batwa “pygmies”


About

About

Batwa couple near Echuya Forest Reserve; photo by Marcus Westberg

The Batwa “Pygmies” are one of the oldest peoples in Africa and their origin is unknown. They roamed the forests in bands foraging for honey, wild yams, fruit, stems and tubers, and hunted small game with trained dogs. They were highly skilled bowmen.

Over time, the forests disappeared and their numbers dwindled. They bartered hides, meat, honey and yams for arrowheads, salt and crops.

They were feared as raiders and even the English admired their fearless fighting skills. On the other hand, they were also famous dancers and singers.

They were monogamous, except when a woman was barren. Prospective husbands were often asked to provide the feathers of a Ruwenzori turaco or a flying squirrel to the future father in law as a test of their hunting skills. Bride purchase was believed to promote discord between families, though gifts of honey and wild animal meat were expected (see more on Social Structure and Beliefs & Rituals).

In 1992, the Batwa were forcibly evicted from Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks but received no compensation. Today they are marginalised and suffer from landlessness, poverty, lack of education and health care. However, in recent years the authorities have shown more understanding and some promising progress has been made.

Currently there are about 7,000 Batwa left in Uganda.

Want to visit the Batwa?

Photo: Marcus Westberg

This Travel Guide is based on the the Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBook, an award-winning labour of love that gives you a comprehensive insight into the cultures, languages, people and nature that make our area so special. By purchasing the ebook you will contribute to an ambitious initiative that aims to transform southwestern Uganda.

'Pygmies' or Not?

“Pygmies” or Not?

Moments from Batwa Experience near Bwindi photo by Marcus Westberg

The word “Pygmy” is originally derived from a Greek term – allegedly for the distance between the wrist and the elbow – and when early Greek writers were talking about a mythical race of small people they called them “Pygmies”.

It wasn’t until mid 19th century that Europeans discovered hunter-gatherers in central Africa and they named them after this mythical race. So “Pygmies” came to be used by early colonials and certainly has a colonial background to it.

Later on it was used within eugenics, racial hierarchical theories of humanity and civilisation, so it tends to have in some usage a racist or historically discriminatory term behind it.

At a local level “Pygmy” can also be a word used to discriminate against ethnic groups like the Batwa, so for many communities and for many situations the term “Pygmy” is not one which should be used.

However, particularly in French-speaking central Africa, where it has been used much more, many Pygmy communities use the term as a collective definition.

Dr. Christopher Kidd

Photo: Marcus Westberg

This Travel Guide is based on the the Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBookan award-winning labour of love that gives you a comprehensive insight into the cultures, languages, people and nature that make our area so special. By purchasing the ebook you will contribute to an ambitious initiative that aims to transform southwestern Uganda.

Origin Myths

Origin Myths

Batwa Origin Myths

A Batwa origin myth relates that God tested three brothers, Gutwa, Guhutu and Gututsi, with a calabash of milk each and told them they could not drink it for one night. Gutwa drank his share immediately, Guhutu did not drink it but fell asleep and spilled half of it, while Gututsi successfully passed the test. As a result God gave him dominion over cattle, he gave the Guhutu the next best, dominion over farming, and banished Gutwa to the forest. This myth is obviously of pastoral origin but has passed into Batwa culture, as one of their own and reflects their understanding of fate, to which they have become submissive.

Variants of this story and other such myths can also be understood as cultural propaganda extolling pastoral superiority. If it had been written from a hunter gatherer perspective then Gutwa would have been the winner as he rejected a useless food and was rewarded with the forest’s bounty while cattle and crop farmers were punished by having to work for their food.

George Schaller recorded a farming myth in 1959: “Woto, the fourth chief of the Bushongo, left his people and retired into the forest. He found himself very lonely and uttered an incantation. Thereupon the trees opened and sent forth a multitude of little beings. When asked what people they were, they answered ‘Binu Batwa’ (We are men).”

Photo: Marcus Westberg

This Travel Guide is based on the the Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBook, an award-winning labour of love that gives you a comprehensive insight into the cultures, languages, people and nature that make our area so special. By purchasing the ebook you will contribute to an ambitious initiative that aims to transform southwestern Uganda.

Social Structure

Social Structure

Batwa Social Structure

The Batwa lived in simple circular huts made from branches with grass for the roof and walls. Their economy was based on barter and they were self-sufficient until recent times. Land was communally controlled by each clan. Barter with outside groups was based on wild food, animal hides, baskets and pots for salt, cattle and farm products, iron weapons and alcohol.

Even before their removal from the forest in the early 1990s, the Batwa had long integrated into the Bakiga and Bafumbira societies. However, we can still look to existing hunter gatherer groups in neighbouring countries to understand more about the Batwa’s hunting and gathering past.

Originally forest hunter gatherers were egalitarian with no one person or band being more powerful than another. Traditionally they were divided into bands (smaller than clan but larger than a nuclear family) who were territorially separate. Bands did not own land but did have detailed land use practices that include areas which were taboo to enter and acted as conservation zones where the animals were left unhindered.

Elders are not politically dominant in central African hunter gatherer groups; they only give advice and knowledge based upon their experience. Decisions are instead taken by the younger generation as the future and the decisions they make are theirs to live.

Harmony and balance with their world is a key priority amongst most hunter gatherer groups. Amongst the Mbuti in Congo any changes in the balance are solved through processes that include arbitration, demand sharing and peer pressure which often amounts to public ridicule.

If, for example, a hunter came back to camp, proud of his catch, other community members might ridicule his pride. They do that so that he doesn’t feel superior or use his hunting skills to create a position of authority.

Photo by Robert Brierley

This Travel Guide is based on the the Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBookan award-winning labour of love that gives you a comprehensive insight into the cultures, languages, people and nature that make our area so special. By purchasing the ebook you will contribute to an ambitious initiative that aims to transform southwestern Uganda.

Hunting and Gathering

Hunting & Gathering

Marcus Westberg

The Batwa hunted animals (pigs, duiker, buffalo and birds) with bows and arrows, often with dogs. The Virunga volcanoes were referred to as the Domain of Bells after the bells that dogs wore to alert their Batwa owners to their location.

It is reported that bush pigs often attacked the dogs when they heard the bells and hunters in ambush would promptly spear them. Poison for their arrows was made from tree bark and stinging ants. Another method was to wait on a branch overlooking a game trail and dropping a loaded spear onto an animal.

Hunting expeditions were a group activity; communication was by hand signals and bird-like whistles. Sometimes expeditions would last a week or more, when animals were skinned and dried before being brought home for ease of carrying. There were strict rules for sharing game among the hunters and their families. Meat was about 25% of their diet whilst the rest was made up of various roots, fruits and tubers largely collected by the women.

Hunting was seen as a joint activity between men and women, the latter would sing songs imagining that an animal would be at a certain place; the role of the man was to collect it.

In many hunter gatherer societies in Congo the men suggest that it is the women who catch the animals in their songs and the job of men is simply to collect the animals already caught by the women.

In Congo forest children are able to provide up to 75% of their nutritional needs making them highly independent from an early age. Roots, wild yam, fruit, mushrooms, wild plantain roots, grasshoppers and roots, stems and leaves of other nutritious plants would have been collected by the Batwa and would have formed a major part of their diet.

The Batwa’s favourite food was and still is honey, which they treated as a special gift from God. They collected honey from several types of bees who had either hives in trees or underground.

The latter were stingless and were subdivided by sweetness and ease of collection; some caused illness if eaten in large quantities. When found everything but the comb was eaten.

Photo: Marcus Westberg

This Travel Guide is based on the the Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBookan award-winning labour of love that gives you a comprehensive insight into the cultures, languages, people and nature that make our area so special. By purchasing the ebook you will contribute to an ambitious initiative that aims to transform southwestern Uganda.

Beliefs and Rituals

Beliefs & Rituals

Batwa Experience near Bwindi photo by Marcus Westberg

The Batwa believe in a Supreme Being and Creator called Imaana (Nagaasan) who gives children, food and protection. The chameleon was treated as sacred as it climbed the highest trees and came closest to God. Sacrifices of meat, drink and blood were offered in special huts to animal spirits. Many hunters were infused with this spirit when they killed a particular species, especially if it was accompanied with some strange sign in the animal when it was being dissected.

A new born baby often had a miniature bow and arrows placed in its hand for protection. Infants were breast-fed for a long time, which also acted as form of birth control. The education of children was the collective responsibility of the band; boys and girls learnt from adult activities of hunting, gathering and homemaking.

They were primarily monogamous, except when a woman was barren, and sometimes practised barter marriage whereby families exchanged girls, though informal love marriages were the most common. On marriage day the two families celebrated with the two women facing one another in recognition of their shared kinship and destiny. The father introduced the bride to the family spirits.

Bride purchase was not practised as it was believed to promote discord between families, though gifts of honey and wild animal meat was expected (nowadays goats are common). The most popular wild animal was the flying squirrel that lives in tree holes and could only be captured with tree fronds when emerging; a very difficult task. The meat was highly prized and often reserved for elders, and on marriage it was given to the future mother-in-law. Adultery was forbidden.

Cremation or burial of the deceased in huts was the norm: thereafter the place was avoided. Other traditional places of burial included caves and rock crevices. Afterwards a medicine man would anoint the hearth and distribute medicine to the bereaved to prevent the deceased from causing disturbance.

Inheritance rules were practically non-existent since they had very few possessions that were usually given to members of the family.

Recently burial of family members has become a problem since they do not have access to burial grounds and are forced to bury their dead within their very small plots and continue living there. Anti-pollution rituals that they have learnt from the Bakiga are not always acceptable.

Suicide was a major taboo because it disturbed the balance.

Photo: Marcus Westberg

This Travel Guide is based on the the Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBookan award-winning labour of love that gives you a comprehensive insight into the cultures, languages, people and nature that make our area so special. By purchasing the ebook you will contribute to an ambitious initiative that aims to transform southwestern Uganda.



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