The Batwa Pygmies of Lake Bunyonyi

So many village children happy to see us!

As we crossed back into Uganda after our gorilla adventure, we had an opportunity to take a boat across Lake Bunyonyi, the second deepest lake in Africa. On the way, we would make a stop at a small village to visit a community of Batwa pygmies. The pygmies are traditionally a forest-dwelling people, but in the past few decades they have been displaced by deforestation and by the creation of national parks. Unfortunately, they shared much of their habitat with the mountain gorillas, and although this wasn’t detrimental to either the gorillas or the pygmies, the government decreed that no people were to dwell in the gorilla’s protected lands, and the pygmies were relocated to small parcels of land throughout Uganda. This has had a very negative impact on them, since they’ve been forced to adopt a settled, agricultural lifestyle, after hundreds of years living as nomadic hunter-gatherers. The tour that we were taking was meant to raise awareness for their situation, as well as provide some monetary support to help with land purchases and other necessities.

Hands out for money or gifts...

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the village, we were met with an unhappy scene. Dozens of children (from surrounding villages — not pygmy children) ran out to escort us on our walk up the hill, and we were continuously asked for money, pens, food, or anything else that came to mind. This in itself was not so bad, as we’ve become quite used to this type of behaviour from kids throughout Africa, but the intensity and determination of it this time was somewhat disconcerting. The truly saddening moment, however, was when we arrived at the village and found a significant proportion of the adults (and several teenagers) completely drunk or high. Substance abuse is apparently quite a problem throughout many of the displaced pygmy communities, and that was clearly the case here. You could smell the alcohol on many breaths from a dozen feet away. They performed some dancing for us, and although I joined the dancing in an effort to show good will, it was very difficult to do so without seeming to encourage the intoxicated locals into more ludicrous behaviour. One of the men decided that it would be cool to pose for photos with two empty beer bottles to his lips. I didn’t take that picture.

Dancing, but a little reluctantly

As we left awkwardly, children in tow, our guide approached one of the drunk women (who appeared to be an elder of the village) and gave her a payment in cash for our visit. This was extremely discouraging to us, since it seemed so clear where that money would be spent. When we signed up for the visit, we’d hoped for an enriching cultural experience. We’d hoped to speak with the pygmies and learn about their situation. We’d hoped desperately that it wouldn’t turn out to be a bunch of tourists paying to gawk at local people who, in a state of desperation, were willing to reduce themselves to a spectacle in order to support destructive habits. Unfortunately this last is exactly what it turned out to be. We didn’t feel angry about it, but only sad. Although our guide was optimistic about the positive impact that our visit would have, it is clear that the scale of the issues facing the pygmy people is larger than the framework in place for addressing it. They have been ignored and relegated to the margins of the lands they’ve lived in traditionally for centuries, and while we can never condone substance abuse as a justifiable alternative, there’s no question that they have suffered undue hardships through no faults of their own, and have been thrust into a new lifestyle to which they are not well adapted. It was a sad reality to face. I hope that the future holds better things for these indigenous people, but it’s a bleak outlook in the short term, to be sure.

Lake Bunyonyi

Comments

    Very sad situation. It looks as though you are seeing both the best of life and the worst of life, and isn’t that what life is all about? Keep positive.

  1. Hank Pellissier

  2. I had a similar experience with the Batwa pygmies up by Fort Portal. Worse, actually. We were presented with a drunken dance and pestered to buy handicraft junk. After we took some photos, the Batwa demanded $60. We declined and went back to our van. The Batwa surrounded the van, screaming for their money and blocking our exit. We coughed up the cash and fled.

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