No cultural experience has captured the attention of tourists in Uganda than the Batwa cultural experience of Mgahinga National park and Bwindi National Park. Of all the National Parks where mountain gorillas are tracked (Mgahinga, Volcanoes, Virunga and Bwindi National Parks), this is the most interesting and unique cultural trail and offers value for money.
A welcome diversion from the usual tawdry visits to impoverished Batwa/Pygmy communities, this initiative provides a genuine opportunity experience something of traditional Batwa Forest culture. The event follows a trail along the lower slopes of Mgahinga Volcano to Garama Cave and involves visitors and involves visitors and their Batwa guides in a range of of practical (rather than verbal) interactions such as fire lighting, bivouac building, target practice with a bow and arrow (meat must have been a rare dish indeed!) and food gathering.
The trail culminates with a memorable performance of the Batwa Song and music in the Batwa’s council chamber in Garama Cave, a dramatic setting with powerful acoustics. Importantly the Batwa Trail is no ‘pretty Pygmy’ celebration; the day should include a discussion of the Batwa’s current plight, living as squatters in bivouacs on Bakiga-owned farmland along the forest margins. The Batwa Trail is a partnership between the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the worthy United Organization of the Batwa Development in Uganda. The activity is US$80 per person (including park entrance) split approximately 50-50 between UWA and the Batwa. A half day trip is also available.
Who Are the Batwa?
The Batwa are referred as the “people of the forest” because they used to live in Bwindi and Mgahinga forests before they were gazetted into National Parks in 1991. For many generations, the dense forests of Mgahinga offered shelter to the Indigenous Batwa people. These people were hunter-gatherers and fierce worriers who relied on the forest for everything including food, medicine and shelter. Imagine how they were forced to cope with life outside the forest-a life they were totally not used to. They were left to live a low-impact nomadic lifestyle, live as paupers, and were not allowed into the forest. With the Batwa trail, they get to enter the forest, though you see the pain in their eyes when they speak of this forest with great pain.
Experience the Trail
This trails runs across the slopes of Gahinga and Muhavura volcanoes found in Mgahinga National Park. Mgahinga is a spectacular Park and a home to over 39 species of mammals but the Batwa trail is far better and more exciting than a conventional Nature walk. With the guidance of the Batwa people themselves, you get the chance to see the forest as a pharmacy, food store, a home, builder’s yard and a toolkit. Some of the exciting things you will do along the trail include firing a bow and arrow, check some bees hives so that you learn how to harvest honey, help build a Batwa hut, build a bathing shelter, harvest some of the important plants used for medicines, make fire using sticks, listen to their famous legends as they narrate stories of the past, in that way you get to learn about the Batwa’s ancient traditions.
During this unforgettable trail, these Batwa will demonstrate some of their hunting skills. Here one of the guides will go to a particular hut, kneel down and pray to the gods. Men in the ancient days used to kneel at this hut and pray to their gods to bless their hunt. The guide will show you how they hold the bow and arrow and they will also demonstrate how the hunt is conducted. More still, you will also watch how bamboo cups are made, and also there will be a demonstration of how these bamboo cups are used to collect water. The Batwa trail will also introduce you to the Pharmacy as you will see several plants that are used to treat some ailments like malaria, herbs for stopping bleeding after a woman has given birth, and others for skin diseases. When you visit this Pharmacy you will even wonder why we buy tablets yet we have medicines at our reach. Another amazing demonstration that will blow your mind is how fire is made by using sticks.
The climax of the Batwa trail if when you are taken to the Sacred Ngarama Cave of about 200 meters long, found beneath Mount Mgahinga. This cave used to be the Palace/home of the former Batwa King. It also used to be a multipurpose Cave serving as a Sacred heart of the forest, a palace for the King, hiding place during battles, a store for keeping their supplements especially food, a meeting place and a court of law. You will be entertained by women who sing sorrowful songs which echo eerily around the depths of the pitch-black cave and leaves tourists with a notable and touching sense of the richness of their dwindling culture and traditions. The moving highlight of the trail, is when all light is switched off while in the Cave, the ghostlike songs start to echo in the pitch-darkness. This is frightening but also interesting. The people used to cherish these forests as their homes, but when they were evicted from their homes in 1991, they became strangers to their own homes (the forest). They were stopped from doing the things they valued most (hunting, collecting food and living in the forest).Even up to now, they are not allowed to re-enter to the forest, The only chance they get to go back to their once cherished home is as tour guides during the Batwa trail. However, it is impossible to disregard the fact that the lives of the Batwa people has considerably changed for the better. The wonderful day’s event will be concluded by a discussion on their current situation for example how they now live in permanent houses compared to the past and schools have been constructed in their community.
This incredible trail is at only $80 per person. A percentage of this money is kept by Uganda Wildlife Authority and used for Batwa community development projects for example constructing schools while another percentage is paid to the guides and the singers/dancers so that they can support their families.
In conclusion, with an interesting activity like the Batwa trail within Mgahinga National Park tourists have more riveting activities to enjoy in during their gorilla trekking Safaris in Uganda.