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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.

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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)
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.