Magazine article Geographical

No Pride and Prejudice

Magazine article Geographical

No Pride and Prejudice

Article excerpt

The Batwa of Uganda are a people whose existence and culture is intricately woven with the forest. Claire Foottit meets the pygmies who have been denied access to their spiritual home

THEY ARE LIKE WALKING WOOD, they have lost their spirit", the Reverend Eustice Rutiba told me one morning in his office at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. It was a chilling comment from a man dedicated to helping the destitute Batwa pygmies, who once roamed the forests of Mgahinga, Echuya and Bwindi in the Kisoro area of southwest Uganda. Through the Emanzi Food and Peace Development Centre (EFPDC), alongside several other church and non-governmental organisations, Rutiba strives to get recognition for the Batwa, in a country where they are despised by other ethnic groups. "The situation is like the untouchables of India," says Rutiba. "The Batwa in Uganda lead a miserable life. They survive by begging and what they knew in the past is almost gone."

Kisoro, a ramshackle town, lies at the end of a four-hour-drive from Kabale, and a long day's journey south from Kampala. Hill ranges stretch in fading shades of blue to the distinctive Virunga mountains which mark Uganda's border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Steep terraces, farmed by peasants, descend from ridges to valley floors and a multitude of crops grow in the rich volcanic soil -- beans, Irish and sweet potatoes, cassava and the ubiquitous banana.

It is believed the Batwa have lived in the area for over 50,000 years. Historically the Batwa were hunter-gatherers, traditionally identified as forest people and recognised as owning the high forest -- their spiritual home and larder. Men used to set snares or hunt with packs of dogs and spears. They collected honey and herbs for food and medicinal purposes, vines for making rope, grasses for mats and thatching, clay for pots and various other forest products, which they used themselves or traded with their neighbours. Women gathered wild mushrooms and fruit and tilled fields for local farmers in return for potatoes. They lived in scattered settlements, of around 30 people. Traditionally they dressed in animal skins and grasses. During the 19th century, other tribal groups like the Batutsi and Bahutu began to encroach upon the forest, cultivating the land. The Batwa became subservient to them, working in return for food, but still retaining a degree of autonomy. They became particularly valued as court entertainers and soldiers by the Batutsi.

Today, the Batwa constitute an extreme minority, less than 0.2 per cent of the population and around 50 per cent of Uganda's estimated pygmy population of 3,700. The inherent prejudices against them, their lack of numbers, education and formal organisation has resulted in them having little or no voice in regional affairs, with the consequence that their situation has largely been ignored by the Ugandan authorities.

Visiting rites

In Kisoro I met the informal leader of the Batwa, the Rwabaka, a shy unassuming character, and arranged to pay a visit to two family groups; one near Echuya forest and the other next to the Mgahinga park boundary. In preparation for our visit we made a shopping trip to Kisoro market to buy gifts of food for the Batwa families.

The Echuya forest lies between Kisoro and Kabale. Bamboo thickets line the road, with views to magnificent stands of trees towering in cathedral proportions, trailing delicate creepers. Wisps of smoke rose from the edge of a clearing, indicating a Batwa settlement. The Rwabaka sought out the leader of the group, who greeted us with a beaming smile. He stood at about four foot six inches tall, barefooted and dressed in an old pair of trousers and a jacket done up with a safety-pin. We followed him to the bottom of a steep slope, next to the forest where a cluster of three grass shelters resembling `twigloos' stood.

Only adults were around, as these Batwa had converted to Christianity, and their children were at the local church school. …

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