November 5, 2014 – Batwa Pygmy Tribe
We were happy to be able to take participate in the Batwa Cultural Experience and meet a Batwa Pygmy Tribe. We requested porters for $15 each. Mark’s porter was Ephaim, and I was paired with Medius, Levi’s 13 year old daughter who had just finished her school exams and was earning extra money. At first, I was concerned, because she wasn’t much bigger than me and thin. My camera bag, at 15 lbs., was heavy for me to carry. She did fine. The hike was up a 1,200 ft., narrow, sometimes slippery, trail. Matter of fact, she kept me on my feet and pulled me when needed, while Ephaim pushed me from behind. So, I used two porters! Along the way, we passed a banana grove where we saw an outdoor banana beer brewery. Bananas are used to make beer and gin here. There was a large dugout log, with handles and another that would sit on top of it with a sheet metal cover, for fermentation. There was also a young boy who was carving silverback gorillas of different sizes along the trail, using handmade tools and using his foot to brace the piece he was working on. He really was very talented.
We were met by the Batwa after an hour’s walk, uphill, from Buhoma. I am 4’8” and it did not go unnoticed by the pygmies, as they average about 4’9. They were dressed in bark cloth clothes, and gave us a tour of how their parents, and those before them had lived. Using Levi as an interpreter, they told the story of how they used to live in the forest and showed us the herbs they would find for medicinal uses. They showed us how they made fire by rolling a stick between their hands on top of another stick and adding the embers to a dried grass bundle, and blowing on it to create fire. Then, an elder (I believe his name is Elfas) took the smoking bundle and climbed up a tree using vines wrapped around the trunk as a makeshift ladder to show us how they would smoke bees out of a hive, so that they could collect honey. We walked right past a hide-a-way where a couple of elder Batwa women were concealed in plain sight (I believe one of the women was named Mamia.) They showed us how they hunted using snares and traps and showed us how they gave offerings at a shrine to their god nestled under a bush. It was explained that they would bury their dead by wrapping them tightly in grass and tucking them under a bush with their eyes facing upwards, and then they would leave them there and never return. They told us that they slept in caves, grass-thatched huts, or tree-houses built of leaves and branches. They often used fallen trees as temporary shelters with ferns used as cushions at night and a fire would be lit to keep warm and ward off wild animals.
Then they pointed up at a tree house. About eight Batwa exited and climbed down the ladder. Mark and I took turns climbing up to it and discovered a space that seemed only large enough for a couple of people. Hmm, how did they fit…magic? One of the younger girls was weaving a basket. They weave and sell baskets to sell to tourists for income. Then, we went to a large thatched hut where they played music and danced for us…and I joined them. They had bongos and an African thumb harp made from wood and thin metal strands that was surprisingly tuneful. It was the singing that dominated – a powerful, ecstatic blend of shrieks and ululating melodies. This forest was once their home, and now, even in these circumstances, the Batwa were back where they belonged. Then, Nyabingi, a medium of the Batwa deity made an appearance. As we looked closer, Nyabingi appeared to be one of the elders dressed in a thatched costume with a scary mouthpiece!
We were very much appreciative of the opportunity to meet Nyabingi, as she/he is very relevant in their culture and it is important to keep it part of the Batwa Cultural Experience. While it was fun for us, it was ritual for them. We ate our box lunches and then headed outside where they had a mock hunt where we each a turn in shooting a bow and arrow at a wooden goat. Mark did pretty well and I did not! They worship their God before going on a hunt and afterwards to offer gratitude. We took some group photos and said our goodbyes and headed back down the trail.
Once again, Medius and Ephaim kept me on my feet and Ephaim carried my camera when needed. We passed the boy carving gorillas again, and Levi talked with the boy and then took a small one and asked me to give it to our Levi as a gift. Then we passed by the orphanage school. There were lots of smiling children with colored pictures of gorillas that they had laid out for us to admire. I presume the idea was that we would buy one from them, but we were tired and ready to get back to camp. We did a quick look with a smile, and told them how beautiful their art was, and continued on our way. Back at the meeting place, near the sacred fig tree, we paid our porters and told them how appreciative we were. Rogers was there to pick us up and took us back to Sanctuary. We had a nice evening.
The Batwa Cultural Experience isn’t just for tourists like us, it’s also for Batwa children. During school holidays, Levi brings them to this living museum where the elders demonstrate their traditions, hoping they will be able to retain a connection to the past and keep the culture alive for future generations. When we returned home I did some research on Nyabingi and the Batwa. It’s fascinating! ~ Mary & Mark
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