The Batwa were original dwellers of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest but, when the Ugandan government stepped in in the early 1990s to designate the land as a National Park, the indigenous people were evicted. With no land rights, no compensation and no support to resettle, they faced an uncertain future. Can this change?
The impact of the eviction has been devastating to the Batwa. Making up just a small fraction of the population of Uganda (the 2015 census estimates the total number of Batwa living in Uganda at around 6,700), they have faced discrimination by other local communities. They have no money and few ways to generate income, beyond low paid farming, begging or sorting and selling garbage. They lack access to basic services, such as health care, education, clean water, and sanitation. There is a shortage of land and shelter. And many go hungry; even those who have sufficient land to farm may lack the necessary skills, and are totally dependent on a good harvest.
Because of this, the Batwa are widely considered to be one of central Africa’s most vulnerable and endangered groups. Alcoholism – not known in their culture before the eviction – is a growing issue, as are drug addictions. Violence, particularly sexual violence against women, is widespread, and there is a resulting increase in the numbers of Batwa with HIV/ AIDS. They are the only minority group in Uganda not represented in Parliament. On top of all their other challenges, they are marginalised politically as well as socially, with few, if any, options to take decisions for themselves.
Not only that; Batwa culture is in danger of dying out. They are denied access to the forest, so skills used over millennia for hunting, weaving, and building shelters are being lost. They have no access to their traditional religious practices, and ancient rituals are being forgotten. Those who remember life before the eviction are growing older. Those born since the eviction are becoming assimilated into the wider Ugandan society and have no wish to return to the old ways. So what will become of the Batwa?
There is some hope. Since the eviction, community groups, charities and NGOs have been finding ways to support the Batwa to access land, water, education and other basic services. They have been working with the indigenous people to teach them new skills, in farming and business and basic literacy, so they can adapt to their new environment. And they have included them in savings and loans cooperatives, so the Batwa can begin to make decisions for the benefit of their communities.
And they retain their love of music, song and dance. Their voices are exuberant, their dances energetic, involving the whole community, old and young. Many see these traditions as the key to the Batwa’s future. Tourists already come to see the Batwa perform. Empowering the Batwa to take ownership of their talents, and develop the skills and knowledge they need to develop a tourist offering that will thrive, is the next step.
Creative Research and Evaluation Centre (2011, June). “Combating Child Mortality among Batwa Project”. Retrieved from https://uobdu.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/ccmb-survey-rept-22-june.pdf
Guardian Features (2015, June). “Batwa: Uganda and the human story behind gorilla tourism”. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56G9Ag0JMs0
Kawczynska, E. (2014, June). “Batwa. The most marginalised people in Uganda?” Retrieved from http://www.equaltimes.org/batwa-the-most-marginalised-people#.Vv1nmZMrLBI
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.
Vice News (2015, July). “Forced out of the forest: The Lost Tribe of Uganda”. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITzWIBHEPqA