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Every New Year’s Day, a few hours after Edirisa’s traditional dugout canoe celebrations, we sit down with representatives from two Batwa communities. With some heads possibly still heavy, it may seem less than perfect time for an annual meeting, but it is close to an ideal moment.
Batwa join the new year’s party not as entertainers but as partners, it’s their only time in the year when they come to us (instead of the other way around), so it’s convenient to talk business as well. But most significantly: starting a new year with a focus on them reminds us why we work in tourism.
Frequently mistaken for a travel-marketing initiative — or, God Forbid, a tour company — Gorilla Highlands is primarily about social and economic development. Tourism is merely the weapon we have chosen to wield in our fight against poverty (of the pocket and of the mind).
Not only are the Batwa the poorest of the poor, they are also the main victims of tourism and outdated national park philosophies. Gorilla tracking has chased them from their forests in Rwanda and Uganda and tourists’ money supports their drinking. They are just like any other indigenous people whose homes and livelihoods have been stolen from them and who now find solace in alcohol.
After visiting the Batwa of Makanga (Lake Bunyonyi) for a decade, a group with a dramatic drinking problem, we identified a more development-minded community in Rwamahano (Echuya Forest) five years ago. Ever since, we have been supporting them as a role model for other Batwa, through pioneering tourism activities that will bring both money and self-respect (watch one of them below and read the background story).
Let’s look at the provisional numbers: In 2017 we took about 150 visitors to Rwamahano 21 times, making it possible for the Batwa to make around USh 5,000,000 (about 1,400 dollars). [We normally pay a total of 50,000 shillings (14 dollars) to their guides and donate 40,000 shillings (11 dollars) per guest to the community but that differs for big groups with discounted pricing and doesn’t apply to familiarisation trips.]
Even though there is certainly ample room for improvement, for a community in a remote area with very few sources of income that is not a negligible amount.
However, the more important aspect is the ownership the community has developed. 2017 was a huge test because their leader Kanusu was accused of murdering his wife, ran away, got caught and imprisoned; he has been waiting for his trial at Kabale’s Ndorwa Prison for over six months. His lieutenant smoothly took over while the Batwa got some solid proof that our motivation to work with them went beyond our friendship with Kanusu.
At the annual meeting they impressed us with determination to positively influence their counterparts at Makanga — and with interesting ideas! Women requested to be trained as nature walk guides, which will be a great addition to the roster. They suggested there should be a cultural music competition among different Batwa groups to improve everybody’s standards and self-esteem. Most ambitiously, they wanted us to build a guesthouse close to their village.
Mind you, this was the first time ever for Batwa to come up with proposals that went beyond their basic needs and agricultural plans! A great sign of our partnership’s growth, and a chance to work together on something that is their own initiative. Serendipitously, our supporter Charlotte Beauvoisin of the Diary of a Muzungu shared a sustainable tourism funding opportunity with us the very next day… It’s like written with Batwa and us in mind!
We will keep you posted.