Forest People Return To Their Land ... As Tour Guides

  • In 1991, the Batwa forest people of Uganda were evicted from their land when two national parks were created to protect the shrinking habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla. A new program is trying to help them earn money and reconnect with their roots.
    Hide caption
    In 1991, the Batwa forest people of Uganda were evicted from their land when two national parks were created to protect the shrinking habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla. A new program is trying to help them earn money and reconnect with their roots.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • Traditionally, the Batwa used bamboo stalks to carry water and cook food — stuffing them with meat and foliage to steam over a fire. After the formation of the Mgahinga National Park, the Batwa were forced out and prohibited from any hunting or gathering.
    Hide caption
    Traditionally, the Batwa used bamboo stalks to carry water and cook food — stuffing them with meat and foliage to steam over a fire. After the formation of the Mgahinga National Park, the Batwa were forced out and prohibited from any hunting or gathering.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • The Batwa Trail, now 2 years old, helps preserve and promote culture by having Batwa guides show tourists their traditional way of life. Batwa guides and musicians earn the equivalent of $3.25 a day. The rest of the money goes to a Batwa tribal trust and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
    Hide caption
    The Batwa Trail, now 2 years old, helps preserve and promote culture by having Batwa guides show tourists their traditional way of life. Batwa guides and musicians earn the equivalent of $3.25 a day. The rest of the money goes to a Batwa tribal trust and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • The Mgahinga National Park provides a much-needed refuge for the mountain gorilla. But the creation of the park also drove the Batwa from their land, and has taken away a big part of their identity.
    Hide caption
    The Mgahinga National Park provides a much-needed refuge for the mountain gorilla. But the creation of the park also drove the Batwa from their land, and has taken away a big part of their identity.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • Living entirely off the land, the Batwa developed a deep knowledge of the forest's plants and their uses. The benefits of these plants are still known by many of the older generation, but have been largely lost on the youth who have spent their entire lives living outside the forest.
    Hide caption
    Living entirely off the land, the Batwa developed a deep knowledge of the forest's plants and their uses. The benefits of these plants are still known by many of the older generation, but have been largely lost on the youth who have spent their entire lives living outside the forest.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • Intimately tied to the mountains and forests, the Batwa used to perform daily dances in honor of their land. Entering their previous home, men perform a welcoming dance.
    Hide caption
    Intimately tied to the mountains and forests, the Batwa used to perform daily dances in honor of their land. Entering their previous home, men perform a welcoming dance.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • Equipped with two sticks, tinder and a lot of patience, the Batwa make small clumps of smoldering grass to ward off bees and harvest fresh honeycombs. Honey is so valuable that they use it as a bride price.
    Hide caption
    Equipped with two sticks, tinder and a lot of patience, the Batwa make small clumps of smoldering grass to ward off bees and harvest fresh honeycombs. Honey is so valuable that they use it as a bride price.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • Besides finding safety in the forests, the Batwa also took shelter in a local cave they called Garama. The cave is a low-ceilinged lava tube beneath the mountain where the chief used to hold his councils, and where women and children hid during battle.
    Hide caption
    Besides finding safety in the forests, the Batwa also took shelter in a local cave they called Garama. The cave is a low-ceilinged lava tube beneath the mountain where the chief used to hold his councils, and where women and children hid during battle.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • This sacred cave housed the Batwa king and was the main venue for celebrations. A choir in the darkness sings a song of sadness about how the Batwa were driven from the forest, and how much they miss it.
    Hide caption
    This sacred cave housed the Batwa king and was the main venue for celebrations. A choir in the darkness sings a song of sadness about how the Batwa were driven from the forest, and how much they miss it.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
  • Pushed from their homes without land of their own or compensation, many Batwa have been forced to squat on the land of others and perform menial jobs.
    Hide caption
    Pushed from their homes without land of their own or compensation, many Batwa have been forced to squat on the land of others and perform menial jobs.
    Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR

1 of 10

View slideshow i

Like other hunter-gatherers of Central Africa who've been cast out of their jungle homes, when the Batwa forest people of southwest Uganda lost their forest, they lost their identity.

The Batwa were evicted from their rain forest kingdom in 1991, when two neighboring national parks, Mgahinga and Bwindi, were created to protect shrinking habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla.

The forests in which the Batwa lived are rich with flora and fauna. After the formation of Mgahinga National Park, they were forced out and prohibited from hunting or gathering. i i

The forests in which the Batwa lived are rich with flora and fauna. After the formation of Mgahinga National Park, they were forced out and prohibited from hunting or gathering. Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
The forests in which the Batwa lived are rich with flora and fauna. After the formation of Mgahinga National Park, they were forced out and prohibited from hunting or gathering.

The forests in which the Batwa lived are rich with flora and fauna. After the formation of Mgahinga National Park, they were forced out and prohibited from hunting or gathering.

Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR

Mgahinga National Park's 13 square miles are dense with towering bamboo, braided vines, wild fruit, forest elephants and cape buffalo. The place is also filled with poignant memories for the Batwa because they can no longer live here — they can only visit.

A Novel Tourism Project

But the Batwa are heading back into their former kingdom, leading tourists through the jungle on the Batwa Trail. For $80 a person — lunch and rain gear not included — tourists can trek with the tribesmen deep into Mgahinga and encounter the lost world of the Batwa.

The Batwa Trail, now 2 years old, helps preserve and promote culture by having Batwa guides show tourists their traditional way of life.

It also generates money for the community: Batwa guides and the musicians earn the equivalent of $3.25 on days when there are tourists. The rest of the money goes to a tribal trust and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 forest peoples — "pygmy" is the more controversial label — inhabit a band of rainforest that stretches from Cameroon to Uganda. They are threatened by encroaching logging, national park evictions, racism, and health problems that come with extreme poverty.

"I live an unhappy life compared to the way we used to live in the forest," says Steven Barahirwa, the chief guide, speaking through a translator. "Now I am a squatter on other peoples' land. I don't have property of my own, just a tiny thatch hut."

Barahirwa says his people make little money working for other people, carrying sacks of potatoes to market on their heads, scavenging the food that's left behind in the fields, and begging on the streets in the Ugandan town of Kisoro.

A Glimpse Into A Nearly Lost World

Over the course of a four-hour tromp through the jungle, a handful of small-framed Batwa men dressed in goatskins lead the way into their former forest lair.

They point out plants used to treat hypertension, ulcers and tapeworms, and reveal the root they use as an aphrodisiac and the wild lavender used on the wedding bed.

Batwa guides explain how they strip leathery bark off thick lianas with which to weave baskets, how they turn sections of thick bamboo into canteens, and how they make fire and smoke bees out of tree hollows so that they can harvest the honey — which is so valuable to the Batwa they use it as a bride price.

When they reach a clearing that offers a view of a sacred mountain they call the Old Man's Teeth, the guides burst into ecstatic song.

The Wildlife Authority's park manager, Hamza Kaemonges, says the trail has helped conservation.

"Most of that park was ... highly affected by poaching and other illegal activities," Kaemonges says.

Since the cultural hikes began, Kaemonges says the Batwa do not sneak back into the forest as much as they used to, to poach animals for bush meat and cut trees for firewood.

A Partial Solution

Park officials are talking with the Batwa to allow them in for occasional forays to harvest bark for baskets, wild yams, honey and medicinal plants.

It all sounds good, but it's an incomplete solution. What the tribe needs is land. During the eviction 21 years ago, two other tribes that farmed and raised cattle in Mgahinga received compensation, but the Batwa, who lived nomadically in the rain forest, got nothing.

"We agree with the conservation goals of the park, protecting wildlife and preserving the watershed," says chief guide Steven Barahirwa. "That's why we don't go in for hunting anymore. But we must have compensation because this used to be our home."

Advocacy groups such as Forest Peoples Programme and Survival International say the only real answer is to allow people like the Batwa to return to national park land, because their presence protects the forest from further encroachment.

But the Uganda Wildlife Authority is adamant that no one should live in Mgahinga National Park.

The Batwa Trail ends inside Garama Cave, a low-ceilinged lava tube beneath the mountain where the chief used to hold his councils, and where women and children hid during battle.

A choir in the darkness sings a song of sadness, the guide explains, about how the Batwa were driven from the forest, and how much they miss it.

When the trek is over, the Batwa guides and performers gather up their things and leave the national park where they were once masters. They walk down the mountain to the shantytown, where they are servants to other Ugandans, and where they will dream of a day when they may return to the forest.