Category Archives: batwa pygmies

Volunteering at ITFC

I have always believed that volunteerism is an act of Heroism. The four months spell as a volunteer at ITFC has had a great impact in my life. As a social worker, this is an opportunity for creating social cohesion and capital that are important for my career development.

It has always been my dream to work with local communities. My volunteer ship at ITFC has made this dream a reality. I have recently been assisting on the Batwa cultural values project as a research assistant. Through this project, I have been privileged to interact with Batwa communities.

Marion conducting interviews at one of the Batwa cultural sites in Mgahinga Mountain National Park

My fieldwork involves camping in  forest and with in Batwa villages. Fieldwork was initially challenging as it involves walking long distances in a rugged terrain and climbing steep hills.  Over time, I have found fieldwork very interesting and enjoyable. Interacting and socializing with local communities is very exciting. The Batwa men have always been so caring that they always give me a hand during the long and tough mountain climbs.

Marion being helped by a Mutwa man up the steep hill

Fieldwork comes with its benefits such as enjoying wild honey and berries during field trips. On the other hand, encountering a buffalo  during a  recent field execution in Mgahinga Mountain National park was very scary. I can’t forget the day we came back from the community interviews and we found our tents blown away by  wind. Frederick and the camp keeper rescued some of the tents. One tent was completely destroyed beyond repair. Tarpaulins were also torn into pieces. I have never seen such strong wind in my life. I was awake the whole night scared to be carried away in the middle of the night by strong blowing winds. Luckily, no tent was blown, and we shifted our camp to the next community. Till then, I will bring you more exciting stories from  Bwindi. Great to be part of ITFC community.

Marion enjoying wild honey with the Batwa.

Marion at ITFC

Kind regards,

Marion

My wonderful experience with Batwa and their cultural sites in Bwindi

I have spent the last six months reading about the Batwa, camping near their homes, interviewing them, sharing meals and cracking jokes. Yes, you are reading right. Cracking jokes with Batwa. I have enjoyed the company of the Batwa mainly because of their great sense of humour and melodious songs.

Singing inside the Hagurofa Batwa cave in Rushaga

I guess you want to ask, “Batwa? Why spend time with them?” Well, Batwa deserve our attention because they have been marginalized for so long since their eviction from the ancestral home of Bwindi. As a result, they are struggling to cope with the strange way of life outside the forest which they reckon best suits non-Batwa.

Marion helps with interviewing a Mutwa woman inside the forest in Rushaga

Historically, Batwa are hunter-gathers. Their lives depended entirely on forest resources. Their legends, myths and beliefs attest to the strong connection that still exists between the Batwa and the forest. In addition, the many conversations I have had with Batwa have somehow ended up touching aspects of their cultural sites – swamps, hot springs, caves and hills – and plants and animals which were important for their wellbeing in the forest. They have repeatedly told me that they miss the forest. One woman had this to say, “We request you to allow us access to our forest so that we can see the homes of our grandparents.”

But do Batwa cultural sites in Bwindi still exist? The answer is a clear YES. See additional pictures below which were taken during the inspection of Batwa cultural sites in Bwindi by a team from ITFC, UOBDU – a Batwa organisation based in Kisoro – and UWA.

A Mutwa woman washing at the (women-only) hot spring in Kitahurira

A man standing inside a cave – which was open on one side – demonstrates how Batwa used to shoot animals during hunting expeditions

Group of Batwa women in Sanuriro enjoy their moment inside the cave

I will post more stories about Batwa and their culture soon. Watch this space.

Fredrick Ssali.

Experiencing the Batwa trail in Mgahinga National Park

I am just back from a week in Kisoro, a town on the foot of the volcanoes that straddle the border between Uganda and Rwanda. This trip -with colleagues Medard Twinamatsiko and Fredrick Ssali- was a second one in the context of our new ‘Batwa Cultural Values project’ I wrote about in the last blog. ITFC is tasked to work with Batwa communities around Bwindi, Mgahinga and Semliki to understand their forest based culture better and to identify the most important cultural aspects for which access could be negotiated with UWA.

An important activity of this week was to study the 3D models of Bwindi and Mgahinga parks that groups of Batwa created and populated with a wealth of knowledge about the locations of resources and special, important sites to them (see earlier blog). We were particularly interested in finding the locations of sacred sites, hot springs and caves on the models and discussed the meaning of the different categories with people who had been involved in the mapping process. This will be of great help in planning ahead for field visits.

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F.l.t.r.: John, intern UOBDU, Fredrick, Charlotte, Winfred and Medard next to the 3D model of Mgahinga.

To experience a ‘culture based activity’ and hear from Batwa themselves about their lives in the forest, we signed up for the ‘Batwa trail’ which was developed by UWA, IGCP, UOBDU and USAID in the last few years. A UOBDU staff joint us. Let me share the wonderful experience we had in photographs:

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F.l.t.r.: Fredrick, Justus (intern UOBDU), Medard, Mutwa guide, Charlotte (UOBDU), Batwa guides Gad and Steven

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The guides dressed in (goat skin) hides and ranger Benjamin -translator for Rufumbira to Rukiga or English, talking to Fredrick.

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We were shown how a traditional Batwa home (‘Emiririmbo’) in the forest used to look like, inside and out. High up in the tree, children were kept safe from marauding buffaloes.

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Behind a Batwa home, there is always a shrine (Ndaro), where a morning prayer is made to bless the hunting and gathering of the day

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The walk on the lower slopes of the vulcanoes is a treat in itself and gave us a lot of time to talk with the guides

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The famous fire making with sticks that the Batwa are capable of

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With the smoke bees are chased from their hide-out and the honey combs are then collected.

In the Garama cave, the very important former meeting place of the Batwa, we were treated to a welcome dance.

…and there was more in store at the end of the trail!

We highly recommend any visitors to SW Uganda to come and see the forest through the eyes of the Batwa and not only come for gorilla tracking! The website of the Batwa trail describes how to organise this.

Miriam

ITFC starts activities for the Batwa Cultural Values project

ITFC, in partnership with Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU) has started an exciting new project: “Integrating Batwa cultural values into national parks management in Uganda”. The project is funded by the Darwin Initiative, UK.

Medard Twinamatsiko, whom we introduced in the last blog, will guide and manage this project along with Frederick Ssali.  The purpose  is to improve relations between Batwa and park authorities, develop income generating activities and increase the active engagement of Batwa in national park management. When Bwindi, Mgahinga and Semliki National Parks were gazetted in 1991, the Batwa (‘pygmees’) were expelled from their forest home. They have lost their livelihoods and are mostly landless squatters living on borrowed land. Their plight has been taken up by many organisations, but Batwa still live in poverty, diseases are rife and they are looked down upon.

Group of Batwa women and children, south of Bwindi

Uganda is a signatory to the Convention for Biodiversity, which obliges governments to recognise the rights of minorities to maintain their cultural practices when this is compatible with conservation. Many Batwa cherish traditional uses of the forest and continue to use the park and its resources if they can. UWA’s efforts to prevent this through policing are only partially effective and create conflicts that reduce management effectiveness, undermine conservation goals, and raise questions about sustainability.

Batwa value the forests and support forest conservation in the sense that they want the forest protected, but of course they do not support their exclusion for the forest and its management. This project will promote recognition of Batwa values and institutions, engage the Batwa community in park governance, and help retain values, institutions and ethnic identity, all important contributions to their wellbeing.

ITFC’s researcher Bitariho interviewing John Biraara, one of the oldest Batwa still alive. Accompanied on the left by a local councillor and on the right by UOBDU advisor Chris Kidd. The interview took place in preparation of the 3D mapping of Bwindi with the Batwa (first quarter 2010).

ITFC’s role in the project is to assess and document the views and cultural values of the Batwa and to help explore how these can be better integrated with conservation practices. Other partners will focus on strengthening communication between Batwa and the park authorities in order to build understanding and confidence, they will also create incentives for income generating activities by Batwa, develop inclusive park management policy, and provide training.  This builds on the work we had already begun with interviews and mapping.

Miriam

Jonathan Kingdon revisits Bwindi, after 25 years

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What did Bwindi’s Batwa lose and what do they need now?

Frederick, Donah, Edson and Margaret of ITFC have been spending this last week in Edson’s home village. They are piloting some methods to see how the life of the Batwa (pygmy) people has changed over the last 22 years since the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was created and how the people have coped. Miriam, Robert and I dropped by.

The story of Bwindi’s Batwa people raises a highly charged and often politicised set of issues. The Batwa livelihood and culture was largely built around the forest, so the creation of the park left them landless and destitute. They lacked the skills and aspirations to cope in a world without forests. But various organisations have tried to help, offering land, training and various support projects. Even so, most remain poor even now.

Our study is a trial to see if we can clarify the cultural heritage of the Batwa as well as their losses and gains over the least 3 decades. If nothing else the special culture of the Batwa is under threat and needs to be documented for posterity. But we hope for more than that. We believe that adding more substance to the claims and knowledge of the Batwa may help us all see beyond the often polarised debates that pit conservation imperatives versus human rights. There may be, at least in some instances, room for compromise. What might such compromises involve, you may ask? We don’t know yet. It may be a recognition of sacred sites and allowing the Batwa to visit these, it may be increased opportunities for Batwa to use their knowledge to help park management and guide tourists. It may simply be greater respect for the culture of these remarkable people. We won’t know until we try — and strangely enough until recently there have been few such attempts.

The start of our study is to use scoring exercises to identify the issues that matter most to the people themselves. So far the exercises are promising. Here are a few pictures of the ITFC team in progress.

Miriam and Edson from ITFC share a light moment during one scoring exercise with the men

Frederick, left, has been leading the scoring exercises with the men

Donah, second from left, has been leading the scoring with the women

Donah and Robert watch as the women score the value of different sources of products before and after the National Park was created.

To provide a break from the scoring and discussions we showed a video about life of people in Borneo’s forests.

We’re hoping that this kind of research can create a constructive dialogue among the various authorities and the Batwa. Let’s hope.

Best wishes

Douglas

Bwindi’s Batwa Pygmies: new insights from a participatory 3-D map

If you have been to Bwindi lately chances are high that you may have missed out on one major aspect of the forest, meeting the indigenous forest people – the Batwa.

The Batwa are believed to be the original people for the Central African forests. The dense vegetation was their home as hunter-gatherers. However, with the gazetting of most of these areas as National Parks  in the 1990’s, strict laws were introduced. Consequently, the Batwa had to leave the forest leaving them with no access to the forests for food, shelter, medicines and other goods and values that they used to find so freely. Without the skills or even (in many cases) the land to be farmers the Batwa have suffered since then.

In 2000 the Batwa organized themselves and formed their own organisation, the United Organisation for Batwa in Uganda (UOBDU).  Its aim is to support Batwa in to address their problems and find sustainable livelihoods.

So when UOBDU invited ITFC to take part in a Participatory 3-Dimensional Modelling of Bwindi by the Batwa (with technical support from ERMIS Africa, we saw a great opportunity of knowing how the indigenous forest dwellers perceive and value the forest and why.

It was fascinating to see the deep knowledge of the Batwa.  They can locate sacred sites, burial grounds, animal ranges, sites for hunting, places with minerals like gold and many other things all in the national park.  Some places taboo so that it is considered dangerous to go there or even to say their names.

We can talk you through the process with pictures.  Building the model itself was a tedious job. First, is the laying of the tables on which the model rests with each layer of carefully cut cardboard following a mapped contour. Each layer is glued onto the one beneath.

Marking out the contours on a cardboard

After, thin crepe paper is pasted over the boards, smoothing out the steps between the cardboard layers.  The glue also toughens the surface.

Then there was the laying out of reference points like the rivers, park boundary and main roads on the model using strings (see photo below).

Next was the delicate job of pointing out those sites that are significant to the Batwa

Then the painting …

Every two days two new communities would come to put their information on the map.  Each community was represented by some older men and woman as well as some younger people.  They were really very enthusiastic participants.

… and thrilling entertainment from the Batwa themselves

After about three weeks of hardwork,

The 3-D map of Bwindi fully based on input from Batwa. The yellow papers are the various places of interest to the Batwa including burial grounds, ancestral worship sites, names of hills, swamps, streams, rivers, gold sites, hunting and wild plants gathering sites among other things.

ITFC has helped document the process and looks forward to the next project later this year — modelling the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park with the Batwa communities that live on its margins.  Watch this space.

If you’d like to know more about the project you can find out more here and here.

Ivan and Douglas