SABA Episode #10 — How to Be Good Partners to Batwa ‘Pygmies’?

For the tenth episode of SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA (we are now in the double digits!) I was sent on a mission to visit the Batwa “Pygmy” people of Echuya Forest on the Uganda-Rwanda border. Miha was attempting to kill two birds with one stone — introducing me to the realities of the Batwa and getting interviews done by somebody who spoke the language (well, at least in theory) — and I was happy to oblige!

He put me on a boda boda, a motorcycle taxi, and sitting on the back holding my guitar I had no idea it would be an hour’s ride! Some sections of the road were quite bumpy and dusty, but I have to say that it was also very very scenic …

… Definitely scenic enough to form the gist of this blog post! When the driver picked me up from Edirisa on Lake Bunyonyi, I still thought I would easily balance my phone needs, my body and my guitar but those hopes were squashed fast. I surrendered to the situation and enjoyed the environment around me.

I was taken through the villages and trading centres on the ridge of the mountains separating Bunyonyi from my home town Kabale, then back to the very shores of the lake. This is where I began regretting not having a proper bag for my favourite instrument … You know, one of those things on one’s eternal todo list.

At about the half-way point I stopped to take in the beauty, take a lot of photos and … take a breather! It was clear I wasn’t as physically fit as I would love to be. (I will blame the pandemic, ha ha.) When you are going up the hill, you kinda need to grip the sides of the motorcycle with your legs and my thigh muscles were quite worked up.

It was a special feeling to have the 25km/16mi long water body right by my side, as I was climbing the neck of the giant blue giraffe you can see on a map (or an upside down letter Y). This route leads to Muko in the north of Lake Bunyonyi, to the highway that connects Kabale to Kisoro. There aren’t many islands in this section of the lake but it is still more than pretty.

On the tarmac rain caught up with me. I regretted not embarking on the journey in the morning when weather tends to be better, but I do lead a busy life. This week is particularly challenging because of the death of our family friend Emmanuel Mutebire, the former Governor of the Bank of Uganda and the proprietor of Kyahugye Island. As siblings, parents, uncles and aunties descend on Kabale for the funeral, I am the designated host with lots to prepare.

Thankfully the shower didn’t last long, nor did the main road. After about 15 minutes we turned west, by the young bamboo stands of Echuya Forest. I was looking forward to getting into them but that was not to be, as you will learn from the podcast. (Did you really think I would tell you all my adventures in these few paragraphs? This post is about visuals and I have no photo of the huge man with the big stick who would threaten me in a matter of minutes.)

There’s a thing about old trees … They look different than what is all around us these days. Do you see them over there, mixed into the bamboo? I really wanted to get closer to them, but didn’t feel like paying a bribe. (OK, now I’m starting to reveal too much.) Do you also see some very tall people? These are the Bakiga, normal height in fact, while the Batwa are generally about a head shorter.

My guide Norah Kyabazaga first impressed me with her poise (Batwa women seem to be quite different to your standard African lady), then with many stories about herbs. I understood about 60% of that. Surprisingly to me, her language was a mixture of my language Rukiga and Kinyarwanda from the other side of the border. But I didn’t fret, I recorded her words for our Owen to translate later.

When we were done, we returned to the trading centre called Rwamahano where I was treated to a little concert by the Batwa. Beating a drum, dancing and singing, they created a jubilant environment. It didn’t take me long to grab my guitar and join in. The photo shows their chairman, Biraro, singing with me. By the way, I also got proposed to by a woman there and was flattered by the attention — until I learned more about cross-cultural relationships from Biraro.

We walked up the hill, to the Batwa place where we could sit down in peace and have a conversation. In the episode we distinguish between the “Batwa of Lake Bunyonyi” and the “Batwa of Echuya Forest” or “Rwamahano” but these new friends of mine very much live in the Bunyonyi area — astonishing views of the meandering lake are available, and equally special vistas of the Virunga Volcanoes above Echuya.

On arrival, the second part of the concert took place. You are going to need to head to the podcast to hear the music we created together … Funny, huh, how we don’t want to show you a video instead? We really believe in our audio production, and when you listen to a couple of episodes you will probably agree that we are creating something extraordinary.

The video camera Kedres Ndezigye is holding during my interview was nothing more than a backup voice recorder. It does happen that a gadget betrays us, so we always record double, or even triple. I talked to other people too … isn’t it high time for you to actually start the podcast at the top of this post and hear a summary of what they had to say? We ended up with hours of interesting materials that we had to distil to something close to our usual 30 minute limit. My story of the Batwa of Echuya is in fact just one piece in this week’s audio mosaic!


Gorilla Highlands region

Batwa “Pygmies”: History and Present

Mama Bena’s Bonus with the Batwa of Lake Bunyonyi

Batwa Today with the Batwa of Rwamahano

Batwa Blog Articles on the Old Gorilla Highlands Blog

Patron saint Festo Karwemera

Oruhindu, the Voice of Santa Barbara

featured photo by Marcus Westberg