The Batwa Cultural Trail
Echuya Batwa famously known as “pygmies” are an endangered minority group of people. They are found in Echuya Forest reserve in Kisoro and Kabale districts of South-Western Uganda. The Batwa are believed to have migrated from the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo in search for wild animals to hunt. The Batwa were hunter-gatherers who settled in the dense forests of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Forest and lived there for thousands of years. They lived in these dense forests until during the early 90’s when their evictions out of the forest started, first by the colonial rulers and later by the government authorities in efforts to gazette the two forests into Gorilla National Parks. Thus, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
The first group of the Batwa were therefore forced to leave their cultural heritage as forest dwellers behind to live in assigned settlements and camps outside the two National parks in the districts of Kisoro, Kabale and Kanungu. However, this new transition did not go well for the Batwa despite the government’s efforts to ensure their smooth settlement. Since they were used to the forest life, they were faced with a number of challenges; some of which include; enduring poverty, drunkenness, they had to deal with a number of diseases which was unlike while they lived in the forest. While in the forest, the forest provided everything they needed including shelter, fruits, honey and wild animals to hunt. And now they had to adapt to new farming methods like bee keeping which they found to be challenging. The Batwa literally had to toil and suffer to survive. They had to cultivate their own food, cut down trees to make firewood and charcoal for sale.
Furthermore, the Batwa faced a number of social trials as they had to learn to live with some neighboring tribes which they had avoided for centuries such as the Bantu. Things did not go well as they were faced with discrimination because of their unique life styles. Even up to today, the identity of the Batwa as true citizens of Uganda is controversial due to their comparative poverty and failure to adapt entirely. Due to these difficulties, some of them live as beggars and others continue to poach wild animals in the Park. Despite all this, many of these pygmies still look forward to going back to their life in the forest one day.
The Batwa Cultural Trail and the Batwa Cultural Experience
The Uganda Wildlife Authority in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) aims at aiding the Batwa both socially and economically through the earnings from Gorilla Tourism. This has been done through the Batwa Cultural Trail in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and the Batwa Cultural Experience in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. These two cultural safaris offer one of the best community tours in Uganda. The Batwa cultural trail and Batwa cultural experience is an experience planned for tourists that are interested in exploring the history, culture and way of life of the Batwa as forest dwellers. The Batwa cultural trail is done deep inside Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and it takes longer compared to the Batwa cultural experience which is done in the Batwa communities outside Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
The Batwa cultural trail takes about 4 to 5 hours, it is usually spearheaded by the Batwa themselves as the guides. It usually starts with a “Twa” guide kneeling down and praying to the spirits for everyone’s safety during the trek into the forest. This was an ancient norm which ensured that the hunting sessions of the Batwa were blessed and went smoothly. Thereafter, the Twa guide leads the tourists into the dense forests and through the slopes of the Muhabura and Gahinga volcanoes.
During the trail, you will learn about the importance of every forest plant to the Batwa people. The guide will often pluck off a few leaves from the trees to validate its medicinal purpose. He will explain how some leaves are used to cure diseases like flu, cough, fever, diabetes and pressure, among others. More so, you will explore the Batwa habitats inside the forest. You will learn how they build their traditional huts, prepare their dishes, make fire, and harvest honey. You will also have a glimpse of some of their artifacts including wooden spoons, cups and plates. During the trail, you will listen to their ancient stories of origin and life in the forest. Furthermore, you will witness traditional performances from the Batwa traditional dancers. The trail will end with a tour to the Garamba caves. The dark ancient caves were considered a sacred place because they acted as their king’s palace and a storage facility. More so, during war time with the Bantu, they used the caves as an assembling point and hideout.
The Batwa cultural experience in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park involves a community visit to the Batwa communities outside the Park. While visiting the communities, you will get to interact with the local Batwa, explore their humble homes and listen to their ancient stories of origin and life in the forest. In addition, you will get to be entertained with the Batwa folk dances and songs.
The Batwa cultural trails in Mgahinga and Bwindi have significantly contributed to the social and economic standards of living of the Batwa community through the profits from Gorilla Tourism. Allowing the Batwa back into the forest as tour guides during the cultural trail has given them a sense of belonging. In addition, the funds collected from the tourists help provide their revenues hence improving their livelihoods. Tourists have also offered plentiful donations in form of money, food, clothing and creating awareness about the Batwa on an international level.
Things to Consider before going for the Batwa Cultural Trail in Mgahinga
Level of Difficulty
The Batwa cultural trail is a challenging activity partly because Mgahinga lies on a high altitude in the Virunga Massif. It features steep slopes, overgrown vegetation and muddy trails that require a certain level of physical fitness. If you have heavy luggage, you can hire service of a local porter at a cost of $10 to $15.
Cost of the Batwa Cultural Trail
The Batwa cultural trail in Mgahinga costs quite less for groups than one person. A lone international tourist will pay $80 whereas two international tourists will pay $70 each and a group of 4 or more will pay $60 each. Those who are interested in capturing the whole experience on camera or recording a documentary will be required to pay $400 more.
What to Wear
Since the trail is in the tropical rainforests, you should have a rain jacket, long sleeved clothes, gardening gloves to protect you from stinging insects, sharp plants and thorns, packed lunch or energy giving snacks and bottled drinking water. Other equipment you might want to carry include; insect repellants, cameras, binoculars, among others.
Note: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a gorilla National Park which harbors the endangered mountain gorillas and other creatures including chimpanzees, monkeys, wild animals such as antelopes, buffaloes and forest elephants plus a variety of birds and moths. Therefore, while on the Batwa cultural trail, you may expect to have fascinating wildlife views.