rainforest, still in the direction of the trail, moving up a hill.
Mt. Sabingo was in full view but with its peak under cloud cover. Finally we found a safe spot to witness the hunting simulation, to highlight the day’s simulations! One Batwa man played the role of an animal whilst the rest were the hunters. I could describe it as best an educational farce. Both educational and farcical, which sadly lowered the dignity of the Batwa people further still in this reduced view of Batwa culture. The Batwa demonstrated several plants used from life to death, especially during times of mourning a loss. One is for strength and the other for invincibility. I was beginning to imagine the psychedelic effects of these herbs. Mary, even more curious on this matter, wondered about which of these plants have been tested in a lab.
I recommend this trail only if you are willing to be engaged and challenge the status quo towards the improvement of the Mgahinga ecosystem whereby only the fair gain the benefits. Respect authority, listen carefully to the Batwa, and tactfully ask questions and most of all, spread the awareness. Passive tourism only suits an exploitative industrial complex and it cannot be called neither conservation nor sustainable.