On the trail with the Batwa guides.
  • On the trail with the Batwa guides.
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In Uganda, gorilla tourism is an economic engine. It benefits not only the mountain gorillas that the tourists track, but also the human communities in and around the forests in which the animals live.

Batwa man.

It's been devastating for the Batwa pygmies, however. About 20 years ago, the Ugandan government ordered them all to move out of the forests that had been their home for millennia. Hunter-gatherers, they had always co-existed with the forest creatures. But as an exploding human population drove more and more people to cut down forests for farmland, the once-boundless rainforest was reduced to mere islands. It was felt that the Batwa were putting too much pressure on what was left, so they were kicked out and forced onto the African equivalent of reservations.

One effort intended to help them preserve some remnant of their culture (and earn money) has been the creation of the Batwa Trail. On a recent visit to Uganda, my husband and I signed up to hike it.

Within Mgahinga National Park, we met up with a ranger/translator named Benjamin, two guards toting AK47s (for protection against any wild gorillas or other large dangerous animals), and four Batwa who ranged in age from 36 to 51 (left). All of them had grown up in this non-materialist culture, where you built your home from sticks and leaves and inhabited it for a few months before moving on with what you could carry.

They all wore clothes made of animal skins, and two of the four carried weapons (a spear and bow and arrow). To my surprise, they weren't terribly small – maybe in the low five-foot range. They led us briskly down a trail strewn with fresh Cape buffalo dung. I found myself thinking it would be exciting to encounter one (and have one of the guards scare it away), but the most menacing creatures we saw were legions of safari ants. We avoided being bitten by any, thanks to the Batwas’ solicitous warnings.

They proved even better at entertaining us. Steven, the leader, had a commanding presence, and in the course of frequent stops, he and the other fellows explained the use of various plants both for sustenance and medicine. More unexpected (and entertaining) was the way his comrades acted out various activities from their former life: setting a snare (and accidentally getting caught in it – har-har!); using a dog bedecked with bells (played by one of the men) to catch a wild animal (played by a carved wooden hippo) (video at left).

“They're like the Marx Brothers!” Steve whispered to me at one point.

The grand finale took us into a huge underground lava tube where the Batwa king once hung out, and where his subjects stored crops plundered from surrounding farms. Normally, Batwa ladies hidden in the cave's inky inner recesses surprise visitors by singing, softly at first and then building to a rousing conclusion. But they weren't there on this particular day; someone said something about their having to go get food instead.

Batwa mother and baby.

I was a little disappointed, but six women were assembled when we emerged from the cave, and they gave us at least a taste of what we had missed.

The men and we had shared our own magical moment a little earlier, in a clearing. They gave us a wildly animated demonstration of how they once started fires using two sticks. Then we all flopped down in an ant-free patch of ground to eat our picnic lunches. Steve and I asked lots of questions, and they seemed happy to answer.

It occurred to me that they might enjoy hearing how I had learned about them. Benjamin translated as I described driving in my car several months earlier and listening to an NPR reporter who also had experienced the Batwa Trail. I’d found a website about the trail when I got home, and what I read had made me resolve to find them. We all laughed at the crazy connections.

“You're famous!” I told them. Their eyes shone. I promised to tell other people about them. They liked that.

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