The Forest Keepers: Meeting the Batwa People of Uganda

This piece was originally published in OFF Magazine, Issue 01. It’s reprinted here with my original photography.

On a trip to Uganda in summer 2021, I was lucky to have a local guide, Alex, who had worked in conservation for over fifteen years. As part of the trip, we went on an intense but incredible trek to visit Uganda’s mountain gorillas—but to deepen our understanding of the country and the park itself, Alex strongly recommended we do a cultural tour with the Batwa people before we left the area. 

It was vital to him—a conservation advocate—that we understand that protecting the world’s natural spaces and wild species often comes at a cost for indigenous people. It’s important to note that this doesn’t just happen in Africa: the creation of national parks and World Heritage Sites has displaced the Miwoks of Yosemite Valley, the Karen of Thailand, and the Adevasis of India, to name only a few. 

In many of the other pieces within this issue, we’ve explored how disconnecting helps us, as humans, center ourselves. But we must also acknowledge that the ability to disconnect is, in itself, a privilege that not everyone has access to. The following piece explores what happens when disconnection is a mandate, not an elective. 

The first thing you notice about Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is its name. In Lukiga, the local language, the word Bwindi also means “Impenetrable”, reinforcing the warning (or challenge, depending on your view) in the forest’s moniker. Twenty feet in, you’ll understand why. There, any semblance of a trail ends, and no matter which way you turn—even back the way you came—you’ll find a wall of green. 

The Batwa people used to live within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

It looks like a jungle drawn from a child’s imagination, and in fact, served as the art inspiration for the Disney film Tarzan. Looking up into the dense tree canopy recalls childhood fantasies of what it might be like to scale the tallest trunk, craft your own makeshift tree house, and swing from tree to tree on vines thicker than table legs. It’s a lush fantasy—running away from dense urban life to live off the grid in a beautiful, forsaken place. 

But once, people did live in the forest. And not as long ago as you might think. 

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is part of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It is made up of 124 square miles (321 square kilometers) of thick rainforest, curled near the intersecting angles of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. For most visitors to Uganda, a visit to Bwindi is mandatory, if not the sole purpose of the trip. The forest is home to the world’s largest remaining population of wild mountain gorillas, both habituated to human presence and unhabituated, who roam the forest in family packs. A permit into the park will allow you to trek after them on guided hikes. 

Hike is a generous term when referring to the doubly named Impenetrable Forest. No matter if you are unfamiliar or well-initiated, it would be ridiculously simple to get swallowed in the jungle’s depths. Everything is illusory—you might, for example, step on solid ground only to find your leg gulped to the hip in a gaping hole, the “ground” revealing itself to be a dense snarl of vines. It’s partly for this reason that tourists are mandated to trek with a team of local guides, rangers, and porters. 

But once, people did live in the forest. And not as long ago as you might think. 

The other reason is to bolster a holistic tourism industry in a severely impoverished country. Ugandan tourism is designed to distribute as many tourism dollars across the country as possible. Permits to Bwindi—which, at the time of writing, run at a steep $700 per person—and to the other popular tourist getaways, fund conservation efforts across Uganda’s smaller national parks, to ensure that the country’s wild spaces and species remain protected. Each national park trains and employs members of the surrounding communities, empowering them with a sense of national pride and responsibility. 

Yet somehow in the midst of all this conservation goodwill, one community lost out. 

The people who lived in the forest are called Batwa. You might also hear them referred to as pygmies—a distinction assigned by British colonial explorers who first encountered them in the forest in the 1930s. To learn more about the Batwa people, I visited the Batwa Indigenous Empowerment Program, BIEP, located outside Bwindi’s Rushaga sector, on the southwestern perimeter of the park. 

The Batwa Indigenous Empowerment Program headquarters is marked by a peeling, painted sign near the road that leads to Bwindi. The space is dark, but cool, and simply furnished with a few office accouterments and a shelf holding a series of carved gorilla souvenirs and woven baskets. Behind a metal desk, in front of two bright poster boards outlining the mission statement and short-term objectives of the organization, sits the program’s founder, Tumwikirize Julius. 

Julius is Mutwa, the word for an individual member of the Batwa tribe. Though small in stature, he holds a powerful tension in his body, and his gaze has a fierceness to it. He reminds me of a coiled spring—releasing into fluid, impassioned speech as soon as he is asked about the work he is doing and the people he is working to help. When asked about the Batwa, he begins at the very beginning. 

“There is a story that says there was once a father who had three children: Bahutu, Batutsi, and Batwa. He gave them each a pot of milk to see how they would react to having something to look after. In the night, Batwa drank his pot of milk. Bahutu drank half the milk. And Batutsi did not drink his milk. When the father returned in the morning, he saw that only Batutsi had a full pot. Because Batutsi proved he was responsible, the father gave him wealth, and the responsibility of owning land, and cows, and farms. Bahutu, who drank only half his milk, would be the farmer who worked the land. And Batwa, who drank all the milk, was the fool—and sent to live in the forest. Batwa’s people became the forest-keepers.”

It is widely believed that the Batwa people are the descendants of the forest’s original inhabitants. Like their ancestors, up until the time of their eviction, the Batwa were semi-nomadic, and rarely settled in one place. 

“The Batwa people don’t know how to dig. They don’t know how to farm,” Julius explains. “For them, they were supposed to feed on the natural resources of the forest.” That meant gathering fruit, nuts, herbs, and edible plants, and hunting animals for food and hides. Julius explains emphatically that hunting did not include snakes, which were believed to be a form of their god, or primates like gorillas or chimps. “They saw the way that the gorillas cared for their babies, and saw that they are like our brothers.” The chimpanzees were a barometer for the Batwa, who learned quickly that what the chimps could eat, so could they. 

This was life in the forest for the Batwa. They moved from place to place, using only what they needed to survive. If the adults went hunting, they would build small dwellings in the trees out of wood and leaves, where they would leave the children and elders to keep safe. When they fell sick, they knew which medicinal herbs could cure or soothe them. 

Several of the Batwa people living in the Rushaga encampment are over 90 years old. One of them, who was introduced to me as Mary, lives in a rough re-creation of the tree huts, now on the ground. It is a sturdy construction of thick straw, with an opening at the front to let out the smoke of a cooking fire. Despite her advanced years, Mary is remarkably spry, and as other members of the Batwa gather to sing and dance, she is the first one to jump into step. 

Elders of the Batwa people perform a dance

Long lives aside, the Batwa people are vulnerable, estimated to number less than 3,000. The reason for their decline is simple—when Bwindi became a national park in 1991, they were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands, despite having lived in the area for centuries without negatively impacting the ecosystem. They were given no support to help them integrate into the modern world, no financial compensation to get them set up, and no land to occupy. If they reenter the forest, they are subject to fines, imprisonment, or worse.

Other Ugandan communities treat them as outcasts, and they have limited access to job opportunities, healthcare, and education. For the last 30 years, they’ve settled into encampments along the park perimeter, where they are, effectively, squatting, migrating from one settlement to another on rotation. Dependent on the altruism of others, with no government aid or outreach, the future feels very uncertain for the Batwa people. 

This uncertainty was Julius’ motivation for founding the Batwa Indigenous Empowerment Program in 2019. Julius is young, only just 24, born after his tribe’s eviction. He has realized the impermanence of his elders’ knowledge, and pounced on the chance to change the Batwa’s path from one of charity to one of self-sufficiency. His mission? To harness tourism as an empowerment vehicle, allowing the Batwa to shift from a cultural oddity exploited at the hands of outside organizations to a self-represented people sharing their own stories. 

 “The only heart I have,” says Julius. “The only one I have in my body, is for the Batwa Indigenous Empowerment Program.”

“Tourism is a very, very, very important thing for us,” Julius says. “It’s our way of communicating who we really are with the world.” That communication centers on challenging the narrative that the Batwa people are marginalized victims, and reclaiming the dignity, power, and identity that was stripped by their eviction. 

BIEP has ambitious goals—fueled by the knowledge that time is ticking. Julius wants to preserve as much of the Batwa culture, knowledge, language, and as many practices as he can—both for outsiders and for the future generations of Batwa children—before the living resources are gone. As with many indigenous populations who suffer from poverty and lack access to healthcare, Batwa immune systems are particularly vulnerable; in a pandemic, this objective is all the more urgent. There is much work to be done, but Julius and his small team are undaunted—even if it means working without salary in one of the poorest countries in the world.

 “The only heart I have,” says Julius. “The only one I have in my body, is for the Batwa Indigenous Empowerment Program.”

If you wish to learn more about the Batwa people or support the work of the Batwa Indigenous Empowerment Program, please visit their website. All earnings from writing this piece were donated to BIEP.