The Batwa Pygmies

It is said that the Batwa were the oldest recorded humans in the forests of the Great Lakes region of Africa, living in these parts over 4000 years ago. They are a significant minority who had been ignored by the larger and more powerful neighbouring indigenous communities and tribes. It is not until about 15 years ago that some projects were set up in Africa, such as the Batwa Development program in Bwindi to help them.

The Batwa and the Gorilla Forests of Uganda, Congo and Rwanda

The pygmies, or rather the Batwa people, were living in the caves near Mgahinga up until about 60 years ago. In Bwindi Gorilla Forest they were there until 1992 when the park was gazetted and made into a World Heritge Site, and in the process they were relocated away from it. The same happened in Volcanoes Gorilla forest Park of Rwanda and Virungas National Park of Congo – they were summarily relocated after these places were gazetted. But in many other forests of Congo, the Batwa still live there, hunting small game using poison tipped arrows or nets, and staying in small temporary huts constructed with leaves, grass, stone, mud/soil and branches, which are abandoned after a few years when they relocate to another part of the forest in search of fresh supplies of food, gathering various plants and fruit that the forests naturally supply.

In the gorilla forests and nearby environs, they lived within as hunter-gatherers, and would barter some goods from the forest, e.g. honey, with the Bakiga in Uganda (pronounced Batch-ii-ga) and Bafumbira, Hutu, Tutsi, Mlembo among others who practiced agriculture and lived outside of the forests.

As said above, many of the Batwa have tragically now been moved out of the forests – (there are still some living as traditional hunter-gatherers in the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo), but there have been no Batwa living in either the Virunga forests, or in Bwindi forest since their inception as protected areas. Most of the Batwa live in small communities around the parks, and try to make themselves a living – often by dancing for tourists. They are few in number relative to the Bakiga, the Hutu, the Tutsis, the Mlembo, and it is sad to see a people like this having been displaced from their original home, trying to survive in their new environment. There are various projects to try to help them, and there are now areas within Bwindi, Kabale, Lake Bunyonyi and Mgahinga were they are permitted to keep hives to produce honey, which they can keep, and/or sell. Their knowledge of medicinal plants within the forests is also vast, and collection of these plants, within specified areas of the parks, is being encouraged.

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ChimpanzeeCurrent populations of the batwa are found in the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They live side-by-side with the more powerful communities, but they are marginalised and do not hold any political positions in all these African nations. They were almost extinct, as by 2000 they numbered only about 80,000, roughly 0.0008% of the total population in these countries, making them indeed a significant minority group.

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