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About the Batwa

To understand what we do, you must first understand why we do it. The Batwa are not only a unique and ancient society, but also the family and community of our founders. The BIEO was founded for the Batwa, by the Batwa, and will continue working until its mission of  Batwa empowerment and preservation of  Batwa culture is fulfilled. 

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       To understand the work of the BIEO, one must first understand the backdrop against which the BIEO acts. Our offices are based in Rushaga, one of the most popular settlements from which tourists can see the mountain gorillas that live in the jungles on the border of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic republic of Congo. In Uganda, the 321 square kilometers of wilderness that make up the Gorilla’s home is known as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. A bustling tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bwindi is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and is home to thousands of unique plant and animal species. What is often forgotten, however, is that Bwindi was once home to people too.

 

      The Batwa (called forest pygmies by European settlers) have lived in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for over 600 years. Though small in stature, the Batwa have thrived for centuries in the harsh wilderness of the jungle. Life in the forest is all that they have known for generations. Everything that they needed was provided for them by the forest. They found shelter in the caves and built tree houses of reeds and banana leaves in the canopies. The men hunted bush pig, duikers, and waterbuck while the women foraged for fruit, berries, and herbs. They took a special liking to the honey they found in the forest and devised ingenious ways of smoking them out and climbing the trees to reach it. They learned much of the medicinal powers of different plants and had indigenous cures for all of the illnesses they faced. For as long as they lived in the forest, the Batwa wanted for naught. 

      This is no longer the case. In 1991, the Ugandan government declared Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the Batwa’s homeland, a national park. This meant the forced eviction of almost 6,200 Batwa individuals from their ancestral homeland to the areas surrounding the forest. Robbed from their jungle and without land, the Batwa descended into deep poverty. As they had previously no need for money and had depended entirely on the forest for sustenance, few among them were skilled in the types of jobs needed to survive in the outside world. The government had provided only 5% of the revenue from the national park to them as compensation, and even that is more often given to the Bakiga who make up the majority of the population bordering Bwindi. 

      Today, their situation is little improved. To put it in perspective, they are the poorest citizens of one of the poorest regions of the 19th poorest country in the world. They are trying to make a living, without significant land, in one of the most overpopulated rural areas of Uganda. Most Batwa live under the international (2.15$ a day) and Ugandan (1.05$ a day) poverty lines and only save enough money to eat at night. Lacking a formal education themselves, many Batwa parents lack the funds or incentive to put their kids through school. As a result, most Batwa children do not make it past primary school. It is especially difficult for the daughters, who are often pulled out to work at home and can be married off at as young as 15 years old. 

      The Batwa are also at risk of losing their cultural heritage. Their forest was not just the source of their food, shelter, and medicine, but also the land designated for them by their ancestors and gods. Their shrines and praying places were ancient trees in the forest and their heroic dead still rest in the jungle caves. The youngest generations have converted to christianity and some have forgotten the ways of the forest. While never farmers in the jungle, those fortunate enough to have land have taken to sustenance farming to put food on the table. Others have taken to performing traditional dances and giving tours to tourists in exchange for tips and donations. 

      Tourism is the major source of revenue in the kigezi highlands that surround Bwindi. The mystique of the mountain gorillas and their dwindling numbers has brought flocks of visitors, mostly from Western countries, to the doorstep of Rushaga. Each tourist must pay upwards of 700$ to spend a few hours with the gorillas, on top of the thousands they have already spent on flights and lodging. With such affluent customers around, roadside shops in crafts and jewellery have sprung up where tourists frequent in the hopes of making a living. Sensing an opportunity, local groups began offering “community tours” and “authentic cultural experiences” where they would take tourists to local schools or to see the traditional dances of their people. Naturally, the Batwa are a popular choice for these ventures. 

      This has had a positive and negative impact on the Batwa. Some organisations, like the BIEO, use these community walks to raise funds for the Batwa and the surrounding community schools (In fact, 100% of the money is saved in a bank and its allocation decided on by a board of Batwa at the end of each month - the guides keep only the tips they receive). In essence, the sole benefactors from their cultural demonstrations are the Batwa themselves. Additionally, upon experiencing the extent of the challenges faced by the Batwa, well wishing tourists are often inclined to leave donations of varying degrees. However, due to the lure of wealth from tourists and the vulnerability of the Batwa there are other organisations that use their poverty for personal gain. 

      This has proven to be an additional challenge for the BIEO as these other organisations tend to be larger and better established than the BIEO. As such, when large international aid groups are looking for organisations to support in the area they are less likely to choose the BIEO in favor of ones with more capacity. 

      Besides the financial accountability, the other factor that sets the BIEO apart from other organizations that support the Batwa is the fact that it was founded by a Mutwa individual, Julius Tumwikirize. According to Alex Ahimbibwe, a Mutwa university student who founded the Batwa Indigenous Development Organization (BIDO), this organisation (BIEO) is one of only 5 Batwa run community based organisations in Uganda. Julius has “skin in the game”, or so to speak. He is not advocating for some “other”, but for the lives of his family, friends, and people. When he speaks of how the Batwa once flourished in the forest, he is telling the stories of his parents and grandparents and beyond. His passion and drive to help the Batwa has motivated him through years of schooling and is evident in every interaction with him. Now, his passion has started coming to fruition with the workings of the BIEO. Below are some of the examples of the projects we run.

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