The Curious Case of the Batwa Pygmies and Their “Humanitarian” Resettlement in Uganda



The Batwa are represented by the Bwindi Community Forest Association (BICOFU), an organization that was formed in 2005. The government of Uganda recognized the right of the Batwa to live in their ancestral homeland and the need to see that they were not left behind when the forest was gazetted. BICOFU was granted a 10.4m2 land for resettlement and development with over 2000 households. The Batwa have been living on mountain slopes, valleys and hills in makeshift structures, constructed from materials collected from the surrounding forests. Living conditions of Batwa families is usually characterized by overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of access to safe water supply and health facilities. Though over 1600 families have been resettled in Buyaga and Buganguzi parishes in Rubanda district, about 400 families remain at risk of eviction if they do not get a place to settle in terms of land given that they are included in other districts such as Kisoro, Kanungu and Kabale where they are not represented. Children born after 1991 did not benefit from the education opportunities because they were not included among critical groups like refugees.

The Batwa are one of the indigenous marginalized people of Uganda mainly found in Kisoro District, Kigezi region.

The Batwa also known as the Twa and usually referred to as pygmies because of their short stature originally lived in the ancient Bwindi forest in Uganda until it was gazetted as a National park in 1991. The Batwa lived in harmony in the jungle with all creatures including the mountain gorillas. The Batwa were regarded as the Keepers of the forest.

According to the 2002 population census, the Batwa population in Uganda is about 6000, with the majority living in the Southwestern districts of Kabale, Kisoro, Kanungu, Bundibugyo and Rukungiri. The size of the Batwa is quite different from other tribes in Uganda, the men and women rise to an average of four feet or less in height, the tallest man among the Batwa would be the shortest among the neighboring community, the Bakiga.

They currently live in a community dominated by Bakiga and Bafumbira in scenic Southwestern Uganda. The Batwa speak rutwa language.

They are traditionally a hunter and gatherer group, surviving on what the rainforests provide. However, as forests continue to dwindle due to deforestation, their livelihoods and way of life have become over precarious, and many are undergoing a lifestyle change. They are no longer able to hunt or gather from the bounty of the tropical rainforest, but are reduced to a precarious lifestyle of subsistence agriculture. Those still found deep in the tropical rainforest continue to practice their culture and lifestyle as they have done for thousands of years.

Today they are some of the poorest people in the whole world with a low life expectancy and a high infant mortality rate.

History of The Batwa

Many scholars have tried to give a historical account of the Batwa but perhaps the most far reaching account that seems to explain the apparent dominant negative perceptions about this community is that given by Edward Tyson in his account of the Pygmy in The Anatomy of a Pygmy Compared with that of a Monkey, and Ape and a Man published in 1751.

In Anatomy of a Pygmy, Tyson compares the anatomy of an infant chimpanzee to the human anatomy and to the anatomy of monkeys and apes. He described in anatomical detail the differences between man and his specimen and between the specimen and other primates of his interest. He concluded that “his pygmy” was no man, nor yet the Common Ape; but a sort of animal between both.

Among the Batwa there is a saying “A Mutwa (singular) loves the forest just as he loves his body”, most Ugandans look at Batwa as Gorilla poachers, eaters and killers. But these people co-existed with the mighty giants and other creatures for very many years. The time the Batwa have hunted gorillas is after they had been evicted from their former home. Therefore because of this they are stigmatized with all the names they are called and also blamed for poaching Gorillas found in Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks. But the reality is that the Batwa protected and kept the forest until the Bantu tribal groups migrated into the area.

In around 1992, after establishing the forest as a national park with an aim of protecting the rare mountain gorillas, the Batwa were evicted from the forests, something that changed their way of living forever. They became conservation refugees in a world they were not used to.

They are largely stigmatized in their new environment.
Their tools and skills were not useful in the modern environment, hence began to suffer. Because they had no compensation in form of money or land, they could not compete in the modern market place with their inferior skills; hence some resorted to begging, while others started working for other people for some little pay.

Most Batwa lacked any historic experience or expertise in agriculture, and had limited exposure to a cash economy. The bulk of the displaced Batwa in Kanungu District currently live in settlements or land trusts donated and supported by non-governmental organizations and private donors, particularly the Batwa Development Programme.

The Myth About Their Origin

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.

Economic Life

The Batwa ‘s economy is just as simple as their general way of life. They are wanderers by nature with no fixed place of abode. Their chief means of subsistence is meat and the forests where they live abound with elephants, monkeys, lizards and some antelopes.

The Batwa lived a lifestyle of gathering fruit and plant, and hunting game in the forest using bows and arrows, this was mainly for both medical and food purposes. They led a harmonious life in the forests being that they never practiced farming, no charcoal making or deforestation, not even the shelters they had could destroy the environment.

They were exceptional hunters, traditional healers, rainmakers and can make fire by rubbing small sticks together. They used to carry forest products in small bags called obukokyo which were made from animal skins.

Batwa people 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.


Batwa have three main types of houses that is caves, omurimbo and ichuro. The caves and omurimbo were the main houses where they lived. Ichiro used for resting and storage of food including honey, beans, sorghum, and meat.

Their houses are small and congested 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.


They had a special way of worshipping and offering sacrifices especially for thanking the gods after a successful hunt. Worshipping was mainly done in sacred huts by elders who would be anointed by the grandparents.

Young people were neither allowed to go to the sacred places nor to ask about what the elders did and how they communicated with the gods.

They would only see the elders reciting prayers before hunting and offering meat to the gods in the forest after hunting. In addition, when Batwa slaughtered an animal and found that it had a strange organ such as a tiny heart, they would worship the organ as their god.

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 that it climbed to the highest point of the tree and the Twa believed that it came closest to God.

Although 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.


Batwa men and women used leaves and skins of animals especially duikers and bushbucks for dressing/cloth. The children would dress in small skins of young animals strapping them on the shoulders. Women also used the skins for beautification and carrying their children in their back.

Batwa would weave cords from emise (Urera) and use them to tie the skins around their waists. They would pound seeds of omuruguya (Carapa procera) to obtain an oily liquid which they would smear on the skins to make them soft.


After a successful hunt, a Mutwa (singular for Batwa) would celebrate the achievement by naming his children after the animal or location in the forest. Batwa names are derived from names of animals or locations in the forest include Kafumbiri for enfumbiri-the back –fronted duiker, Bikyezi for inkyezi-cane rats, Kagote for an area with emigote –trees of Syzgium sp. And Kanyeihamba for one born in eihamba-the forest.

Marriage among the Batwa

Marriages normally take place within the clans, though marriage among members of an individual settlement is rare because of the close relations amongst such persons.

Batwa still practice social norms and customs normally associated with clanship similar to majority of other tribes in East and Central Africa. However, due to the resettlement programme most Batwa are never sure of their clan leader and where he lives.

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 was a custom for a Mutwa not to marry someone of a different tribe. However, conceiving before marriage was forbidden and looked upon as a disgrace.

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 arranged 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.

Batwa women face domestic violence, including insults, beatings and rape by their own husbands. The babies may be abandoned after birth, left for other community members to take care of. There is a false belief amongst some non-Batwa men that having sex with a Batwa woman can cure AIDS and backache.

Today, many Batwa remain homeless, and still isolated from their forests. For the women of the community, the situation is particularly challenging; rather than being able to gather foods from the forest, they must walk from one place to another in search of shelter, food and poorly paid work.

The Batwa endure marginalization at all levels of society. For example, hospitals may fail to attend to Batwa women, claiming that they smell. And as it is, extremely difficult for a Batwa woman to marry to a non-Batwa man, as his family will disown their son for marrying a Batwa woman.


Their burial practice was special. When a Mutwa died, he or she would be buried in a hut after digging a small hole and wrapping the corpse in the grass. The burial ceremony involved cleansing the corpse with herbs for example omuhanga, enkyerere (Rubus) and omufumba (Rhumex) The elders would lead the ceremony and encourage all the members of the family to drink herbal extracts as a way of preventing death from claiming more people from that family. After the burial, they would migrate to a far-off place and never come back to that place.

Tourism in the Area

Since the Batwa are not allowed to stay in the forests, the Batwa culture had started to diminish since 1992 after their eviction. Nevertheless, things begun to change by 2011 where the Uganda Wildlife in conjunction with USAID (United States Agency for International Development plus the Embassy of Netherlands in Kampala started the Batwa Cultural Trail found in Mgahinga Gorilla Park. On this trail the tourists that visit the park and are interested in culture are led by Batwa locals through the jungle, they basically teach the tourists their ancient gathering and hunting ways. After the visit Batwa Guides head back to their community, the Batwa also receive a percentage of the Batwa Trail Fees. Remember that tipping them is also accepted.

The Kellerman Foundation also set up the Batwa Experience just outside Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Visitors can enjoy this experience after trekking gorillas. This Experience has greatly benefited the Batwa communities. Visitors are introduced to the Batwa culture including traditional dances, clothing, and food among other things.

Also, in the south-end of Bwindi Forest, there is a Village visit program and the Buninga Batwa Forest Walk, this was started when the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) worked hand in hand with the Batwa Community. His gives chance to tourists to explore the cultural and traditional ways of the Batwa.

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