Tuesday, October 26

At home with the Batwa people of Uganda: a photo essay | Uganda


In the end of March this year, Esther mbabazi He left Kampala, the chaotic capital of Uganda, behind and headed for the hills, forests, swamps and grasslands of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, an eight-hour drive west. He went to find the communities of the Batwa people, who live on the green and rainy edges of the park.

The 26-year-old Mbabazi had always been curious about the Batwa and wanted to know how one of the most marginalized communities in East Africa had coped with the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent months, he had been working on grueling stories of human rights abuses following the disputed election in Uganda in January, and this new project, sponsored by the Magnum Foundation, was a welcome change.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

  • The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. In 1991, the government declared the forest a protected area, forcing the Batwa people from their homes.

A gorilla
During the Covid pandemic and early closures in 2020, tourists did not make it to the forest.
The tourism industry is slowly recovering

  • During the pandemic and early closures in 2020, tourists did not make it to the forest. With the country reopening to tourists, the government lowered gorilla tracking prices from $ 700 to $ 400 for non-residents, and the tourism industry is slowly recovering again.

“I stayed away from politics, but wrote two stories in two months about kidnapping [of opposition activists]. It was so disturbing, so painful, ”says Mbabazi, who grew up and lives in Kampala.

“Even most Ugandans don’t know about the Batwa … they only hear about ‘pygmies’ who live in the forest.”

A bar owned by Charity, a Mutwa businesswoman in Buhoma, Bwindi

  • A bar owned by Kesande Charity, a Mutwa businesswoman in Buhoma, Bwindi (Mutwa is the singular word for Batwa). There is a high rate of alcoholism in the Batwa community and many people do not have job opportunities or land to live on.

Charity opened the bar in 2018 after saving money working as a translator and guide.

The Batwa are nomadic hunter-gatherers who once roamed forest areas that stretch across much of what is now Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Forced to occupy smaller and smaller areas of the forest over the centuries by other ethnic groups who were farmers and felling trees, the Batwa populations managed to preserve their traditional way of life until relatively recently.

A dance performance at the Batwa settlement in Munyaga, Buhoma

  • A dance performance at the Batwa settlement in Munyaga, Buhoma. Performances and traditional tours are intended to preserve and share the history of the Batwa. Paid tours are what is left for the Batwa to continue their traditional ways as they did in the forest. Covid’s blow to tourism has greatly affected the income of many artists in the settlements.

In 1991, the Ugandan government created formal conservation areas in the Virunga Hills and nearby Bwindi. The batwa forced to live on the edges of national parks, were unable to return to hunt small animals, gather wild honey, or gather fruits, and found that their traditional skills and vast knowledge of the forest were not suitable for life outside of it. No effort was made to obtain the consent of the Batwa, or even to explain what was happening.

There was also no compensation, as the Batwa had never tried to possess the land on which they lived. Although some received government land, most are now squatters working in their neighbors’ fields for a pittance as they watch tourists arriving with $ 600 government permits to visit mountain gorillas in the forested hills and valleys that some they were once his home. They are among the poorest inhabitants of one of the poorest countries in the world. The community, estimated at 6,000, is so disadvantaged that when two years ago a Mutwa College graduate, made the headlines of national newspapers.

A portrait of the acting king, 86-year-old Kanyamugara, at the Batwa settlement in Munyaga, Buhoma

  • A portrait of the acting king, 86-year-old Kanyamugara, at the Batwa settlement in Munyaga, Buhoma.

Mbabazi photographed and interviewed several families for five days. “I got a tour guide and told him that I wanted to go visit the Batwa, but spend time with them and see their lives,” he says.

“The old people were worried about the future of their tribe… The young people just wanted the same opportunities as all the other Ugandans. Many had never lived in the forest and I did not have the feeling that they were struggling to maintain their traditions. ”

Iron foundry in a settlement in Buhoma

Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with an average age of 16. This demographic is having a political impact, with many young people supporting prominent opposition leader Bobi Wine in recent polls. They are also likely to have a social impact.

Uganda’s economy has suffered greatly during the pandemic. Authorities ordered a severe lockdown last year when Covid began to spread in Africa, but restrictions have since been loosened. With limited vaccines available on the continent, the end of the pandemic is still far off and the death toll continues to rise.

Baleku Flora, 88, who was born in the forest
Now he lives in Buhoma, a town that borders the park.

  • Baleku Flora, 88, was born in the forest and left with her parents when the government began conserving the forest for mountain gorillas. She later returned to live on the outskirts of the forest with her husband, who died before the government expelled all the Mutwa from the forest in 1991. She now lives in Buhoma, a village bordering the park.

Mbabazi found confinement deeply frustrating. “Not working and that feeling that you can’t create was very difficult, especially in the beginning,” he says.

Mbabazi wanted to be a journalist from a young age and learned her skills from workshops and other photographers. She says she tried to “get away from the tourist gaze” when working on her essay on the Batwa.

Baleku Flora, a mutwa, with her family in Buhoma
Batwa parents dedicate their newborn son in a church in Buhoma

  • The Batwa parents dedicate their newborn daughter, Janette, to the Assemblies of God church in Buhoma. The service is held primarily in Lukiga, from the dominant tribe in the area, with songs of praise and worship in Luganda, the majority language of central Uganda.

A child plays with a bow and arrow while adults sniffed iron in a settlement in Buhoma

“A big part of the story is the forest, the gorillas and the people,” says Mbabazi. “I would like to go back and spend more time with the community, especially with the elderly who lived in the forest and saw it change. They were so happy to talk. There’s so much more to record before it’s too late. “

Magnum Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to expand creativity and diversity in documentary photography. Through grant-making and mentoring, Magnum Foundation supports a global network of photographers focused on social justice and human rights and experiments with new models for storytelling


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