Uganda: 'Batwa may be poor, but they have immense cultural wealth'
The tiny village of Nteko is set atop a 2000 metre-high hill, with stunning views of distant misty lakes and verdant valleys. Yet for Batwa this paradise is a living hell.
You may well know Batwa as Pygmies, their more common, but derogatory name. Batwa have lived as hunter gatherers in the forests of south-west Uganda for millennia, depending on their forest home not only for foods such as honey, but also for medicinal herbs. They have a deep spiritual and religious connection with the forest, and specific sites are revered and considered central to their existence. However Batwa now form part of a growing group around the world of so-called conservation refugees, evicted from their ancestral forest home in the 1990s to make way for a national park.
On a daily basis the villagers I met in Nteko are cruelly reminded of their dispossession. As I listened to the story of their eviction, I gazed across the gorge to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, their former home, divided by a stark line from vertiginous plots of tilled farmland.
Here the famous mountain gorillas roam and tourists pay 600 dollars a pop to commune with them. The gorillas have rightly been saved from extinction, yet Batwa, one of Africa’s most ancient peoples, guardians of the forest who have lived alongside the apes for thousands of years, are beaten and arrested by rangers if they so much as enter the National Park to gather the herbs so crucial for their health.
Over 20 years after the eviction one man I spoke to in Nteko village said he was still barely able to speak about the forest because of the sadness it provokes in his heart. During my travels with Minority Rights Group I’ve never experienced such a palpable sense of longing and nostalgia in a people, a connection so strong with land and nature, and of a life now rendered meaningless by the severing of that connection.
Yet the villagers of Nteko could be considered lucky by some warped standards. At least they have land, purchased for them by a Dutch organisation. Batwa forcibly evicted from the forest in 1992 were never compensated by the government, and the majority now squat on neighbours’ land and work as virtual bonded labourers on small sugar cane or banana plantations.
The most unfortunate Batwa group I visited live in a miserable slum on the outskirts of the town of Kisoro, which lies beneath the fertile slopes of the volcano straddling the borders of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. The injustice they face is made starker by their location directly in front of the town’s courthouse.
I arrived at nine in the morning to find swollen-bellied kids covered in black dust from the tyres they burn to keep warm at night, young men swigging from filthy plastic bottles of vile homebrew, and women emerging from tiny dilapidated shacks, which appeared to be made solely from ripped plastic bags and rotting cardboard boxes.
About 140 people live here. Most, including kids who leave school by the age of eight, make a living from begging on the streets of Kisoro. Domestic violence and malnutrition are rife.
The community leaders I spoke to were clear in their demands of the international community. Just 20, 000 dollars would buy this community enough land for them to at least begin a process of rehabilitation, to become self sufficient and able to escape from the dire situation they have been forced into through no fault of their own. This is a shamefully trifling amount, especially considering the thousands of dollars the Uganda Wildlife Authority rakes in daily from tourists visiting the gorillas. According to Batwa, only a tiny proportion of that revenue trickles down to them.
Besides the grinding poverty and being uprooted from their forest homes, I had the sense whilst in Uganda that Batwa are Africa’s ‘untouchables’ - despised simply for who they are and close to being wiped out, with only a few thousand left according to some estimates.
Nobody wants to sit next to the Batwa kid in school, or share water from the same well, or food from the same table. They are surrounded by suspicion and fear. Other more dominant ethnic groups even say that having sex with Batwa women will cure diseases such as backache. Batwa women often are believed to be HIV free, which paradoxically has led to the spread of the disease.
Batwa may be poor, but they have immense cultural wealth, and the slum community makes meagre bucks from performing for tourists. According to tradition, families and friends gather around a fire and sing songs of courage and perseverance to inspire hope and build community morale. Music, song and dance has the power to transform all of us, no matter what our circumstances, and this became readily apparent as raggedy children, old women with lined faces and young men and women sang us protest songs about being uprooted from the forest, detailing their demands from the Ugandan government and urging international organisations like MRG to support their cause.
Tough lyrics, yet previously despondent expressions turned jubilant, glorious choral harmonies soared, snake-hipped little kids gyrated and women ululated wildly. Even I was moved to get in amongst the action, tossing aside my camera and digital recorder for a moment to join in with the joy.
Check out this short (and shaky) video of the kids getting down. Culture in action, being passed down the generations.