Batwa; the small tribe of Ugandans nearing extinctio

Sharing space with gorillas and other wildlife in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a small tribe of about 6,000 people. The Batwa, also commonly referred to as the “Keepers of the Forest” are a remarkable tribe of pygmies who for thousands of years have irked a living from the forest and its surroundings. 

That they survive by hunting wild game is perhaps the reason that the Government of Uganda has made frantic efforts to relocate them from the area. The Batwa depend on hunting and gathering from the forest. However contemporary conservation efforts by the government and international organisations which started in the early 1990s when Semliki National Park was declared a protected area, have sent the tribe to the peripheries of the forest. A report on the dilemma that the tribe faces reads; “Further, to make way for the famous mountain gorillas in Bwindi and Mgahinga forests, the Batwa were ‘relocated’ without their free, prior and informed consent, and without any public hearing. This was the last straw for the Batwa who had gradually been displaced from the forests by settler farming communities and logging companies, which had greatly damaged the forest and imposed private land rights limiting the Batwa’s freedom of movement. While the MBIFCT provided some Batwa families with land leases of a very short duration as a ‘solution’, it was not known what would happen after the leases expire. Only a few families were covered under the scheme and most were now ‘squatters’ on neighbours’ lands.”

The Batwa people live in southwest Uganda, in the districts of Bundibugyo, Kisoro, Kanungu, Kabale, and Rubanda.  

Describing the Batwa, Uganda Tourism Centre states; “The size of the Batwa is quite different from other tribes in Uganda, the men and women rise to an average of four feet or less in height, the tallest man among the Batwa would be the shortest among the neighboring community, the Bakiga. Traditionally, the Batwa lived as hunters and gatherers, residing in temporary huts and caves, deriving sustenance from forest resources like honey, wild fruits, mushrooms and vegetables. Each clan collectively owned an area of forest within which they derived food and herbal medicine for their sustenance.”

It further states that the “Batwa have strong social relations and recognize themselves as a community. They share close attachments to certain areas within concomitant social formations that appear to derive directly from the ancient past. Marriages normally take place within the clans though marriage among members of an individual settlement is rare because of the close relations amongst such persons. Batwa still practice social norms and customs normally associated with clanship similar to majority of other tribes in East and Central Africa. However, due to the resettlement programme most Batwa are never sure of their clan leader and where he lives.”

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