Uganda (Day 3): A Batwa Experience at Mgahinga National Park
Summary: Mgahinga National Park, Uganda, is the original home of the Batwa, a forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer tribe that was evicted from the forest in the early 1990's despite calling Mgahinga their home for 20,000 or more years. The eviction occurred as part of a preservation project for the endangered mountain gorillas and golden monkeys, though historically neither of those primate populations were impacted by the Batwa specifically. Today, in partnership with the tribe and in an effort to provide financial assistance, Mgahinga National Park offers a cultural tourism experience with the Batwa. Here, we spent the better part of a day on an educational hike with members of the Batwa, visiting their ancestral lands. Afterwards, we drove to our next Uganda stop, the incredible Nkuringo Gorilla Lodge in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Mgahinga National Park. To get to this Park from our lodge on Lake Mutanda, we had to first endure a two hour “African Massage,” as our guide, Emma called it. Roads in Uganda, or at least in the parts of we visited, were abysmal. To call it a bumpy ride would be an understatement. In reality, it could double for an abdominal workout – that’s how much you had to brace for each bump. As we noted in our prior post, this and the other parts of this drive, gave us a reinvigorated appreciation for the simple luxuries of the U.S., which include clean, running water.
Upon arrival to Mgahinga National Park, we learned that our plans for this day were once again thwarted by the ongoing Civil War in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. On the prior day we were supposed to hike Mt. Sabinyo in Mgahinga National Park but the constant thunderous sounds of bombs confirmed that the conflict had crept into that mountain peak. The plan was to instead hike Mt. Muhavura but upon arrival to the Park, we were advised that the fighting had moved over to the previously safe mountain, overnight. We had read in the news the evening prior that Rwanda was now getting involved in the conflict, having been accused of helping the Congolese separatists. The substitute hike involved meeting up with the Rwanda border so again, we changed plans.
Batwa Experience. Instead of hiking, our guide at the Mgahinga National Park called upon the Batwa people to conduct a culture walk. On a moments' notice, four instructors from this indigenous tribe came to the Park via a car personally driven by our guide because they had not planned on our arrival. Meanwhile, as we learned later, their family members and other members of the tribe came over the neighboring mountain - by foot - to join us at the end for dancing and music. While we waited, another cultural heritage organization performed a dance for us similar to the day before only the dancers consisted of adult women and men instead of school-aged teens.
Briefing. Before we started, we received a briefing at the National Park headquarters much like the day before only our guide did not lead the event, rather it was led by the four Batwa instructors with our guide translating along the way. During the briefing, we learned about the Batwa, including the fact that their tribal ancestry dates back 20,000+ years!
About the Batwa. These original dwellers of the forest are also known as a "pygmy" tribe. A hunter/gatherer tribe, the Batwa lived in harmony off the land for millennia until being evicted from the land in the early 1990's as part of the Park's gorilla and golden monkey preservation project. The Park had also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having no title to the land, the Batwa were not compensated and today they live in severe poverty as "conservation refugees."
After our briefing, we headed out for a hike in an area similar to where we hiked the previous day for the Golden Monkey trekking, only this time we heard less shelling and gunfire. All along the 4-mile loop, the four Batwa took turns stopping and teaching us about their culture, including how they hunted, built homes, and survived on the land.
At each stop our Batwa guides first taught us about their former land in their native language. After that, our guide from the National Park would translate.
Towards the end of the hike, we stopped at a deep cave. Here, we learned that the tribe’s King would hold court, and meet with visitors, make decisions, and handle other tribal business. Special events also occurred here. The mountain is part of a volcano system so the cave consisted of an ancient lava flow that bored out a large cavern deep into the hillside. Getting into the cave requires conquering some claustrophobia as large sections involve crouching low enough to pass through. Inside, in the dark, we met the four Batwa’s family and other tribal members where they performed a traditional dance.
Afterwards, we were then led back out into the open and over to a resting area with a beautiful view of the country-side below. A second dance performance was given along with further instruction about the tribe’s traditions. Afterwards, we captured a group photo of this lovely set of extended families sitting with our own little family of four.
The final part of the Batwa experience involved a hike back to the Park entrance.
What we found remarkable about the Batwa is their dedication to preserving their cultural heritage. Having been removed from their native lands 30 years ago, one could imagine how their immediate forced assimilation into the area’s Ugandan culture could have all but eliminated the Batwa in just a couple generations. However, along with a paid partnership with the Ugandan government, the Batwa try to preserve what they can in their new lands by offering lessons, such as the Batwa experience we participated in, and other government programs that at least attempt to assist the Batwa in this way. Even so, whether this effort will be enough in the long term remains to be seen. What we learned too was that without their native land to live off of, the group has struggled to succeed in the general Ugandan population. Ethically, it is nearly impossible to judge what is the right decision here. On the one hand, the land was reclaimed to preserve the endangered Gorillas, Golden Monkeys, and other ecological needs of the area. On the other, a tribe that co-existed with these animals for 20,000+ years was forcibly removed from their native lands.
After our time at Mgahinga National Park, we climbed back into our Nkuringo Safari Land Rover, where Emma (our driver) was ready to take us to our next stop on the trip: Nkuringo Gorilla Lodge in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This jaw-dropping, luxurious lodge is owned and operated by the Nkuringo Safari Company, the company we used for our time in Uganda. It is situated on the hillside with breathtaking views of Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest. This forest gets its namesake “Impenetrable,” because just as it sounds, the vegetation is so dense, it is considered impenetrable.
When we arrived, we were welcomed by a rain forest downpour. The heavy rain was temporary, with patchy blue sky in the distance. We would say it actually added to the ambiance.
This Lodge is impressive, if not a bit guilt-worthy after seeing the poverty along our drive. Each individual room is a house in and of itself, with a full living room, large bed area, and gorgeous bathroom which contains a tub overlooking the rain forest. Each room also has a front porch with an awe-inspiring view of Bwindi below.
When we arrived, we were greeted with a crew of workers ready to serve us which actually made me recall one thought our driver Emma imparted earlier in the day. Tourism feeds the area. These luxurious lodges – and there others like Nkuringo – employ a small army of workers that cater to the guests. Emma, an employee since 2009 when the Company started, says that wages are good and locals want to work for companies like Nkuringo that offer good salaries. As we entered the main guest area, we were assigned a personal butler that would serve our room including lighting a fire each evening in our fire place, taking laundry for complimentary laundry service, and bringing our cleaned shoes after trekking. We were also given complimentary hand massages, juice drinks, and a briefing on the amenities offered at the Lodge including a dance performance by a local group of the Batwa tribe. We're not sure we will ever stay at such a luxurious place again. It was an incredible place.
About Nkuringo Safaris. Our stay in Uganda was booked, door to door, with Nkuringo Safaris. We chose a "walking safari," which focused on seeing Uganda on foot, though we were also given the traditional driver and safari Land Rover vehicle throughout our stay. We absolutely loved this company and HIGHLY recommend using it for your stay in Uganda. Everything was top notch, from booking through post-travel communications (even shipping our souvenirs for us!). Our driver, Emma, was the best and our guide, Richard, was great with us well. Our accommodations were incredible (especially in Bwindi), and at every step of the way, we felt safe. This is not an inexpensive experience but we really felt we got our money's worth. Nkuringo also has a responsible travel policy which is clearly followed, i.e. they're not just words on a website. We would not hesitate to recommend this company to anyone traveling to Uganda.
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