They’re Why I Do What I Do

Bwindi Community HospitalThe Bwindi Community Hospital was a bumpy, rugged 12-hour drive from my home base near Kampala, Uganda. It’s about a mile from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where I went on my gorilla trek. The hospital cares for many of the Batwa, possibly the Earth’s oldest people, who lived in the forest until they were forced out.

They’re the perfect example of why I’m doing what I’m doing.

When I spoke with their elders, they were very eager to tell me their story.

The country asked them to leave their own land and accused them of devastating the habitat of the gorillas.

Meanwhile, they’re the original guardians of the forest, and lived side-by-side with the gorillas for probably 50,000 years.

The reality is the country wants them out so there’s room for expansion into the forest.

But the Batwa are the most gentle people. They were all smiling and talking excitedly when I met them.

Dr. Sears in a treeSome of the Batwa live in tree houses high off the ground like this one I climbed to see.

The Batwa who still live in the forest have to stay in a small part of the Bwindi Forest park, near the entrance. It was one of their favorite hunting grounds before they were forced to leave the place where they had lived since humans appeared on Earth.

As small as it is, it’s a beautiful and lush rainforest with gigantic trees and steep hillsides to climb.

Some of the Batwa live right under the trunks of trees in hollowed-out and damp spaces.

But some live in huts built a dozen feet or more up in the trees to keep wild animals from wandering in while they’re sleeping.

Of course, there are still snakes. But the Batwa don’t harm snakes or gorillas. They’re considered servants of the Earth, too, and they just chase them (inzoka, they’re called) away.

The elders also showed me plants growing in and around the forest that they use for treating bites and scratches, fevers, stomach pain, and diseases like malaria.

Batwa PetitionThe Batwa are gathering names on a petition to try to get the Ugandan government to let them return to their ancestral lands.

They have a tremendous knowledge of the forest. Unfortunately, all of that knowledge will be lost, even to them, within a generation.

Not all of the Batwa people can live in the 100-acre area allowed them by the government. Most Batwa live outside the forest and live a kind of nomadic life. They are forced into being sharecroppers on land owned by other people just outside the boundaries of the forest.

The Batwa have created their own organization called the United Organization for Batwa Development and have started to gather a petition to send to parliament to request that they return to their land.

Batwa BookI even found a book on the Batwa, but it’s out of print, and the owner wouldn’t sell this one to me…

They make a point of asking why, for example, are the wild animals being protected with guns, yet they are suffering?

And they’re losing their culture and their knowledge the longer they’re forced to live outside of the forest.

It’s a shame because I feel it’s been a privilege for me to meet one of the oldest peoples on Earth. They are almost unchanged from the Stone Age, and they’re one of the last peoples who were born and raised in a habitat unchanged in thousands of years. And that will soon be gone.

They’re an incredible people, and I’m lucky to have met them. Later this week, I’ll tell you about some of the other unique Africans I’ve met. One is a 90-year-old healer who has been practicing herbal medicine for over 70 years.