The Batwa Are Back: Blame it on the Boogie

Very limited access to education, social prejudice and a complete lack of land to call their own means the Batwa (pygmy) community around Mt Gahinga lodge have very few sources of income. As a result this once proud and fun-loving people have been consigned to margins of society, eking out an existence by ‘scavenging’ and digging in other people’s fields simply to survive. The Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT) is trying to address this through small-scale income-generating opportunities, the first of which is dancing.

Unlike in western societies where dancing is largely limited to badly lit dens of excess or camp television programmes filled with overly sequined minor ‘celebrities’ (both often taking place on Saturday nights), in Batwa society dancing serves the dual purpose of recounting history and a communal expression of joy.  Their recent unfortunate history and current circumstances have meant there has been little reason or opportunity for them to practice the traditional dances. This is where the VSPT comes in. For the last 5 months we have been paying the Batwa to perform for the local community once a week. We hope to achieve three things through this programme: firstly providing a regular source of income for the 16 dancers and their families; secondly to provide them with a forum to practice and develop new dances, thereby helping preserve one of the world’s most ancient and endangered cultures; and lastly to try and break down some of the prejudices that exist between the Batwa and the local Bafanbila people.

So how are we doing after 5 months? The success of the third aim is difficult to judge and realistically hundreds of years of animosity are not going to disappear in 5 months as a result of a few dance performances, but the 40 or so woman and children who watch every week seem to be enjoying themselves.  The second aim is easier however, percussion is now provided on drums, rather than jerry cans, 3 new dances and songs have been developed and the quality has improved from what might be found at an average wedding disco to a proper, coordinated dance group. Most importantly, the Batwa have an opportunity to earn some money, enjoy themselves and tell their story to people through the medium of dance.  So all that is left is for you to come to Gahinga and see for yourself.

Will, Uganda – Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust