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Blog 13/03/2020

Gorilla and community conservation in Uganda

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Tucked away off a narrow, muddy track, the Virunga Volcanoes looming large on the horizon, Gahinga Lodge is one of Uganda’s premier five-star lodges. Run by tour operator Volcanoes Safaris, since 1997 it has been the base for intrepid travellers looking for close encounters with endangered mountain gorillas and rare golden monkeys in the adjacent Mgahinga National Park. 2020 will see the completion of a four-year renovation project, with its communal areas and traditional bandas getting a luxurious makeover.

By Joe Minihane

However, it’s its work with the indigenous Batwa community that has seen Gahinga Lodge become a cornerstone of a growing effort to bring guests closer to the local people in this beguiling corner of East Africa. The lodge offers a Batwa experience, where visitors can meet and learn about their past and how they are looking to take charge of their future.

The Batwa, once known as pygmies, were the oldest inhabitants of the Central African rainforest, which spreads across the south west of Uganda and through neighbouring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But when Mgahinga was designated as a national park by the Ugandan government in 1991, the Batwa were forcibly removed from the land they had called home for millennia. No compensation was paid, with pressure to conserve the critically endangered population of mountain gorillas trumping the needs of the indigenous population.

Traditionally hunter gatherers, the Batwa, who are thought to number around 6,200, just 0.2 per cent of Uganda’s entire population, were forced to work as farm labourers, finding themselves homeless and living as refugees in their own country. The skills which they had used in the forest were in danger of being lost as the need to survive became paramount.

Recognizing that the Batwa needed to be the focal point of conservation in Uganda, Volcanoes Safaris’ founder, Praveen Moman, set about finding a way to give Batwa who lived close to Gahinga Lodge a chance to rekindle their skills and take advantage of the area’s growing popularity with tourists. In 2017, Volcanoes Safaris, through its Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT), purchased 13 acres of land close to Gahinga Lodge, building 100 homes to house 18 Batwa families. There’s a vocational centre where a nurse visits once a month, with space for tribal meetings and dancing. Most important of all, it abuts the forest itself, giving the Batwa a tangible sense of being close to home.

The majority of our guests do most of the Batwa experiences. As a principle we do not ask our guests to contribute any money specifically to visit the Batwa as we do not wish to monetise their interaction with the Batwa. If they wish to donate separately this can be done online.

Praveen Moman, Volcanoes Safaris’ founder

Walking out of Gahinga Lodge towards the Batwa village, I get chatting with Herbert Mfitundida, Community Manager for VSPT. Mfitundida works as a co–ordinator between the Batwa and VSPT, with four Batwa tribespeople working at the lodge itself. We’re on our way to speak with the Batwa, with the chance to see what guests see when they take part in the Batwa experience offered by the lodge. “We’re trying to bridge the gap between conservation and communities,” explains Mfitundida as we pass across neatly ploughed fields and pass through a recently laid wall into the village, dozens of children running to greet us.

Behind the youngsters stands Safari Monday, the chief of this Batwa tribe. Monday moved with his people from makeshift shelters in Musasa, 4km away, to the village when it opened three years ago. Mfitundida acts as translator, with Monday speaking Rufumbira, a local dialect.

Monday explains that his tribe can no longer enter the forest they once called home. “The forest is heavily guarded, we know we could be shot. But I understand the restrictions. I don’t think about it.”

Instead, he immediately turns his attention to the vocational centre, displaying an intense pride at this, the heart of his new village. The people still eke out a living working on farms, or growing their own crops, but the beautiful handicrafts made here are sold to tourists, including those staying at Gahinga Lodge, with 100 per cent of the profits going straight to Batwa families.

The birth of the village and its alliance with Gahinga Lodge has also meant that Monday and his fellow Batwa have been able to pass down their traditional knowledge to the younger generation. Later that day, on a short trail within the hotel’s grounds, Monday and some young members of his tribe show the bow and arrow methods they used to hunt prey and the simple homes they built in the forest.

It’s clearly not a substitute for the real thing. But the increased knowledge of the Batwa’s plight, and the fact that guests have an opportunity to give directly either via online contributions or through the purchase of goods made by Batwa people, appears to be giving them the boost they have so desperately needed for so long.

Mfitundida explains that having been pushed to the fringes of society, the Batwa here have not been able to take advantage of more lucrative work as porters and guides in the Mgahinga National Park, due to a lack of education. That, he says, is slowly changing, with children attending school and learning modern farming methods.

The long-term prospects for the wider Batwa community remain uncertain. But in this beautiful corner of Uganda, there is hope that tourism can play its part in creating a brighter future.

* Photo credits: Black Bean Productions, Craig Howes, Michael Turek, Robin Francois, Sinamatella.

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