BATWA PEOPLE “PYGMIES” HISTORY & CULTURE IN UGANDA
The Batwa people also known as pygmies are a group of short Marginalized people who lived in Bwindi forest and Mgahinga and Echuya forest in Uganda until these forests were gazatted in 1991 to become national parks. The Uganda government then evicted the Batwa people “pygmies” from the forest without any compensation. This was done in order to conserve endangered mountain gorillas and other wildlife living in the jungle forests. Currently, the Batwa are the most vulnerable and endangered group of people in the central Africa region who practice ancient traditions and customs that form their rich culture in areas where they live.
The batwa are believed to be some of the first inhabitants of the earth, living in the East Africa great lakes region. Batwa people were originally forest dwellers, hunter-gatherers who entirely lived and depended on hunting and gathering fruits for food in the forest. It is believed that there was once a man named Kihanga who lived with his three son’s Katwa, Kahutu and Katutsi. He gave them a task to keep cans of milk overnight.
In the morning when asked for the milk Katutsi had his can full, Kahutu had his half full and Katwa had his empty. So the father rewarded them according to how responsible they were starting with Katutsi getting all his father’s cows and blessed to prosper, Kahutu was given a hoe and seeds to cultivate and Katwa was given the forest and all it contains so he was to survive by hunting and gathering food so that is how Katwa and his people came to live in the forest.
Batwa lived in the forests in harmony with the wild animals like mountain gorilla, they would hunt using poisoned arrows to get bush meat. They would also gather food and fruits for both food and medicine. Their existence in the forests was not harmful to the environment since they never cut down trees for charcoal or timber and their housing was also not affecting the forests since they used branches and leaves to construct huts and some lived in caves.
The government of Uganda in 1991 sent batwa away from their original home and declared Bwindi Impenetrable forest and Mgahinga as national parks. From then the batwa were forced to join the modern world which was so new and unfamiliar to them. They were to live on the areas around the park with nothing to start with, no shelter, and food, healthcare and so they resorted to begging and doing casual work to earn a living. They are now the poorest group of people on earth.
Batwa still practice some of their culture though it’s being eaten up by the modern life they live in now. Batwa practice monogamy and the marriages were arranged by the families of the mutwa girl and boy. A few gifts were exchanged like wild meat especially meat of a squirrel was given to the mother in-law since it was hard to hunt.
The new couple would then go and establish their own home after sometime after marriage. In case a woman failed to give birth to children the man would then be allowed to marry another woman to give birth to kids who would continue the family lineage. Batwa were not allowed to marry from non batwa.
When a child was born he/she would be given a bow and arrow as a sign of protection. Women would breastfeed children for long as their family planning method. As children grew they were taught how to hunt, house chores by the elders and that was the education their got. Batwa believed in their god called Nagaasan who provided them health, wealth, food and protection.
The elders used to worship and offer sacrifices to the gods before and after hunting and this was done in sacred huts that were only accessed by elders. Some have now adopted Christianity though others still believe in their ancient gods. They had medicine men and women who took care of the sick by preparing some herbs that cured their illnesses.
On a death occurrence the dead body would be buried in the hut and the remaining family members would migrate to another area. They would also get some medicine from the medicine men to protect them from being attacked by the dead spirits. Batwa clothed in animal skin and made bags from the skins too. They made fire by rubbing sticks which was to use to roast meat and keep them warm. Most of these cultures have faded away with the eviction of the batwa from the forests.
Currently the Batwa people face a lot of challenges like lack of land. Batwa don’t own any land since they were chased out of the natural home “the forest”, they survive in congested homesteads in a sense that over 8 people live in a single hut both parents and children, some of the batwa children go to school but drop out at an early stage since parents cannot afford fees and school requirements, they don’t access proper health care and even the hospitals around are far from reach. There are early marriages and this has increased their population. Batwa lack jobs since they have no modern skills so they can’t be employed. The Batwa have also suffered highly with AIDs since the local people used to rape the young girls with traditional belief that they will be cured of backache, AIDS if they sleep with a mutwa woman. The greatest issue is that they are discriminated in school, church and in Communities they live.
With all the above problems and many more some organizations have come up to help the Batwa gain their human rights and gain access to the funds made from their natural home but the success isn’t so much. Some have managed to build for them some houses to stay in, getting them some jobs like potters and guides for the tourists that visit the area and also their voices are starting to be heard in society though their wish to return to the forest still stays a mystery.