Evicted from their ancestral forest homes three decades ago in a move to conserve wildlife, many of Uganda’s Batwa people feel betrayed.
On a hike into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, the songs the Batwa sing are supposed to be celebratory, but they sound mournful.
They are in praise of a good honey harvest, but there is no harvest as the Batwa are no longer allowed to gather honey, or anything else, from the forest.
Instead, these indigenous people take groups of paying tourists into their ancestral areas and in a choreographed performance act out how they once lived.
A rhythm is played on the metal keys of a thumb piano, known as a “ichyembe”, as we reach a collection of huts 30 minutes into the forest.
“This would have been a shrine, where we would communicate with our great grandfathers,” Eric Tumuhairwe, the group’s leader, explains pointing to a place behind the huts.
“When men wanted to go hunting, they would take meat or honey as offerings. They would hunt bush-pig and several types of antelope. The wives celebrated the bountiful hunt, cooked and danced. But we don’t get these types of food anymore.”Mr Tumuhairwe, who is about 50, is old enough to remember life before his people were evicted.
For centuries they lived off the forests of the mountainous regions on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as hunter-gatherers.
But in the 1990s, the Ugandan Batwa were evicted from the Bwindi, Mgahinga and Echuya forests in the south-west of the country as the areas became wildlife parks, primarily for the protection of rare mountain gorillas.
Mr Tumuhairwe tells us about Batwa traditions, including courtship at what used to be a square where young men and women used to socialise.
“A young man intending to marry would have to trap intenzi (a flying squirrel).
“It is fast on its feet, so he would time it for when it was asleep in a tree hollow. He would catch it as it awoke and tried to flee. He had to bring it alive, otherwise there was no wife for him,” he laughingly reminisces.
We climb further up the mist-covered forested hills, to a cave where the community used to congregate for worship.
“I want to go back to the way we lived… Everything we needed, the forest provided: meat, fruit, and medicines,” says Mr Tumuhairwe.After their eviction, some Batwa families were given farmland by the government. But as they did not know how to farm, the land was sold off and many were scattered across the region, surviving on charity from neighbours and non-profit organisations.
“Some neighbours despised us, calling us bush people,” remembers Aida Kehuuzo, who is about 80 years old and the only woman in the group of trekkers.
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