Batwa trail is a tour organized by Uganda Wildlife Authority, always led by omutwa, a pygmy guide. This trail is mainly to find out how this group of people lived in the forests of Bwindi impenetrable forest national park, Mgahinga national park, Semliki national park and around Lake Bunyonyi in south western Uganda before they were resettled when these forests were gazetted into national parks for the conservation of mountain gorillas.
Batwa people originally inhabited the foothills of the dense forests of Mgahinga and Bwindi, hence referred to as the people of the forest, where they found comfort and lived peacefully and happily as hunters, gatherers, fierce warriors and depended on the forest for shelter, food, fruits, honey, collected firewood and herbs as medicine, before they were relocated to camps, settlements and neighboring communities of Rushaga, Ruhiija, Buhoma and Nkuringo in the districts of Kanungu, Kabale and Kisoro. Some of the Batwa who were integrated into the communities have since constructed permanent homes, as opposed to the huts and caves they used to live in, and have also embraced formal education for their children, among other adjustments. Others are also employed in the parks as guides and porters, which has in a way improved their standards of living.
Batwa trail in Mgahinga national park takes place within Mgahinga national park and the Batwa trail experience in Bwindi is carried out within the Batwa communities outside the park. Batwa trail in Bwindi national park begins with a nature walk or hike through the park, as the visitors learn from the Batwa guide, how this group of people used to live and how their lives have since changed since their homes were gazette into national parks.
Every tribe in Uganda has a story or history of its existence and so do the Batwa people in Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks. After being evicted from the Mgahinga national park and Bwindi national park the Batwa people faced and still face social challenges of learning how to live among other people in the neighboring communities as they continue to be discriminated and stigmatized due to their different ways of life and their physical appearances. The Batwa people are the poorest Ugandans who earn a living from cutting trees for firewood, burning trees for charcoal, carrying heavy loads of merchandise for traders in the markets, working on farmlands of other people in the neighboring communities, begging, others poach small animals like antelopes in the parks, with most of them still harbor the hope of returning to the forests, since they have failed to adapt to life outside their former home.
Poverty and hunger, which was reducing the number of the Batwa, drew the attention of several local and international organizations, with projects on water, sanitation, promotion of the rights of the Batwa people, Batwa development program to build clinics, schools, and hospitals. In 2002, the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda was founded, and together with USAID, they have since helped the Batwa in income generation, housing, land, forest access, education, adult literacy, benefit-sharing among others, which are all aimed at empowering the Batwa socially and economically.
The Batwa trail was launched on 7th June 2011, as one way of preserving and celebrating the Batwa culture and traditions, integrating conservation with the cultural development of the Batwa who were the initial inhabitants of these forests. This has provided employment to the Batwa who engages themselves in the Batwa trail activities as guides, porters, dancers among others; the Batwa trail has helped to restore the dignity and hope of the Batwa through keeping their culture and traditions alive, through the different activities they are involved in on the trail.
Batwa trail walk is conducted by the Twa or Batwa guides who provide traditional information about their culture and forest life. This trail is along the dense forest of Mgahinga, through the foothills of the volcanic mountains of mount Gahinga and Mount Muhavura. The trail starts with a guide kneeling in front of a particular hut to pray and beg the gods of the forest to bless the walk. This hut is also where the Batwa men in the ancient days used to kneel to pray to the gods of the forest before they went into the forest to hunt so that the hunt was successful. After praying, the pygmy guide leads the visitors through the forest and around the slopes of the volcanoes. During the walk, the visitors’ occasionally stop to pick some berries that the ancient hunters used to feed on when they went hunting. The visitors are also shown several medicinal herbs in the forest, learn about different plants and roots that the Batwa used as their medicine, some which were used to stop the bleeding of the Batwa women after childbirth, the treatment of malaria, blood pressure and any other ailments.
The visitors also learn about some of the shrubs and leaves in the forest that were and still are ground, crushed or chewed to make powders that were used to get chase evil spirits and treat other diseases like fever, cold, diabetes among others. The visitors are also showed the black cover of the ant nests which was used for treating skin fungal infections. According to the Batwa people, each plant in the forest has one importance or other.
During the Batwa trail, the visitors are taken to the original Batwa grass thatched huts where the guide demonstrates how the temporary huts were constructed, also demonstrates how they hunted small animals in the forest for food, making fire by rubbing two dry sticks against each other and visitors can also light their cigarettes, demonstrate how they used bows and arrows for hunting, ways of making cups using bamboo, ways of gathering fruits and honey in the forest among other activities. Visitors are also taken to the sacred Ngarama cave in Mgahinga national park which is located beneath mount Mgahinga, which is 200meters long, 342 meters in length and 14 meters deep. The Ngarama cave was once a home to a Batwa king, shelter, court of law, acting as the food store or granary, meeting place, training area for the warriors and hiding place during the battles or wars with the other neighboring groups, and no outsider was allowed to enter this cave in the old days.
Ngarama cave is a quiet and dark place that embraces visitors with darkness as they go into it. The visitors get to see the Batwa women at the end of the cave, singing sorrowful and mournful cultural songs, relating to their ancient ways and how they loved the forest because it was their first home. On top of the cave, there is a shelter that was constructed by USAID, where other Batwa women groups perform cultural dances, songs, storytelling among others, which also further elaborate the life of the Batwa people. Some visitors are touched by the Batwa stories during the Batwa trail experience and hence give generous donations in form of money, clothes, among other things, which has also led to the attraction of funding projects in the community.
Batwa trail tour takes about 3 to 5 hours in Mgahinga national park and costs $80 per person for foreign non residents and residents, 50,000 UGX for East African visitors who want to capture the whole Batwa trail experience and produce a documentary will add $400 while the Batwa trail experience in Bwindi national park costs $40 per person for foreign non residents and residents and 40,000 UGX for East Africans and in Semliki national park costs $10 for both foreign non residents and residents and 10,000 UGX for East Africans. Money collected from the visitors is used to pay the porters and dancers that entertain the visitors and part of that money is also kept by Uganda Wildlife Authority to support the Batwa development projects in their community like the construction of facilities like hospitals, schools among others hence improving their standard of living.
Batwa trail gives you an interesting and adventurous experience where you will learn and understand the local culture and tradition of the indigenous people and visitors can also participate in other activities beside the Batwa trail like Gorilla Tracking, Gorilla Habituation experience, Golden monkey Tracking, Hiking the Virunga Volcano mountains among others in Bwindi national park and Mgahinga national park which offer you a lifetime experience on a safari in Uganda.