By Joseph Ondiek
The Batwa are a historically nomadic and forest-dwelling community of hunters and gatherers. They’re widely acknowledged to have been the first humans to live in the forested areas stretching across what is now Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. However, in recent history, they have become displaced and are a largely marginalized and forgotten ethnic group. Furthermore, their traditional culture and their way of life are now threatened with extinction.
The community first became fragmented as other ethnic groups scrambled for and populated their traditional homelands, invading the forests to provide land for livestock and crops. It was, however, in 1991 with the designation of formal conservation areas to protect the endangered population of the mountain gorillas and activities in the areas that surround the Virunga Mountains, when everything changed for the Batwa in Uganda and DRC.
The community, now unable to live and hunt in the forests, was forced to adapt and live in areas that were completely not suited to their traditional way of life. In Uganda and DRC, the Batwa became largely excluded from the society. The communities for a long time have suffered from poverty and exclusion. They have been provided little stake in the burgeoning tourist industry that has developed in the forests where they once lived.
However, it’s imperative that the plight of the Batwa in DRC and Uganda is now being recognized by different Non-Governmental Organizations like the Virunga Community Programs. The organization was formed in 2017 to address land problems and to develop sustainable livelihoods for the communities with its Integrated Project for the Support to the Historically Marginalized Groups program.
The Virunga Community Programs has identified four major areas of support, namely: Land and housing, adult literacy, education and income generation where it intends to establish income generating activities like making pottery and ceramic sculptures, bamboo crafts, leather work, jewellery making, weaving and basketry.
These activities are not only going to help the community to integrate in the society but also afford them opportunity to sell these products to tourists and uplift their livelihoods.
According to Virunga Community Programs, even though these pygmies were the first inhabitants of this expanse of land, most of them now live in improvised tents, having been displaced from their dwelling places in the forests. They have no access to crucial social services, and they make a meager living through odd jobs here and there. The initiative is going to help these people have decent housing by helping them construct houses.
Virunga Community Programs recognizes that the incessant wars plus political instability of the past few years have put these marginalized communities at the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of priority list in Uganda and DRC. It has identified about thousands of Batwa pygmies who illegally occupy land like close to protected areas like Mikeno gorilla sector of the Virunga.
The program is intending to acquire land for these people to be legally settled. With the help of various charity organizations and well wishers, the initiative hopes to build houses for the Batwa pygmy marginalized community, together with schools and health posts. It’s also going to support the children education with provision of uniforms and other education materials.
Virunga Community Programs proposes to work with other like-minded NGOs to help the Batwa pygmies find a new direction in both Uganda and Congolese mainstream society, while remaining sensitive to their unique culture. They are going to be provided with training in modern agricultural methods, small animal rearing, and bee-keeping. Apart from this, the program also is finding ways through which they can tap into their rich cultural heritage like folklore, music and dancing to gain from vibrant tourism around the Virunga massif.
Virunga Community Programs also recognizes that fostering healthy communities surrounding the park is among the ways to benefit the Virunga. Decreasing forest dependency is going to help towards protection and conservation of Virunga Mountains, and the initiative reflects its comprehensive approach to conservation of nature.