I Met the Original Hunters

The gorillas were incredible, and even though I felt sad for them, I’m still happy to be one of the last generations of humans who will ever see them in the wild.

We will either have to repopulate them somewhere or we’ll only see them in captivity. Gorillas produce maybe five offspring in their lives, and only one or two survive. That’s not even enough to replace the current population.

They could disappear in our lifetime.

But they’re not the real reason I came to Africa.

I wanted to see the original people of the region, the Batwa. They are the oldest connection we have to what it means to be from the birthplace of humankind. They have survived from the Stone Age, and still use some of those tools.

The Batwa used to live in small communities – maybe 25-30 people – ruled by chiefs.

They lived freely in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until 1991 when they were “asked to leave” by the Ugandan government. The government accused them of burning trees, bringing in outsiders who were illegally harvesting animal and agricultural products from the forest, and threatening the gorillas and other wildlife.

Which is ridiculous, because gorillas and snakes are considered taboos and were never taken for food.

And even though they are “pygmoid” – they’re very short, and none of the Batwa I saw were even five feet tall – they are hunters.

Dr. Sears and Batwa in treeThe Batwa still live right in the forest. Some in huts, some under the trunks of trees in hollowed-out and damp spaces.

Not hunter-gatherers, but hunters. They do forage for some fruit and wild honey. But they ate meat. They don’t mention anything else.

When I spoke to the elders, they came to life when they started to talk about hunting. Everything they have, all their wealth and happiness, is related to hunting. It was their culture.

The elders are trying to keep their culture alive. They live at the edge of the Bwindi forest park and have daily rituals and history lessons in their traditional way of life in the forest.

The people showed me how they hunted and prayed and built their shelters, and how they stayed healthy and treated the sick with plants found in their forest.

They even taught me how to make one of their bows. How to carefully string and bend the wood. And then we went hunting.

I shot at a wild boar… and I actually hit it! That brought a lot of cheers from the elders. But my arrow bounced off its hide. So much for my hunting skills.

The chief told me it’s important for them to remember how to hunt, though – and their way of surviving in the forest – for the time “when they will be asked to return to their forest.”

But you and I both know that’s never going to happen. They live on a hundred acres set aside for them, but they are the last.

The elders can tell me firsthand how they lived and thrived on only plants and animals contained in their forest. Yet, in a single generation it will no longer be possible to speak with that contact.

When they die, the culture will be lost. Because the reality is that the country wants to expand and cut down their habitat.

The Batwa have been displaced, reducing them to squatters on other people’s land and begging for survival.

Batwa eldersThe Batwa elders are trying hard to keep their culture alive. One elder (on right) told me he hoped “to be asked to return to the forest.”

The Batwa were all smiles when I met them, and very kind… but I got the same feeling I had when I encountered the gorillas. I was sad that they don’t live freely in the original environment.

I felt privileged to know them and to learn from them. It reminded me not to forget how fortunate I am. And that the reason I travel around the world is to take the opportunity to study and learn from these ancient cultures.

One of the things I was fortunate to learn from the Batwa elders was how they use the forest for their tools, food and medicine. They are widely considered extremely knowledgeable about forest lore and in the use of plants for healing.

The one they probably use the most is the bark of the Ocotea tree. They use it to treat stomach aches, and if you make a tea or formula strong enough, it will kill stomach parasites, too.

The Ocotea tree is a member of the Lauraceae family. Extract of the bark is also strong anti-inflammatory medicine as well.1

Usually, I would be able to tell you how to get the bark or its extract and make the tea… but this is one of the reasons it’s so important to cherish these people’s knowledge while we can. Because this particular tree only grows in Bwindi. No extract is manufactured from the tree. And soon, the knowledge of how to make the bark tea will be gone.

A couple of other tourists and Europeans thought it was good that the Batwa were keeping their culture alive on the land set aside for them.

But as we left and the Batwa thanked us for allowing them to share their life and culture, I couldn’t help but feel I was speaking with a people born and raised in the forest… and in 20 years, they will be gone.

1. Coy-Barrera E, Cuca-Suarez L. “In vitro anti-inflammatory effects of naturally occurring compounds from two Lauraceae plants.” An Acad Bras Cienc. 2011 Dec;83(4):1397-402.