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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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. ”
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.
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.
“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. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism