Tourists visiting the less known Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Kisoro District now have a new activity to look forward to following the launched 8-kilometre mountain trail. The new trail route, which takes tourists up to 2,700 metres above sea level during a four-hour walk in the forests along the Muhabura mountain ranges, offers visitors an opportunity to learn the history of the indigenous inhabitants of the forest and experience the life that they live.
Who are the Batwa
The area occupied by the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park was home to the Batwa, former forest dwellers who used to stay in the park. The Batwa are a Bantu group living on the mountain ranges sitting astride Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. Before the government gazetted it as a national park in 1991 to protect its biological diversity and endangered mountain gorillas, the Batwa used to live in the forest as mainly hunters and food gatherers.
The Batwa are also a pygmy tribe! Their life wasn’t far different from the Bambuti of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the reason why most of them live around the former forests where they used to stay. Elsewhere the Batwa live in the Lake Bunyonyi Islands, Semuliki National Park as well as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The Batwa Were Evicted from the Forest
The eviction of the Batwa, numbering 6,705 people, according to the 2002 census, left them landless and without reliable sources of livelihood. Today they are one of the marginalized communities within Uganda. They are discriminated by other tribes that live within the communities where they were settled. They have also found hard time to change their lifestyle – they had to become farmers so that they can earn a living. Remember they were evicted without any compensation.
Today, several Non Governmental Organizations have tried to help the Batwa out! However there are still challenges to improve their standards of livings. Though tourism development in the Mgahinga and Bwindi National Parks was modeled based on ecotourism, the Batwa are less involved in tourism and thus the development of some inititatives aimed at bringing them onboard. With the launch of the Batwa trail, however, there is anticipation of some change in their fortunes.
Before the launch of the Batwa Trail initiative, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Kisoro District Local Government and the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), signed a Memorandum of Understanding. The three organizations will manage revenues from the project.
The Director for Tourism at UWA, Mr. Stephen Masaba, said part of the agreement stipulates that up to 50 per cent of the revenue from the trail will be shared with the Batwa Community. “Even the 50 per cent that UWA gets, by law 20 per cent is given back to the community as revenue share,” Mr Masaba said. “This is one way UWA empowers the community.” He added that in the agreement, UWA also offers to market the trail, provide training, access to the park for the Batwa to get materials for handicraft, interpretation and construction.
The Commissioner for Tourism, Ms Grace Mbabazi Aulo, who was the event’s chief guest, said the Batwa Trail project will not only compliment tourism at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, but also provide a reliable source of livelihood to the Batwa.
“Through the Batwa Trail project, the community here, especially the Batwa who have been disadvantaged through cultivation, settlement and gazetting of the park, will now have an opportunity to generate income by sharing their cultural heritage as they guide tourists through the trail,” she said. “The trail will not only bring revenues to the Batwa Community but also the other sectors such as transport, leisure and hospitality,” Ms Aulo added.
Hope for development
The Chairman of Kisoro District Local Government, Mr. Milton Bazanye, expressed his appreciation for the initiative. But he also decried the state of the roads leading to Mgahinga and Bwindi national parks, saying they are almost impassable. “The district needs money to fund the rehabilitation and maintenance of these roads and provide other social services to communities around the protected areas. If this is not done, tourism development in Kisoro will remain skewed,” he said.
UOBDU chairperson Elias Habyarimana said the project will not only allow them to share their culture with the world, but also help them to preserve their culture for future generations. The trail ends with a descent into a rock cave about 200 metres long, which is believed to have acted as the Batwa Palace (Ulutale) and a hideout after raids for food and other necessities.