As one of the oldest peoples in Uganda, the Batwa have a strong and vibrant cultural history. They are known for their crafts, their songs, their dancing and their story telling. Once a core part of their life in the rainforest, now their culture provides an opportunity for the displaced Batwa to develop a sustainable source of income, and to keep their traditions alive.
Many sources cite that the ancient Egyptians knew the Batwa for their singing and dancing and their musical expression. Once you have seen the Batwa, that’s easy to believe. Their songs – be they celebrations or laments – are full of energy, drawing the audience in. The Batwa have long made instruments out of the materials they could find – wood from the forest or, today, old tins and other garbage. The sounds they can create from these makeshift contraptions, augmented by their strong, soulful voices, evoke a full range of emotions.
Feeding their songs is their ability to tell stories, a feature of many indigenous traditions but one at the forefront of Batwa culture. One legend tells of the creation of humanity. The creator used a match box, gourd of milk, flattened drum, pointed drum and rubbing sticks and offered them to different cultures, to allot land where they would best survive. As narrated in Fauna & Flora International (2013, 10),
A white man picked a match box, a Mututsi picked a gourd of milk, a Mukiga picked a flattened drum, a Muganda picked a pointed drum and a Mutwa [or Batwa] picked rubbing sticks for making fire in the forest. The creator blessed the Mutwa saying, ‘go and use the forest. Eat the fruits, leaves, roots, honey and meat in the forest’. The Mutwa then ran into the forest and lived there with his descendants for many generations.
Batwa crafts also form a central part of the tradition. Like their instruments, they draw on materials from the natural habitat to create beautiful baskets and bowls woven from grasses and tree creepers. Originally created as practical items to use in their households, the Batwa women are now using their skills to develop their crafts as new sources of income.
Like other indigenous people around the world, the Batwa are using aspects of their traditional culture to create opportunities to improve their situation. Let’s hope they succeed.
Dosanjh, I. (2008, August). “The Batwa Dance”. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZcqABwDTrU
Flora & Fauna International (2013, October). “Batwa cultural values in Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks, Uganda: a report of a cultural assessment”. Retrieved from http://www.fauna-flora.org/initiatives/cultural-values/.
Unrepresented Nations And Peoples Organization (2016, March). “Batwa: The History and Culture of a Marginalized People in Central Africa”. Retrieved from http://unpo.org/article/19031.