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The Batwa are thought to be one of the oldest surviving indigenous people in the Central African Region. Known for their unique pygmy culture in the forests, the Batwa of the Virunga Mountains survived by hunting small game, gathering plants and fruits, living in caves and constructing huts of leaves and branches.
With international attention on conservation of the endangered mountain gorillas, the Mgahinga part of the Virunga volcanoes in Uganda was turned into a national park in 1991 to provide protection to the wildlife from poaching and habitat encroachment. The creation of the park required the Batwa to be removed from their homes in the mountains and be displaced in a modern world unfamiliar to them. The Batwa ended up squatting in nearby farm land. They earned a living through occasional labor or begging. With limited education, adapting to the modern world has been a difficult journey. They do not have resources or land and suffer from acute poverty, malnutrition and poor health.
A group of about 18 Batwa families from those displaced live in makeshift shelters on a tiny rocky site at Musasa, about 4km from the entrance of Mgahinga National park and Volcanoes Mount Gahinga Lodge, surviving as best as they can.
Volcanoes Safaris has now started to build a permanent village for The Batwa community and their families. About 10 acres of land has been purchased to allow them to build homes, a community centre and have land for agricultural and recreational use. The main aspects of the project are anticipated to be completed by December 2017.
The Gahinga Batwa community is comprised of over 100 adults and children. They have had no permanent home since they left Mgahinga National Park over 25 years ago. .
Praveen Moman, Founder of Volcanoes Safaris and Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust says of the project, “As a leading luxury lodge company offering unique safari and cultural experiences to our guests, we are also very proud of our company ethos to support communities around our lodges. Uganda is one of Africa’s most beautiful and diverse countries and we want to help preserve its rich culture. We are excited to see this project come to fruition after many years of working with the Batwa and understanding their culture and desperate needs”.
VSPT’S HISTORY WITH THE BATWA: ONGOING PROJECTS & BUILDING THE VILLAGE
Since 2013, VSPT has developed a series of projects to support the Batwa through tourism related enterprises and to help preserve their culture and heritage and give them a livelihood. These have included setting up a Vocational Centre, a Batwa Heritage Trail and sharing their culture with guests.
In 2015, Praveen Moman, the founder of Volcanoes Safaris, agreed with the Batwa leaders including Jane Nyirangano, the Chairperson, that land would be purchased for them. Land around Gahinga is scarce as it’s one of the most densely populated areas in Africa. 10 acres has been purchased as they continue to explore further acquisitions.
Consultations have been held with the Batwa on their views on land use. Felix Holland from Studio FH Architects has kindly provided advice on the site and design on a pro bono basis. Dan Krueger from Puddlejump, based in Canada, who specializes in indigenous tourism, has also been consulted. Herbert, Felix and Cyprien Serugero, Head of Construction for Volcanoes Safaris are overseeing the work.
Volcanoes Safaris’ long term goal is to provide land that can be used in perpetuity by the Batwa, where they can have their own homes and community facilities as well as an agricultural area where they can grow their own crops to help them start generating their own income. The houses are being built by the Batwa, following their own traditions and culture, using a volcanic stone base with mud and water to form the core of the design. The site plan will act as the backbone with cultivation, recreational and communal areas demarcated. Sanitation is to be provided.
The Batwa village is to be funded by VSPT supported by Volcanoes Safaris as well as some donations received from guests. The settlement will enable the Batwa to break the cycle of manual labour and land rental payments and to use the land for growing crops. This will support the community’s development and allow their children to access education and health facilities.
The project has been widely welcomed by the Batwa and also by the wider local community. VSPT has built a relationship with the Gahinga Batwa community for several years which has allowed us to develop a solid understanding of their needs.
Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat, as they swing from the branches in the canopy high above the forest floor is nothing short of exhilarating. The chimps effortlessly cross and scamper through the trees above the gorge, and visitors on the other hand must cross the river using natural bridges in order to keep up with the chimps. So although the walk usually lasts only 2–3 hours, descending the steep gorge and crossing the log bridges over the river requires some agility and fitness.
Chimpanzee tracking is also available in nearby Kalinzu, a forest reserve 30 minutes drive from Kyambura Gorge Lodge where there is a community of about 40 habituated chimpanzees.