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Forest People Return To Their Land ... As Tour Guides

Like other hunter-gatherers of Central Africa who've been cast out of their jungle homes, when the Batwa forest people of southwest Uganda lost their forest, they lost their identity.

The Batwa were evicted from their rain forest kingdom in 1991, when two neighboring national parks, Mgahinga and Bwindi, were created to protect shrinking habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla.

The forests in which the Batwa lived are rich with flora and fauna. After the formation of Mgahinga National Park, they were forced out and prohibited from hunting or gathering.
/ Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for NPR
The forests in which the Batwa lived are rich with flora and fauna. After the formation of Mgahinga National Park, they were forced out and prohibited from hunting or gathering.

Mgahinga National Park's 13 square miles are dense with towering bamboo, braided vines, wild fruit, forest elephants and cape buffalo. The place is also filled with poignant memories for the Batwa because they can no longer live here — they can only visit.

A Novel Tourism Project

But the Batwa are heading back into their former kingdom, leading tourists through the jungle on the Batwa Trail. For $80 a person — lunch and rain gear not included — tourists can trek with the tribesmen deep into Mgahinga and encounter the lost world of the Batwa.

The Batwa Trail, now 2 years old, helps preserve and promote culture by having Batwa guides show tourists their traditional way of life.

It also generates money for the community: Batwa guides and the musicians earn the equivalent of $3.25 on days when there are tourists. The rest of the money goes to a tribal trust and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 forest peoples — "pygmy" is the more controversial label — inhabit a band of rainforest that stretches from Cameroon to Uganda. They are threatened by encroaching logging, national park evictions, racism, and health problems that come with extreme poverty.

"I live an unhappy life compared to the way we used to live in the forest," says Steven Barahirwa, the chief guide, speaking through a translator. "Now I am a squatter on other peoples' land. I don't have property of my own, just a tiny thatch hut."

Barahirwa says his people make little money working for other people, carrying sacks of potatoes to market on their heads, scavenging the food that's left behind in the fields, and begging on the streets in the Ugandan town of Kisoro.

A Glimpse Into A Nearly Lost World

Over the course of a four-hour tromp through the jungle, a handful of small-framed Batwa men dressed in goatskins lead the way into their former forest lair.

They point out plants used to treat hypertension, ulcers and tapeworms, and reveal the root they use as an aphrodisiac and the wild lavender used on the wedding bed.

Batwa guides explain how they strip leathery bark off thick lianas with which to weave baskets, how they turn sections of thick bamboo into canteens, and how they make fire and smoke bees out of tree hollows so that they can harvest the honey — which is so valuable to the Batwa they use it as a bride price.

When they reach a clearing that offers a view of a sacred mountain they call the Old Man's Teeth, the guides burst into ecstatic song.

The Wildlife Authority's park manager, Hamza Kaemonges, says the trail has helped conservation.

"Most of that park was ... highly affected by poaching and other illegal activities," Kaemonges says.

Since the cultural hikes began, Kaemonges says the Batwa do not sneak back into the forest as much as they used to, to poach animals for bush meat and cut trees for firewood.

A Partial Solution

Park officials are talking with the Batwa to allow them in for occasional forays to harvest bark for baskets, wild yams, honey and medicinal plants.

It all sounds good, but it's an incomplete solution. What the tribe needs is land. During the eviction 21 years ago, two other tribes that farmed and raised cattle in Mgahinga received compensation, but the Batwa, who lived nomadically in the rain forest, got nothing.

"We agree with the conservation goals of the park, protecting wildlife and preserving the watershed," says chief guide Steven Barahirwa. "That's why we don't go in for hunting anymore. But we must have compensation because this used to be our home."

Advocacy groups such as Forest Peoples Programme and Survival International say the only real answer is to allow people like the Batwa to return to national park land, because their presence protects the forest from further encroachment.

But the Uganda Wildlife Authority is adamant that no one should live in Mgahinga National Park.

The Batwa Trail ends inside Garama Cave, a low-ceilinged lava tube beneath the mountain where the chief used to hold his councils, and where women and children hid during battle.

A choir in the darkness sings a song of sadness, the guide explains, about how the Batwa were driven from the forest, and how much they miss it.

When the trek is over, the Batwa guides and performers gather up their things and leave the national park where they were once masters. They walk down the mountain to the shantytown, where they are servants to other Ugandans, and where they will dream of a day when they may return to the forest.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.