A marginalized group of people living just outside the Bwindi forest and trails is a sight that everyone should witness on their own. The Batwa also known as Twa people are pygmies referred to as the forest keepers due to the many years that they lived in the forest with animals.
The Batwa people are the original inhabitants of the Bwindi forest and they are believed to have stayed there for more than 300 years. In the year 1991, they were evicted from the forest to conserve it and they started living a beggar’s life just outside the forest with limited resources that they were not used to.
Most of the people who live around them like the Bafumbira and Bakiga refer to them as uncivilized people due to their former wild life of hunting. The Twa are extremely marginalized and ever since they were evicted from the forest, they have never owned land and they have become squatters on land where the owners do not see any significance form them.
The origin of the Batwa people
A legend is always told about how the Batwa came into existence and this is always told by the elders of the Twa. It is believed that there was a man named Kihanga who had three sons named Katutsi, Kahutu and Katwa respectively. The man gave them a task of protecting milk gourds to see how responsible they all there. The boys kept the gourds throughout the night and in the morning they were summoned by their father to check on their progress. Katusi had his milk gourd still full, Kahutu’s milk gourd was half full and Katwa’s milk gourd was empty.
Due to the outcome of the results, the father gave them presents according to their responsibility. Katutsi was blessed with all the cows that the father owned and these would help him and his children to prosper, Kahutu was blessed with seeds and hoe and these would be used to grow their food and prosper with his future generations and Katwa was gifted with the forest and whatever was in it and he was to survive by gathering wild fruits and hunting and this would be done by him and his future generations and this is how the Batwa came to live in the forest.
The social and economic life of the Batwa
The Batwa live in small congested houses that are always too small to accommodate all the family members under one roof. For example you might find over eight people living in the same single roomed house. Most of these houses do not have mattresses or sits but you find the family members lying on their sisal made beds at night and sharing them from the Father to the children.
The Batwa are very good people as they are welcoming and hospitable to the visitors. They socialize though hunting, music, dancing and different stories that are always told in the evening by the elders to the younger generation.
The Twa marry when they are in their teens and this has drastically increased their population and yet they live on small pieces of land. Most of these drop out of school so that they help in the day to day running of the families while others become local guides for the tourists who visit the area for gorilla trekking.
It is extremely hard for the Batwa people to get jobs and they end up doing casual jobs which do not bring in a lot of money. They also make clay pots that they sell to the different people who visit the area. Most of the people who design the pots say that although they sell these pots, the money they get is not enough to last them a week and sometimes they end up going hungry due to lack of food and the fact that their livelihood of hunting was take away from them, they are trying to adopt to the changing world.
The children of the Twa go to school but most of them do not finish because of the extreme poverty that they face and they end up doing odd jobs to survive. Some of the children run away from schools because they are threatened by the teachers and fellow children.
The Batwa spiritual beliefs and rituals
Batwa people believe in a supreme being locally known as Nagaasan or Imaana. And it is believed that Nagaasan provides the wealth, food, protection and children to the Twa people. The chameleon was treated as sacred due to the fact it climbed to the highest point of the tree and the Twa believed that it came closest to God.
Although you should note that Batwa before the introduction of Christianity in the country had their own spiritual beliefs where they worshiped a god known A ‘an. The ancient religion of the Batwa is center on the forest and it is practiced by the different people in the community and even after the introduction of Christianity, some Batwa people still practice the old religion.
When a baby was born among the Twa people, a bow and arrow was always placed in their palms as a sign of protection. The education system was not different from others as the children learnt the different activities like hunting and doing house chores from the elders instead of going to classes. The women also breastfed their babies for a very long time as this acted as a form of family planning for them.
The Twa practiced monogamy although sometimes they would exchange girls and this was known as barter marriage. Most of the marriages in the Twa were arrange by their respective families and in the case of the barter marriage, the two girls were made to face each other especially during the marriage ceremonies which was a sign of their shared future in marriage. After the marriage ceremony, the father of the bride always introduced her to the family of the spirits. And in case the woman was barren, the man was always encouraged to get another woman who could bear children for the continuity of his lineage. Non Batwa people cannot marry Twa people but the men who live around have always raped the Twa women with a belief that they will get cured of Aids.
Adultery was also not allowed among the Twa people. Bride purchasing during marriages as is the norm now was not accepted but a few gifts were given to the family of the bride and these were wild meat and honey. The meat of the squirrel was the one mostly used since it was hard to hunt and during the marriage it was given to the mother in law.
They hardly practiced inheritance ceremonies since the Twa people owned few possessions and upon death, the family members would be given the possessions to own. The dead were normally buried in huts or cremated and the place where they were buried was always abandoned. They were also buried in caves and rocks but this was before they were chased out of the Bwindi forest for conservation. After the death of a beloved one, a medicine man would come by to cleanse the bereaved family members so that the spirit of the deceased would not attack them.
Problems that the Twa people face
The Batwa people are facing numerous problems ever since they were evicted from their original home in the Bwindi forest and some of these have violated the rights of the Batwa people.
They do not own land and this is due to the fact that ever since the eviction, they were never compensated. The government said it was not right to compensate them since they were living on Gazetted land and they ended up being squatters on other people’s land since they cannot even buy land.
The Batwa people also do not own a hospital or health facility and they are forced to walk for over five kilometers before getting medical attention and since they are not sensitize enough they have a high HIV prevalence and yet access to the drugs is a problem.
Much as the government says that the Twa spoilt the forest it is on record that it was the Bantu ethnic groups who migrated into the area with their cattle that cut down the rain forest trees to create land for themselves. The Twa conserved the forest till the Bantu showed up.
Although many organizations have come up to voice their concerns of the Batwa, there is still much that needs to be done so that their rights stop being violated. The Batwa culture is on the verge of becoming extinct as many people are abandoning their culture so that they can fit in society. All the cultural wears, dances, practices and songs have been abandoned with the gist of fitting into the ever changing economy of the world and the hustle of getting money to take care of their families.