Batwa “Pygmies”: History and Present

The Batwa “Pygmies” are one of the oldest peoples in Africa and their origin is unknown. They were hunter-gatherers, roaming the forests in bands foraging for honey, wild yams, fruit, stems and tubers, and hunting small game with trained dogs. They were highly skilled bowmen. Today, the Batwa live as a unified group mainly in people’s imagination. 

In all the three countries of our region, the Batwa have lost free access to their ancient homes — the rainforests that are national parks and reserves now. There has been no compensation; they are now marginalised and suffer from landlessness, poverty, lack of education and health care. For the Gorilla Highlands Initiative, improving the economic status and self-respect of Batwa communities has been one of our main motives. 

In this article, we want to share some facts with you that show the reality of the Batwa people, without romanticising them. 

Pygmies or “Pygmies”?

The word pygmy is originally derived from a Greek term — the distance between the wrist and the elbow — and when early Greek writers were talking about a mythical race of small people they called them “Pygmies”.

It wasn’t until mid 19th century that Europeans discovered hunter-gatherers in central Africa and they named them after this mythical race. So “Pygmies” came to be used by early visitors and settlers and certainly has colonial baggage attached to it. Later on it was used within eugenics (racial hierarchical theories of humanity and civilisation), further making it potentially racist or historically discriminatory. At a local level “Pygmy” can also be a word used to discriminate against ethnic groups like the Batwa, so for many communities and for many situations the term “Pygmy” is not one which should be used.

However, particularly in French-speaking central Africa where it has been used much more, many Pygmy communities use the term as a collective definition.

Origin Myths

A Batwa origin myth relates that God tested three brothers, Gutwa, Guhutu and Gututsi, with a calabash of milk each and told them they could not drink it for one night. Gutwa drank his share immediately, Guhutu did not drink it but fell asleep and spilled half of it, while Gututsi successfully passed the test. As a result God gave him dominion over cattle, he gave the Guhutu the next best, dominion over farming, and banished Gutwa to the forest. 

This myth is obviously of pastoral origin (note Tutsi/Hutu roots of brothers’ names) but has passed into Batwa culture, reflecting their understanding of fate, to which they have become submissive. Variants of this story and other similar tales can also be understood as cultural propaganda extolling superiority of other ethnic groups. 

If it had been written from a hunter gatherer perspective then Gutwa would have been the winner as he rejected useless food and was rewarded with the forest’s bounty while cattle and crop farmers were punished by having to work for their food.

Social Structure

The Batwa lived in simple circular huts made from branches with grass for the roof and walls. Even before the end of their forest life in the 20th century, they had long been integrated into the agricultural societies surrounding their woods — barter with outside groups was based on wild food, animal hides, baskets and pots for salt, cattle and farm products, iron weapons and alcohol.

We have to look to existing hunter gatherer groups in DR Congo to understand more about the Batwa’s past. Forest hunter gatherers were originally egalitarian with no one person or group being more powerful than another. Traditionally they were divided into bands (a unit smaller than clan but larger than a nuclear family) who were territorially separate. Bands did not own land but did have detailed land use practices that included areas which were taboo to enter and acted as conservation zones where the animals were left unhindered.

Harmony and balance with their world is a key priority amongst most hunter gatherer groups. Amongst the Mbuti “Pygmies” in Congo any changes in the balance are solved through processes that include arbitration, demand sharing and peer pressure which often amounts to public ridicule. If, for example, a hunter came back to camp, proud of his catch, other community members might ridicule his pride. They do that so that he doesn’t feel superior or use his hunting skills to create a position of authority.

Elders are not politically dominant in central African hunter gatherer groups; they only give advice and knowledge based upon their experience. Decisions are instead taken by the younger generation as the future and the decisions they make are theirs to live.

Hunting & Gathering

The Batwa hunted animals (pigs, duiker, buffalo and birds) with bows and arrows, often with dogs. The Virunga volcanoes were referred to as the Domain of Bells after the bells that dogs wore to alert their Batwa owners to their location.

It is reported that bush pigs often attacked the dogs when they heard the bells and hunters in ambush would promptly spear them. Poison for their arrows was made from tree bark and stinging ants. Another method was to wait on a branch overlooking a game trail and dropping a loaded spear onto an animal.

Hunting expeditions were a group activity; communication was by hand signals and bird-like whistles. Sometimes expeditions would last a week or more, when animals were skinned and dried before being brought home for ease of carrying. There were strict rules for sharing game among the hunters and their families. Meat was about 25% of their diet whilst the rest was made up of various roots, fruits and tubers largely collected by the women.

Hunting was seen as a joint activity between men and women, the latter would sing songs imagining that an animal would be at a certain place; the role of the man was to collect it.

The Batwa’s favourite food was and still is honey, which they treated as a special gift from God. They collected honey from several types of bees who had either hives in trees or underground. The latter were stingless and were subdivided by sweetness and ease of collection; some caused illness if eaten in large quantities. When found, everything but the comb was eaten.

Beliefs & Rituals 

The Batwa believe in a Supreme Being and Creator called Imaana (Nagaasan) who gives children, food and protection. The chameleon was treated as sacred as it climbed the highest trees and came closest to God. Sacrifices of meat, drink and blood were offered in special huts to animal spirits. Many hunters were infused with this spirit when they killed a particular species, especially if it was accompanied with some strange sign in the animal when it was being dissected.

A newborn baby often had a miniature bow and arrows placed in its hand for protection. Infants were breast-fed for a long time, which also acted as form of birth control. The education of children was the collective responsibility of the band; boys and girls learnt from adult activities of hunting, gathering and homemaking.

They were primarily monogamous, except when a woman was barren, and sometimes practised barter marriage whereby families exchanged girls, though informal love marriages were the most common. On marriage day the two families celebrated with the two women facing one another in recognition of their shared kinship and destiny. The father introduced the bride to the family spirits.

Bride purchase was not practised as it was believed to promote discord between families, though gifts of honey and wild animal meat was expected (nowadays goats are common). The most popular wild animal was the flying squirrel that lives in tree holes and could only be captured with tree fronds when emerging; a very difficult task. The meat was highly prized and often reserved for elders, and on marriage it was given to the future mother-in-law. Adultery was forbidden.

Cremation or burial of the deceased in huts was the norm: thereafter the place was avoided. Other traditional places of burial included caves and rock crevices. Afterwards a medicine man would anoint the hearth and distribute medicine to the bereaved to prevent the deceased from causing disturbance.

Recently burial of family members has become a problem since they do not have access to their tradional grounds and are forced to bury their dead within their very small plots and continue living there. Anti-pollution rituals that they have learnt from other groups are not always acceptable.

featured photo by Robert Brierley; others by Marcus Westberg

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