In this International Year of the Forests, we recognize that we all rely on forests for what they provide. But for the Batwa community in the Great Lakes region of Africa, that reliance is core to their everyday life and their cultural heritage.
Yesterday, on June 7, 2011, The Batwa Trail was launched in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, with the intention of improving the livelihoods of the Batwa people living around Mgahinga and reconnecting them to the forest that their culture depends on. It was a long time in the making, but from what I experienced on the trail yesterday, that was entirely a good thing.
First, there is the physical development of the trail itself. The 8 km trail weaves its way through the lower slopes of Muhavura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo volcanoes, taking the traveler through different vegetation types with periodic vistas of the volcanic peaks above and volcanic lakes below. Close to the end of the trail includes a decent into the fantastic Garama cave.
Second,there is the integration of cultural elements throughout the trail. For the most part, those cultural elements are presented and re-enacted by a team of Batwa guides. You won’t realize that several have slipped away into the forest only to re-appear for a lively re-enactment of a buffalo hunt, which you suddenly find yourself in the middle of.
Here is where a key element of the trail is worth a mention- your guides are the Batwa themselves, the park guide serves only as translator. This simple policy reduces the easy tendency for others to speak on behalf of the Batwa, which in every context- within and outside of the forest- does not help their situation. But here on the trail, you really do experience the forest from their unique perspective.
Our guides for the launch trek were Dondu Nsabimana, Steven Serutoki, Wilson Mpagazihe, Hagumimana Kanyabikingi, and Gershom Safari. When asked which part of the trail is their favorite to show to tourists, they all talk about the re-enacted hunts and traps. “It was our game in the forest,” Steven tells me and Hagumimana adds that “demonstration is fun but if we are doing it for real, we have to be careful, we have to use much more energy.”
All of these guides would know what it is like to be on a real hunt, as they have been taught by their fathers and grandfathers all the techniques. In fact, it wasn’t until 1991 that these people were forced by law to leave the Mgahinga when it transitioned from a forest reserve to a national park. Now that they re-enact for tourists and get to have their ‘games’ in the forest, the audience they really like to demonstrate to, they tell me, are their own children. When these men tell me this, the look of pride and guttural joy on their faces transcends the language barrier to the universal desire to pass on traditions from one generation to the next.
At several points during the launch trek and festivities, members of the management committee overseeing The Batwa Trail including male and female members of the Batwa community, a representative from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), a representative from local government, a representative of the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), and IGCP, recommitted themselves to keeping the cultural elements of the trail authentic and true to Batwa culture, not adulterating it by the perceived desire of the tourists in any way.
And finally, one of the key parts of the development of this trail, the first cultural attraction within a national park in Uganda, was the formal institutional arrangement and joint ownership of The Batwa Trail. At the launch ceremony, a Memorandum of Understanding between UWA, Kisoro local government, and UOBDU was signed, clarifying the roles and responsibilities of each party. Without this final step, the long-term sustainability of The Batwa Trail would be vulnerable to misunderstandings, detracting from what The Batwa Trail promises to the Batwa, the park, and tourists alike.
It has been a long time coming, but in the end, we can be optimistic that it will be a long time running, contributing to the passing of cultural heritage from generation to generation.