• Tue. Jun 28th, 2022

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Batwa Culture losing battle to Modernity

At the outskirts of Bwindi impenetrable forest in Ruhinja, Mpungu sub-county, Kanungu district, is a struggling ethnic group. Casually referred to as Pygmies, the Batwa are known as the indigenous group and the oldest recorded inhabitants of the great-lakes region in central Africa. Originally, the Batwa inhabited the region around mountainous forests of Lake Kivu and Lake Edward. The creation of national parks and economic development from the 1970s onward, led to displacements of part of the communities. According to a 2014 report by the Uganda housing and population census, the Batwa were estimated to be 6,200 which number is reported to have reduced to3,500.

Batwa demonstrating how they used to make fire

They became squatters living on edges of hosting communities, and gradually learning such new languages and cultures. Adjusting to a monetary kind of life, though initially hard, the Batwa are coming to embrace the new change where they not only have to engage in economic activities, but also make sure their children adapt to modern civilisation of formal education and dress-code. Getting acclimatised to being tagged ‘bush people,’ Batwa school-going children are willing to withstand all bullies, to blend into modernity and make it to top ladders in the world of academics.

Fading Culture of Batwa people

Adopting a new life of modern civilisation has come at a cost. As years evolve, what was once their norms and culture, are fading to near disappearance. Their language, dressing code, food and general lifestyle today, is in sharp contrast with what was once their way of life. At such a crossroad, where circumstances are compelling Batwa people into dropping their old selves, to adopting current waves of modernity, does not only confuse the culture owners, but also the country as a whole, to lose what would be one of its cultural-diversities.

Some of the Baskets woven by Batwa ladies

The tribe which entirely depended on forests, can no longer trace for paths nor some of the cultural values which for long, were enjoyed by their fore-fathers. Inter-marriages and getting used to modern civilisation, has also contributed to a rift between modern Batwa and their ancient culture which was synonymous with conservation.

How Batwa survived in the jungles

According to David Kakuru who is estimated to be in his late 70s, Batwa used to sleep either in caves, well-bent tree trunks or above in tree branches. Sleeping in caves was most favourable for cold nights with a family gathering. This way, they would light fire which was used as both the source of light and warmth, as well as scaring away dangerous animals.

Food and clothes

Batwa entirely survived on hunting for wild meat and fruit gathering. Before going about their hunting spree, men would leave their wives and children residing in shelter which had been neatly and firmly built up in tree-branches, as one way of protecting them from attacks by wild animals. After a successful hunt, men could carry the meat regardless of the longer distances, back to where they may have left their families.

Clothes were made from animal skins and sometimes from tree-barks. The Batwa had not been successful in inventing shoes before they got evacuated from the forests. Even during their hunting orgy, it was prohibited to kill gorillas, Chimpanzees and other apes that resemble humankind. For Batwa believed, such animals were relatives to humankind.

Medicine and Craft

The life of Batwa people entirely depended on forests. It was the same habitat that provided medicine to different illnesses and injuries. Similar to most of the African traditional societies, Batwa too had proper knowledge of which kind of medicine treated which kind of ailment. Culturally, women were not allowed to participate in hard tasks. However, it was part of their duty to weave baskets, mats among other crafts necessary for home-life.

Courtship and Marriage

Several communities of Batwa used to live in forests. Whenever a male from one community would spot a female in another community, the former would take honey as bride price to the would-be wife’s family. Also was a rare bird specie which a man would hunt for and deliver to a lady as a special gift, asking for her hand in marriage. When a couple agreed to marry, the two would move to another location in order to start up a family of their own.

Leadership and Faith

The eldest in one community would automatically qualify as the leader (Omugurusi) of such a community, who would subsequently give wise counsel as well as solving complex disputes. It did not matter whether such a leader was a female or male. The Batwa believed and worshiped a god whom they referred to as Nyakashanyi. They’d occasionally meet under a certain tree to worship their god. Worshiping under a tall tree, was perceived to be a quick connection between the Batwa and their god, hence a reason for the tribe to conserve and preserve trees.

All this kind of lifestyle, virtues and culture is seemingly disappearing.

Batwa heritage centre, a glimmering light for the fading culture

The Batwa heritage centre is one remaining ray of light in conserving and preserving some of the artifacts and cultural norms of the fading tribe

Tina Katushabe the coordinator of ‘Change A Life -Bwindi,’ a community based organisation, has seen the construction of Batwa heritage centre which will preserve artifacts, features and information about Batwa culture. Constructed with local material, labour and skills, the grass-thatched cultural centre is located at the outskirts of Bwindi impenetrable forest to portray a sense of lifestyle the Batwa lived while still in the jungles.

Inside are traditional household items like baskets, calabashes, medicine, bark-cloths, spears among other tools they used in hunting and daily life. According to Katushabe, part of the proceeds that’ll be generated by visiting the centre, shall directly go to Batwa communities, to boost their economic way of life. “The Batwa men who cannot do weaving, are already engaged in bee-keeping as an economic activity,” noted Katushabe pointing at several bee hives around the heritage centre. She’s advocating for a Batwa night where visitors and tourists, can be allowed access into the park, to witness and experience the kind of life the Batwa people lived while still in the jungles. “We appeal to the Uganda Wildlife Authority to allow us demonstrate some of the activities from the forest without destroying the environment,” urged Katushabe.

Tina Katushabe (left) and Owens Kobusingye the coordinators of Change A Life a Community Bases Organisation that strives to empower marginalised communities staying around Bwindi impenetrable national park

Uganda Wildlife Authority speaks

According to Barbara Ndagire a senior warden in charge of community conservation, who is attached to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), cultural tourism is the way to go. “We have Batwa trails in other regions and shall certainly allow it here. UWA also allows harvesting of raw material among other crafts used in weaving, from the park,” assured Ndagire. She implored Katushabe to write a concept and submit it to UWA for consideration on how Batwa and visitors can have a regulated access to Bwindi national park, for the Batwa trail.

What Local authorities say

Yafesi Akampurira the Community Development Officer (CDO) for Mpungu sub-county contends that government disbursed Sh637m to Mpungu sub-county in the last financial year, to promote tourism. He noted that, local council resolved to use the funds in constructing community lodges and a tourism centre, a programme which is expected to start before the end of this year. “We are therefore, looking forward to working with Katushabe to improve the Batwa centre as well as preserving and promoting Batwa culture as a tourism product,” pledged Akampurira.

Medicinal herbs that were used by the Batwa during their stay in the forests

For long, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) has advocated for promotion of Community conservation and tourism as another tool for marketing Uganda. Visiting different communities and blending into their way of life, entails community tourism. It does not only help in conserving bio-diversity but also preserves different cultural norms. As of last year 2019, Uganda had registered an increased tourism revenues from Sh5.3t (US$1.45b) in the financial year 2017/2018, to Sh5.8t (US$1.6b) in the year 2018/2019 making tourism sector the country’s top foreign exchange earner. The number of tourist arrivals was registered from 1,402,409 tourists in the 2017/2018 to 1,505,669 tourists in 2018/2019 financial year. Until the recent outbreak of COVID19 Pandemic, it is evident that tourism sector contributes to over 7.7% of the total National Gross Domestic Product.

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