News / Africa

Uganda’s Batwa Reclaiming their Ancestral Forest as Tour Guides

A makeshift Batwa camp on the edge of Mgahinga National Park. December 11, 2012. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)
A makeshift Batwa camp on the edge of Mgahinga National Park. December 11, 2012. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)
20 years ago Uganda's Batwa, or pygmies, were evicted from the forest to make way for a national park. But now the impoverished Batwa are being allowed back as tour guides, showing hikers how they used to live, and making some money in the process.

Listen to:
Uganda’s Batwa Reclaiming Their Ancestral Forest as Tour Guides
Uganda’s Batwa Reclaiming Their Ancestral Forest as Tour Guidesi
|| 0:00:00

Standing in the rain under the dripping forest canopy, Hagumimana Kanyabikingi offers up a traditional hunting prayer. May we kill an animal, he chants, and not be killed ourselves.

Hagumimana Kanyabikingi in the forest of Mgahinga National Park, where he and his ancestors once lived. December 11, 2012. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)Hagumimana Kanyabikingi in the forest of Mgahinga National Park, where he and his ancestors once lived. December 11, 2012. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)
Hagumimana Kanyabikingi in the forest of Mgahinga National Park, where he and his ancestors once lived. December 11, 2012. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)
Hagumimana Kanyabikingi in the forest of Mgahinga National Park, where he and his ancestors once lived. December 11, 2012. (Hilary Heuler / VOA News)
Kanyabikingi is a Batwa, or “pygmy”, and for centuries his ancestors lived here in the forested mountains of southwestern Uganda. They were evicted in 1991 with the creation of Mgahinga National Park, near the town of Kisoro.

But now, the Batwa are being allowed to walk their old forest paths once again, as tour guides on the newly created Batwa Trail.

Pointing to the dense undergrowth, Kanyabikingi explains how they used to use strong vines to trap duiker and bush bucks, or hunt them with poison-tipped arrows.

Half the proceeds from the trail go to the Batwa themselves. The rest goes to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, or UWA, which had been looking for a way to attract tourists to the park.

As spokesperson Lillian Ngubuga explains, the family of mountain gorillas in Mgahinga comes and goes, and until recently they were living in neighboring Rwanda. “Which meant that we could not do gorilla tracking in Mgahinga any more, and for some time there wasn’t really much tourism activity going on in Mgahinga. Which meant that we needed to think of other ways of getting tourists to come and be interested in visiting. We needed something new, and this was really kind of like a God-sent idea. We are able to improve people’s livelihoods, but also it is helping us to generate funds for conservation and biodiversity management in the park,” she said.

For the Batwa as well, the money is badly needed. Since they were evicted, several hundred have been living in poverty in makeshift camps at the forest’s edge. They are unaccustomed to the ways of the outside world, says Penninah Zaninka, of the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda.

“The forest was everything to them. It was a homeland, they used to have shelter inside the forest, have food inside the forest, and they would collect medicinal herbs, as well as fruits for survival,” Zaninka stated.

Batwa guide George Mpagazihe agrees. In the forest, he says, they could eat animals and wild honey, and clothe themselves in animal skins. Now, he says, they are little more than beggars.

According to Zaninka, the main problem is that the Batwa do not have their own land, making it difficult for them to earn a living. “They lacked educating their children, food security, they worked and they are still working [as] cheap labor [for] other people in order to keep them on their land as squatters. So all those factors cause them not to be happy, because they have nowhere they are based,” she explained.

They are also afraid, she adds, of being evicted yet again.

“They are scared. They are so fearful that these people may evict them a second time. They were evicted from their motherland, which is the forest, and now they are put here," she noted. "But because there is no ownership, they are not very sure.”

For years, the Batwa have been urging the UWA to grant them access to the forest. The new trail is, at least partly, a result of these negotiations.

Kanyabikingi says he is happy to be able to walk through the forest once again, and to collect the medicinal herbs his people once used.

But a national park is a delicate thing. Because it has to be protected from human encroachment, says Nsubuga, the Batwa will never again be allowed to live in the forest. “No, there’s no way the Batwa can move back into the park. Because, you see, we are trying to protect the resources that we have. And the reason why we had to remove the Batwa from the forest was because their activities were not in conformity with natural resource management practices. They were feeding on fruits, trees, burning in the forest, stuff like that,” Nsubuga said.

At the end of the trail lies the sacred Garama Cave, former home of the Batwa king. In it, Batwa musicians sing the old songs for visitors.

We would love to return to the forest, says Kanyabikingi, for the taste of wild honey, and for the sake of our spiritual beliefs. He explains that since they left, even their forest-based religion has been lost.

But for now, it seems the Batwa will have to be content with walking their forest trail with strangers, preserving their culture by sharing it.

You May Like

Yemen Brings US, Iran Closer to Naval Face-off

US sending two more ships to waters off coast of Yemen to take part in 'maritime security operations' More

Minorities Become Majority Across US

From 2000 to 2013, minorities became the majority in 78 counties in the United States. Here's where those demographic shifts are happening More

Japan's Maglev Train Breaks Own Speed Record

Seven-car 'magnetic levitation' train traveled at more than 600 kilometers per hour during test run Tuesday More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs