Meeting the Batwas

Posted 21 June, 2007 by janette in Rwanda

Batwa elder Children swarm the matatu as we arrive at the Batwa village. These are the oldest recorded inhabitants of the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

The Batwa people, also known as Pygmies, have lived here for millenia as hunter gatherers. They have recently been forced out of the forest, because the other primates in the forest (gorillas and golden monkeys) are Rwanda’s strongest tourism draw.

The Batwa chief leads a group of 12 in a traditional song and dance. I’ve always hated the idea of the natives being trotted out to dance for the Europeans, but the beauty of the songs is deeply moving. And the lady elder with the maraca is immersed in the joy of the music.

The chief then lets us peak into a few of the homes. They are mud huts, and they smell of damp earth, wood smoke, and the eucalyptus leaves that they use to cushion their beds. Families with up to seven children live in each hut, which is smaller than a western double bedroom. (One wonders why they don’t stop at 2 or 3 children.)

The children are delighted to have their pictures taken and then see themselves on the LCD screen of the digital cameras. Soon my camera is taken over by a teenage boy, who turns the tables and starts taking pictures of us mizungus. At first his pictures are haphazard and off-center. But after taking several shots and checking the results, he takes a perfectly composed shot of one of the villagers who refused to let us outsiders photograph her.

This tribe used to have a male chief, but he drank away all of the village’s money. They’ve since elected a female chief, who leads the dancers. When the Batwa were forced out of the forest, they were not given enough land to farm to sustain themselves, so they now rely heavily on these tourist visits for income.

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