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'The Real Pygmies Experience': Evicted Batwa People Now Just Act Out a Previous Life for Tourists

The Batwa pygmy community in southwestern Uganda was violently forced from the forests and are now forbidden from going back to their ancestral home — unless performing on the Batwa Trail.
Photo par Pedro Ramirez

Perched on a ladder made of branches leaning against a large tree, the pygmy hunter slowly raises his bow towards the the thick canopy of the equatorial forest. His muscles are poised to let go of the arrow and make a kill for the evening dinner. Today however, the wildlife is safe. This hunt is just for show.

The young man, who belongs to the Batwa pygmy community in southwestern Uganda, is re-enacting traditional hunting techniques in the forest for a family of German tourists who added a "Batwa Trail" to their holidays after they went to see the world-famous mountain gorillas in the Mgahinga National Park.


The placards advertising for an "authentic experience" with the pygmies are visible all over town in Kisoro, the border town where an international crowd of tourists streams annually to hike to the gorillas' habitat. Few know that when the Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks were established in the early 1990s, its native inhabitants, the Batwa, were evicted by the Uganda Wildlife Authorities (UWA).

"It was so violent," recalls Francis Sembargari, a Batwa elder who was born in Mgahinga. "A brother of my father's was killed by the soldiers evicting us. Everybody was running, and falling, and taking whatever we could carry. It was the government using guns against us, who were unarmed."

Watch the VICE News documentary, Forced Out of the Forest: The Lost Tribe of Uganda here:

Traditionally a hunter-gathers community, the Batwa were relocated in the nearby town of Kisoro, where they have struggled to adapt to modern society. They were not compensated for their losses and have been reduced to landless squatters, living in what can only be described as slums, forbidden from going back to their ancestral home.

"Up to now there is no Batwa allowed in the forest. If you try to get in you are captured and arrested for reasons we do not know. Our rights are being trampled on, the forest belongs to us", says Sembargari.

UWA officials told VICE News that the eviction was largely exaggerated by the Batwa. Mgahinga National Park's director, Deusdedit Twinomugisha, argues that given the human demographic pressure around the forest, it was impossible to make an exception for the Pygmies. "Other people from outside were joining the Batwa to hunt to the extent that certain animals had become extinct," he says.


But while UWA make millions from tourism annually, the socio-economic impact the eviction has had on the Batwa is devastating. The community has declined to only a few thousand members who live in dire poverty on less than 75 cents a day (compared with a Ugandan average daily income of $1.80). For three decades, they have been struggling to have their rights recognized, to no avail.

Related: In One Uganda Slum, Gambling Is a Prudent Financial Investment

The Batwa trail, a rather grotesque re-enactment of life in the forest that feels more like a tragicomedy, is performed by three Batwa. They play hunting scenes - including one of them pretending to be a dog - and wear goat skins with zippers in place of their traditional wild animals skins (which have been deemed politically incorrect). The trail takes place under the watchful eye of park rangers. It is the only time a Batwa is ever allowed to reenter the park.

The UWA pays each "actor" $2 for their performance, and claims it has started a fund into which half the revenue from the trail is deposited to be used by the Batwa community. Batwa leaders say they have never been consulted, and do not know when or how that money will be returned to them.

The Batwa trail started as part of a well-intentioned initiative led by Arthur Mugisha, a former UWA director who had joined the NGO Fauna and Flora International (FFI). Mugisha wanted the Batwa to become an integral part of the parks' management and began negotiations with the UWA and a Batwa-rights organisation called OUBDU. "The whole point was to say don't look at them as animals or tourist attractions, look at them as knowledgable. We wanted to give them back power," he told VICE News.


Although the initiative bore some positive results and three Batwa now work for the Bwindi National Park, the relationship between OUBDU and the UWA came to an abrupt end after the Batwa organization opened a land rights legal case against the authorities.

With the UWA given free rein, the Batwa trail was turned into another money-making tourist attraction.

"The UWA wasn't supposed to get a cent," said Mugisha, who is disappointed that dialogue between the two organizations broke down. "The UWA wasn't very willing to include the Batwa in their management, but as long as they were talking, it was difficult for them to be seen as not making any effort".

According to him and other sources, the legal case is likely to go nowhere. Legal provisions concerning land ownership are unsuitable for determining how to compensate the indigenous community. So the Batwa remain stuck in a legal limbo — and stuck reliving their past under the tight control of those who stole it from them, for foreigners in search of "the real pygmies experience."

Follow Melanie Gouby on Twitter: @melaniegouby