Ugandan pygmies, displaced by mountain gorillas, decry discrimination, ostracism


Sabiti Mufupi, 50, is proud he is an indigenous Batwa pygmy, although some people look down on him and his clansmen because they are short and in most cases small in size.

Mufupi, who lives in Kasese in western Uganda, told Anadolu Agency that his tribe was displaced from their original homes deep in the forests by mountain gorillas.

“In 1991, I was a young man when the government evicted us from Bwindi impenetrable rain forests so that mountain gorillas could stay there peacefully. Other Batwa who were also evicted lived in the Echuya and Mgahinga rain forests,” he said.

The Batwa are bitter about being evicted

Mufupi said that before being evicted, the tribe derived their livelihoods from the forests.

“Our ancestors were part of the ecosystem for Bwindi, Echuya, and Mgahinga impenetrable rain forests. We ate fruits from the trees and root food in the forests but now they are being enjoyed by mountain gorillas as the Batwa starve,” said Deborah Namanya, a member of the Batwa community living in the western city of Mbarara.

Moses Ninzikumba, a 49-year-old local Batwa musician who lives in a slum in the western town of Kisoro, said he was 9 years old when his tribe was sent away from the forest.

“We’re now living in poverty. We were sent away from our land. Our tribe has become endangered because many of the Batwa, after being sent away from the forests, scattered to other parts of the county and many died because they could not cope with life outside the forest,” said Ninzikumba,

He said they want the government to buy land for the remaining Batwa people and settle them.

Betty Keturesi, 26, said her parents told her that when the Batwa lived in the forests before being evicted they used to use herbal medicine and ate the fruits from trees which made them live long. “Now they struggle looking for food but they say that when they were living in the forests they would eat fruits and meat which they got from hunting animals,” she said.

Keturesi said she is married with two children and her family lives in a makeshift hut but does not have land on which to grow food. She said they earn their living from working in other people’s gardens.

“The life of the Batwa is terrible. They stay in huts made from mosquito nets and paper bags. They do not have money to buy food and soap. Since they do not often bathe or wash their clothes, they end up smelling which makes them misfits among other people. They smell and other people do not want to socialize with them,” according to senior journalist Ketty Atuzarwire, who works with the Uganda government’s media group, New Vision.

What is being done by the government and NGOs

Atuzarwire, who has been covering the Batwa for more than a decade, said two NGOs, the Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust (MBIFCT) and the Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Conservation Trust were set up in 1994 under the Uganda Trust Act, with a mandate to provide long-term funding for the conservation of the biodiversity and ecosystem of the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable forests National Parks in South Western Uganda.

She said the NGOs provide funds to the Batwa community but few benefits because the funds provided are inadequate and the Batwa are scattered in different parts of the country.

The government is also trying to help the Batwa, according to Frank Mugabi, spokesman for the Gender, Labor, and Social Development Ministry.

“We work closely with Batwa cultural leaders to preserve their culture. We have helped them to document their culture,” said Mugabi.

He said the government provides programs to improve the lives of minority ethnic groups like the Batwa. But he conceded that like all other government programs they cannot reach everyone and not all of the Batwa are benefiting.

Why mountain gorillas are revered in Uganda

The mountain gorilla is one of the two subspecies of gorillas. Decades ago it was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Currently, only 1,063 mountain gorillas remain and live in three countries — Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Half live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest.

​​​​​​​The forest, a UNESCO world heritage site, was made into a game sanctuary in 1932 to conserve the mountain gorillas. The government later upgraded it to national park status in 1991.

Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesman Bashir Hangi told Anadolu Agency that mountain gorillas are the biggest attraction for tourists that come to Uganda.

At least 20,000 tourists from all over the world visit the Bwindi game park to watch mountain gorillas, according to the agency.​​​​​​​

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