Who are the Batwa people? : The Batwa Cultural Trail takes you to visit the Batwa pygmies. The Batwa people are believed to be one of the earliest ethnic groups to live in Uganda. They are known for their short stature and ancient practice of hunting and gathering. The Batwa lived in dense forests found around the great lakes region for thousands of years. The forests provided everything they needed. When hungry, they would simply go and hunt. When sick, they knew which plant to use as a remedy. The Batwa avoided frequent contact with tribes living outside the dense forests. They were feared and left alone because no one could defeat them in forest warfare. In the earlier years, they majorly lived in the Ituri forest of Democratic Republic of Congo but later migrated eastwards to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, parts of the Mgahinga and Volcanoes and National Park. Some groups moved further and up to the Echuya Forest reserve in Uganda looking for better food and shelter. The Batwa lived a life of plenty and freedom with no idea that a day would come when they would have to leave the forest. Mgahinga and Bwindi impenetrable forest were turned into protected areas leading to the eviction of the Batwa in order to create room for gorilla conservation. The government thought that their continued stay in the forest encouraged poaching and deforestation from other tribes. The Batwa were resettled outside the parks and forced to live with tribes they had avoided for thousands of years. Because they looked different and had a completely different culture, the Batwa were marginalized. The Bakiga and other tribes viewed them as primitive people who were out to get their land.
The government and other international organizations like USAID did what they could to ensure that the Batwa adjusted to life outside the forest. Whereas there have been many success stories, most people think the resettlement and rehabilitation process was not handled well. Some researchers point to the fact that despite government and other international organization projects designed to help the Batwa, they remain very poor compared to other tribes. Their standard of living is far below that of the average Ugandan. The Batwa have stuck to their ancient way of doing things. They still follow their ancient rituals, prefer staying in grass thatched huts and hunt illegally whenever they can. A few survive by cutting forest trees and turning it into charcoal for sale. As government becomes stricter on forest encroachment, most of the Batwa now have to live as squatters in farmlands owned by the Bakiga and other surrounding tribes. The Batwa have failed to compete and most have resorted to drinking and reminiscing about the good old days when everything came on a silver plate.
It is intended to show just how important it is to tread carefully when introducing new and modern ways of doing things to some communities that are stuck in their ways. For a similar example, you can refer to the Aboriginals in Australia or the tribes found in the Amazon. The Batwa are also a classic example of how wildlife conservation efforts can affect human communities negatively if not well planned. The government thought that by resettling them, they would quickly adapt a modern life like other tribes in Uganda.
Note: It is important to note that although the Batwa lost their original way of life, they still take so much pride in their traditional values and culture. Some have remained hunters, fruit gatherers and herbalists. A few have tried to adapt by embracing farming or bee keeping but at a small scale.
The appalling condition of the Batwa people has not gone without notice. Several organizations and individual donors work with the government to help stop the poverty, primitive practices, discrimination, marginalization, high mortality rate and possible extinction of Batwa pygmy communities. One of the challenges these organizations, individuals and projects had to deal with was the high mortality rate among the Batwa specifically due to both communicable and non-communicable diseases. These deaths were mainly because the Batwa were less immune to diseases found outside the forest. They also had no access to high quality clinics. Thousands died and there was a time when only 3,500 Batwa pigmies were recorded.
Which organizations are supporting the Batwa? Apart from the government through the Uganda wildlife authority, the Batwa have received help from The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU). Dr. Scot Kellerman and Carol Kellerman were however the first foreign humanitarians to raise funds for the Batwa people. They started out with some simple projects that focused on Water and Sanitation. The couple not only brought clean and safe water to the Batwa, but also helped raise awareness about their plight to influential donors abroad. With more funding, they built health centers, schools and other services. As a result, the conditions of living of the Batwa were greatly improved. More of their children went to school and some were employed to work in the facilities.