Progress in Pride and Self-Consciousness

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What a coincidence!

On the ridge separating the bamboo of Echuya Forest Reserve from hazy views of Lake Bunyonyi, five tents were pitched that early February morning. A laptop lit up one of them. And then the email came; from Riesstraße 25 in München, from Studiosus Reisen.

Exactly five years after initiating Batwa Today, Studiosus was suddenly back in our lives! They stopped taking travellers to Uganda in 2015 but now they were ready to resume the activity. They were asking if we were still involved with Batwa “Pygmies”

We were. We were in fact in the middle of training requested on New Year’s Day, bringing together representatives from five Batwa communities from three Ugandan districts. Most of the people sleeping in our tents were Batwa, however, you could hear the voices of three brand-new Gorilla Highlands volunteers too.

Let us lend an ear to Chandler Christopher of Texas, USA: “I didn’t know much at all about the Batwa. I received a short introduction to some of their history and learned that the Batwa are in a very tough place right now, and that much of their culture has been taken away from them. Knowing all this made me excited but I was also nervous to meet people with this background, because I was scared of being unwelcome as most of what outsiders have done to them in the past has been negative. We sat down in a classroom with Batwa and had a group discussion about what Gorilla Highlands’ mission was, how tourism can benefit them, and the possible negative effects of tourism in their communities. Miha, the Gorilla Highlands leader, would pose questions such as ‘Why would Batwa want visitors?’ or ‘Why would visitors want to come to see the Batwa?’ They struggled at times with answering these questions, I noticed.”

This was a perfect opportunity to make another Batwa wish come true: the Batwa Jamboree. We plan to host representatives from DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi during Easter 2019. There will be cultural troupe competitions (Batwa are famous as the best dancers and performers), an exchange of information and experiences (did you know that Batwa make the majority of gorilla trackers in Kahuzi-Biega National Park?) and an exercise in drawing family trees (to hopefully trace the common origin of different groups).

Emma Clements of Colorado, USA, Chandler’s volunteer colleague from Carpe Diem Education, described the rest of the day: “Living in the forest can be dangerous, scary, but very beautiful. I have come to learn that from the Batwa who took us for a journey through Echuya Forest, to see how they lived. My favourite thing was the shy flower; if you like a boy or a girl but you are too shy to say anything you give them that flower. According to our guide nobody does that anymore because of WhatsApp and Facebook… Our dinner was by the campfire, telling old folk tales and sharing a big pitcher of sorghum beer that they make in the village. Everyone said girls tell better stories, so I quickly had to think back to a fairy tale my mom told me when I was little. Having a translator eased my nerves and gave me more time to actually remember what happened next.”

The second day of training was practical. 2 experienced Batwa guides, 8 trainees, Edirisa’s guide Owen and Miha went into the bush together. There was some drilling to master the introduction to Echuya but the rest was about sharing what different participants knew. When the group reached the sacred slaughtering place, Mesach from Makanga was moved; he had never visited this part of his people’s heritage.

Connor Caris from England, who video recorded everything for our archives, said: “My experience with the Batwa was unlike what I thought it would be. At first, due to the language barrier and stern faces, I assumed they didn’t particularly want us there. However after the community meeting and hearing the gratitude they had towards the work that was being done for them, that changed. I felt happy to be there and learn more about their culture and the troubles they had faced.”

Two weeks later the first Studiosus group of 2018 was already at Rwamahano! Their group leader was Michael Saurer (on a photo from Ethiopia above), the very person who first requested a different Batwa experience in 2013. He reported that the lady trainees were talkative and fun to be with. His clients particularly appreciated the group discussion with the Batwa and were impressed by the way they use plants from the forest for medicinal purposes.

“I can see progress – also progress in pride and self-consciousness within the community,” said Michael. Half a decade ago it all began with Michael’s request to visit a Batwa village without being exposed to any dancing whatsoever. That was radical enough to make everyone rethink what such activities should involve, creating room for new ideas. However, Michael’s choice of video footage from 21 February 2018 proves that he actually has nothing against music …

text: Miha Logar; photo: Miha Logar and Michael Saurer