The Batwa Cultural Experience trail in Mgahinga Gorilla national park takes you on a guided walking trail by the Batwa guides/pygmies to the sacred Garama cave. The batwa are the shortest people on earth commonly known as Twa or pygmies. The name twa in Bantu languages of Sub-Saharan Africa describe these people to be primarily hunter-gatherers and the original inhabitants of areas they reside in. Batwa people are considered minority ethnic group of people, found in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Currently the batwa are marginalized and silenced which has rendered them to be one of the Central Africa’s most vulnerable and endangered group that are in danger of being extinct.
Due to conservation purposes, batwa people were evicted from the forests in 1991 where they had stayed for many years without compensation and could therefore not continue their practices. The Batwa trail experience in Mgahinga gorilla national park gives you chance to interact with Batwa people that once lived in the forests as forest dwellers. These batwa used to live and survive on row fruits, roots of some plants, wild honey and hunt for bush meat and then retreat at the famous Ngarama caves. The Twa/ batwa have these caves as sacred place after they were evicted from their ancestral forest, but currently they are allowed as guides and this has earned them an income from tourism as well as keeping them busy such that they appreciate the importance of wildlife conservation.
Batwa cultural guides in Mgahinga gorilla national park
Batwa trail is managed by Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda’s smallest scenic park, located in Kisoro district. This park was protected because of being a home to the world’s endangered mountain gorillas, and other rare wildlife species such as Golden monkeys and good number of albertine bird species. The park covers parts of the 3 volcanoes that form Virunga massive. These include Mt Gahinga, Mt Sabinyo and Mt Muhabura the well known locally as a guide mountain.
Along the batwa walking trail, you will learn a lot from your guide’s explanation, stories of the life before eviction as well as show casing their former forest traditions including traditional way of entertainments by dancing and singing of Batwa men and women, hunting skills, herbal medicine administration, water collection using bamboo shoots, tree climbing, houses, evolution of fire and pipe smoking.
Accessing Garama cave; Ngarama/ Garama cave is 200 metres long and 14 meters deep, many years ago this cave was inhabited by bats. It’s approximately 3km from the park headquarters at Ntebeko visitor’s center to the caves entrance.
Entrance to ngarama caves
Once at the caves, Batwa elders pray to their perfect black god known as Biheeko for spiritual guidance. Inside the caves are stairs giving access to its dark interior, the batwa pottery remains and molded chairs where they used to stay and hide from enemies during bottle fields can also be seen. As you come out there are bat colonies.
This Garama cave used to be the kings residence, training area, granary to keep their food and meeting place for the elders. Currently the cave has an enriched shelter on top which was done by USAID.
The batwa trail ends with traditional performances by Batwa people displaying their dancing strokes accompanied by music hence an experience that you can really tell to all your friends intending to visit Uganda.
Batwa traditional dance
Traditionally Batwa had their ways of living including marriage where batwa were not allowed to marry non batwa and getting pregnant before marriage was forbidden. The family of a Mutwa boy would admire qualities of a Mutwa girl and decide if she is the right partner for their son, then they would visit the girls family carrying gifts which included pots of honey roasted meat and beer brewed with honey where they would negotiate dowry which then would be paid by the muwa boys family before being handed over the Mutwa girl for marriage. When the woman would get pregnant she would be fed on meat, honey, vegetables and drink a lot of herbs to boost her health and that of the unborn baby. She would be helped by other women at the time of giving birth who would use pieces of bamboo to cut the umbilical cord, the baby would then be wrapped in clean animal skins and brought near fire for warmth.
When any Mutwa would die they would be buried in a hut after digging a small hole and wrapping the corpse in grass. The Batwa leaders would lead the burial ceremony and encourage all the family members to drink herbal extracts as a way of preventing death from that family. After burial they would migrate to a far place and never return.
This way of leaving under threat has already vanished and Batwa have been struggling to have their rights back but they are unlikely to succeed. So Batwa remain in a legal limbo with unpromising prospects.