Dear reader, allow us to transform your mind into a supersonic airplane and fly you to the remote areas of a continent of your choice: Africa, America or Australia. No matter which one you opt for, sooner or later you will land near a cluster of shanties, makeshift homes or houses that whisper — or scream — “poverty”.
Welcome to the world of the indigenous peoples.
Here, the atmosphere of hopelessness breeds alcoholism and similarly destructive habits that are painfully hard to escape … and automatically lead to more hopelessness. The common denominator is really not that hard to identify: all these ethnic groups were once upon a time involved in an almost-fatal accident. They were ran over by the truck called “Civilisation”, survived unlike some others, but never truly recovered. The spine injuries to their culture have been particularly hard to heal.
* * *
Now direct your mental aircraft to the centre of the African continent, to the Virungas. This mountain range of five dormant and two active volcanoes divides and unifies Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Gorilla Highlands region. Your airport: Uganda’s Kisoro.
You are 27 years late, otherwise you would find a crafty ethnic group wandering in the forests at the base of the volcanoes. The Batwa men used to attach bells to their hunting dogs, making the woods known as the “domain of the bells”, while their women gathered fruits. … Until they were told by the government to, well, get lost. All in the name of gorilla conservation!
There was no land waiting for them outside, no money to help them start a different life, nothing. Their livelihood, their sacred sites, their graves suddenly out of bounds. It didn’t help that other Ugandan tribes considered them sub-human and somewhat magical; individuals suffering from backache would seek sex with Batwa women expecting to get cured.
Over the next three decades, some things have changed. The guardians of the national parks formed in 1991 have realised Batwa could be/should be/must be granted some access, and that their “Pygmy” fame could be packaged into tourism products that would generate income. Non-governmental organisations have fundraised for plots of land to be purchased for lucky communities. Well-wishers’ sponsorships have lifted the number of university-educated Batwa kids into the double digits.
The situation of general misery, however, remains unchanged, and severe… Without any Batwa-specific intervention by the Government of Uganda, it’s mostly up to devoted individuals to try to change something.
Let’s meet one of them; he has come by plane too. A real one, from the UK.
* * *
Praveen Moman probably wouldn’t be flying from Europe if it wasn’t for Idi Amin. In the 1970s, Uganda’s notorious dictator chased Praveen’s family away, together with the rest of the Asian community. Uganda-born and Uganda-raised till his teenage years, Praveen became Cambridge-educated and an advisor on politics and policy to the British Government and the European Union.
Yet the love for Uganda’s tantalising tropical nature that field trips with his dad instilled in young Praveen’s heart never wilted. In the 1990s he returned to become a pioneer of gorilla tourism, living between Kampala, Kigali and London. A luxury lodge under Mt Gahinga was one of his investments.
“From the first time I came to Kisoro and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, I was aware that there were these so called Pygmies, the Batwa communities, who seemed to be destitute, who seemed to be begging. For a long time you ignore them and you don’t think about them and then suddenly you think, well, let me look into this…” says Praveen.
What Praveen saw wasn’t pretty and five years ago he sprang into action. His Volcanoes Safaris created a Batwa vocational centre and a heritage trail next to Gahinga Lodge. But, honestly, we all know what the landless need most…
* * *
We are now hovering in the air over a little forest separating Mt Gahinga Lodge from the dark volcanic road that takes you to the gates of the national park. It is 2017 and on a small oval clearance the Batwa are showing something important to Praveen and an architect named Felix Holland.
Felix was a German backpacker making it through Africa when he got stuck in Uganda in 2004, just like a number of travellers before him. His Studio FH has been helping Praveen with lodge refurbishments for years and now there’s a chance to do some volunteering too. Felix is excited, his firm always wants to be doing at least one pro-bono project at a time, and the “Gahinga Batwa Village” fits just perfectly.
But but but … how will a family fit into this? The Batwa have built a model house from branches and leaves, and from outside it looks super tiny. On the inside, however, it has well conceived functional compartments, and an extra gate at the back as culture demands.
Still, the Batwa architects agree with Felix and Praveen that the finalised houses should be a little bigger (they eventually double in size) and accept that the tin sheets would be covered with papyrus (to make them look more authentic).
In terms of their arrangement Praveen and Felix have only one request: let them please not be lined up as some military barracks.
* * *
The following year, on 31 May 2018, the Gahinga Batwa Village is a reality, set on the 10-acre plot a 15-minute walk away. The Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, assisted by the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund, has helped create a permanent village for a hundred people.
Its only fancy feature is the pleasant circular community centre, based on the traditional typology of a forest dwelling. This is where the crowd is heading at the moment.
The Function. Business as usual.
Government officials will talk and talk (spending 10% on thank-yous and 90% on give-us-mores) and then we will all eat a lot and definitely drink some obushera too. We will instead fast-forward to the moment Dr. Johannes Refisch, the program manager of Great Apes Survival Partnership, says that a tourism investor like Praveen is so rare that he should really be cloned…
Volcanoes Safaris has three lodges in Uganda and one in Rwanda. Each of them comes with a community project attached through the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust; at Bwindi youngsters get trained in hospitality at a funky bar, at Virunga a sheep giving project provides livestock, Kyambura has a women’s coffee cooperative. Gahinga now supports three projects.
“Each company must do what they believe is right. We do what we do. For me who was born here and is connected to this area for a long time, I would like to link our lodges to our neighbours, to our communities. The whole supply chain of conservation, tourism and community development has to be connected in some very tangible way,” says Praveen.
* * *
This not-so-short story has tried to stay away from what is covered in the Instagram-long video that accompanies it. Yet Jane Nyirangano’s quote simply calls to be repeated:
“Now we are not left behind anymore.”
The fundamental thing for any indigenous group (and any human to be precise) is to feel like … people. To have self-respect, in other words. Without that, no real social or economic development will take place.
Wherever you take your plane of thoughts and car of actions from here, dear reader, please remember that.
text and video: Miha Logar; photos: Studio FH
Gorilla Highlands blog essentials: