The Keepers Of The Forest

The “Bwindi Development Network” (BDN) promotes wildlife conservation in the “Bwindi Impenetrable National Park” (BINP), where more than half of the remaining mountain gorilla population remains. BDN established the first of its kind, in creating the “Bwindi Reformed Poachers Centre” in Uganda, led by the Founder Mr. Alex Ngabirano who discovered that, people living around BINP were accessing forest resources, leading to increased poaching.
At the Centre, we give lectures about the gorilla and other wildlife conservation and the community engagement in our project. We also introduce traditional poaching methods to the tourists, students, and children as a cultural learning tool. The reformed poachers demonstrate how they used to live in the forest, before the park was founded by the Government in 1991 and, this includes showing visitors examples of their medicinal practices! The BDN continues to engage local communities, including Batwa, in our mission of gorilla and other wildlife conservation and, reforming traditional wildlife poachers towards sustainable livelihood activities. We aim to create a zero-poaching zone in the “Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.”

The Batwa People
They are a marginalized group of people, living just outside the “Bwindi Forest” and, their ancient trails are a sight that everyone should witness for themselves. The Batwa, also called Twa people, are Pygmies and they were known as the ‘forest keepers,’ due to centuries, in which they shared the forest with the animals.
The Batwa people are the original inhabitants of the “Bwindi Forest,” and they are believed to have lived there for three hundred years or more. In the year 1991, they were evicted from the forest by the Government, during the creation of the protected area. Unfortunately, this led them to start living a life of extreme poverty, just outside the forest, with a level of limited resources to which they were not accustomed.
Across other communities who lived in the area like, the Bafumbira and, Bakiga, referred to them as uncivilized people, due to their former way of life. Since the loss of their natural territory, the Twa have become extremely marginalized. Ever since they were evicted from the forest, as they never had owned any land before, they were forced to live as squatters on land, where the owners did not want them.
Today, hundreds of the surviving Batwa Pygmies make their livelihood directly in the settlement camps. They have a message for us: “We miss our ancestral land and life, but now as a community we are trying to cope with life here. We are learning how to farm coffee, banana plantation, millet, cassava, ground nuts, yams, fruits, potatoes, vegetables, and beans.”

The origin of the Batwa people
An old legend tells us about how the Batwa came into existence and, the elders of the Twa always tell this legend. According to their belief, there was a man named Kihanga, who had three sons named Katutsi, Kahutu and Katwa. The man gave them a task of protecting milk gourds, to see how responsible they all were. The boys kept the gourds throughout the night and in the morning, their father summoned them to check on their progress. Katusi had his milk gourd still full, Kahutu’s milk gourd was half full and Katwa’s milk gourd was empty. After seeing this, their father gave them presents according to their level of responsibility. Katutsi was blessed with all the cows that their father owned, and these would help him and his children to prosper. Kahutu received seeds and a hoe, which would be used by his family and those who outlived them, to grow their own food. Katwa was gifted with the forest and whatever grew or lived in it and, he was to survive by gathering wild fruits and hunting. After him, many future generations made Bwindi their home and, this is how the Batwa came to live in the forest.

The social and economic life of the Batwa
The Batwa live in houses that are always too small, to accommodate all the family members under one roof. For example, you could find over eight
people living in the same single roomed house. Traditionally, their houses do not have mattresses or seats. Instead, you find the family members lying on their sisal mats at night, passing them from one generation to another.
The Batwa are very friendly people. They are welcoming and hospitable to visitors. They socialize by hunting together, playing music and, dancing. In the evening, different old stories are being told, always by the elders to the younger generations.
They marry when they are in their teens, and this has drastically increased their population. Yet, they live on small plots of land. Most of the youngsters drop out of school, so that they can help with the daily chores of family life. Others become local guides for the tourists, who visit the area for gorilla trekking and community walks.
It is extremely hard for the Batwa to get jobs and they end up doing casual jobs, which do not bring in much money. They also produce handy crafts which they sell to visitors of the area. Most of the people, who produce handy crafts say that, although they end up selling them, their earnings are not enough to last for long and, sometimes, they end up going hungry. The fact is that their way of life was taken away from them and, they are trying to adapt to a changing world that has little room for them.
Even though most Batwa children do go to school, many of them do not finish their studies because of the extreme poverty they face and, they end up doing odd jobs to survive. Others run away from their schools because they are lacking support in areas such as, finding acceptance and, career guidance.

The Batwa spiritual beliefs and rituals
The Batwa had their own spiritual beliefs before the introduction of Christianity in their country. They worshipped a god known as “A ‘an.” The ancient religion of the Batwa is centred on the forest and, it is still practiced by people in their communities.
When a baby was born among the Batwa people, a bow and arrow were always placed in their palms, as a sign of protection. Their “education system” was not so different from other cultures. Children learnt different traditions like, hunting and taking care of house chores from their elders, instead of going to classes. The women also breastfed their babies for a long time because this acted as a form of control, for family planning.
The Batwa practiced monogamy although, sometimes they would exchange girls, and this was known as a barter marriage. Most of the Batwa marriages were arranged by their respective families. In the case of barter marriages, the two girls to be married, would face each other, during the marriage ceremonies, which was a sign of their shared future in the marriage. At a wedding, a few gifts were given to the family of the bride and, these were usually things like, wild meat and honey. Besides this, squirrel meat, a delicacy, was also used, since it was hard to hunt and, during the marriage ceremony, it was presented to the mother-in-law.
After the marriage ceremony, the father of the bride always introduced her to the family spirits. If the bride turned out to be barren, traditionally the man was always encouraged to marry another woman, who could bear children for the continuity of his lineage. Non-Batwa people could not marry Batwa people, but, today, there are inter-marriages among the Bakiga and Bafumbira tribes. Adultery was not allowed among the Batwa people. The purchase of Brides, during an already existing marriage, as is the norm now, was not accepted.
Inheritance ceremonies were rare, since the Batwa people owned few possessions. Upon death of a family member, the remaining relatives would be given the possessions of the deceased. Burial sites included huts, or the dead were cremated and, the gravesites were always abandoned. After the death of a loved one, a medicine man would come by to cleanse the bereaved family members, so that the spirit of the deceased would not attack them. Graves can also be found in caves and rock formations. Since they have been ordered to leave the “Bwindi Forest,” the Batwa have no access to their ancient burial sites.

Problems the Batwa Pygmies face
When they were evicted from their ancestor’s homeland in the “Bwindi Forest,” the Batwa people began facing numerous problems and challenges. Some of those issues have clearly been and remain to be, a violation of the rights of the Batwa people. After the eviction, they did not receive any compensation for the loss of their territory. Once the park boundaries were officially recognized and, since they had been forced onto other people’s land, where they ended up squatting, the Government argued that they were already living on someone’s land. Therefore, compensation was deemed unnecessary, to the detriment of the Batwa, for decades to come.
The Batwa people have no hospital or, health facility. They are supported in obtaining medical services from the Government health facilities and from some of the private hospitals. They also have no school but, with support from well-wishers and, from several NGOs, some children can go to school. Most of the Batwa do not have sufficient shelter and their sanitation, as well as their hygiene conditions, are quite poor. They are still missing the kinds of foods which used to be their natural diet, while living in the forest. Sadly, the government’s position is that the Batwa had damaged the forest, by living in it. However, it is on public record, that the Bantu ethnic groups, who migrated into the area with their cattle, were the ones who cut down the rain forest trees, to create land for themselves. The Batwa were the stewards of the “Bwindi Impenetrable Forest,” long before the Bantu newcomers arrived and, they never damaged the place they called home.

Although many organizations have come forward to voice their concerns about the situation the Batwa find themselves in, there is still much that needs to be done to stop their rights from being violated. Plus, with our support, they started to play a vital role, fighting actively to end crimes like, poaching, illegal logging, and other offenses against wildlife, while conserving mountain gorillas and other primates for their continued existence, for their people, for generations to come and, for the recently arrived eco-tourism. Nevertheless, engaging Batwa people in support wildlife conservation activities, is often a challenging task and, in many cases, takes a long time. All we can do, is approach them with caring support and, innovative ideas, one step at the time.

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Tel: +256 774718186



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Alex Ngabirano

Alex Ngabirano

Founder and Executive Director of Bwindi Development Network. Saving mountain gorillas & other wildlife by reforming poachers in Uganda's protected forests