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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Holyoak

Uganda: Off to see the Pygmies

I can't think of anything more excitng than visiting a place I've never been, experiencing a way of life competely outside my comfort zone and walking a path with those who know little about the life I am so accustomed to. Travel is an education for living. It has opened my eyes, touched my soul, increased my spirituality and helped me better appreciate life in countires I know little about. After experiencing first-hand the silverback gorillas, we were ready for another new adventure. It was a beautiful day, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. What more could we ask for? We were anxious to see what the rest of the day would bring with Alexander, our guide.

Tourism is important so guides speak English.

Right away he taught us to say "aganda" to those we would meet and to say "neiguie" when they greeted us.

Now if you were to ask me today how to pronounce those words, I don't have a clue because my 76 year old brain has obviously shrunk.

We left the main street of Bwindi and ventured to places we would otherwise never be able to see in a vehicle because there are no roads, only paths.

This was our footpath. As you can see, the area is green and lush. Since Africans live off the land, all types of vegetation is found. Alexander said that our walk to the village of the pygmies would be about half an hour but after several hours, we realized he must have been talking "African time". During that time we saw what every day life is like in this part of a third-world country and loved every minute of it.

Women are domestic and the backbone of the community, raising their families, working the land, tending to their animals, fetching water and cooking. They also provide substantial economical contributions to their familes as well as tend to community needs. Men are expected to make most of the decisions and women are to be submissive under their leadership. Are you already exhausted?

Hanging clothes on a line to dry is great but having to hand wash everything in a plastic pan is certainly not very desirable! To say the least, woman work very hard.

This house is made of mud bricks.

I wonder if the big bad wolf from the "Three Little Pigs" could blow this house down?

These adobe bricks were curing to be used for building homes. If you look at the left side under the woven roof, you will see a hollowed out log for making banana beer.

This is a typical home with mud floors. The houses are built of adobe bricks covered with another layer of mud as plaster.

It doesn't matter where you live and in what country, teenage girls love to socialize with each other.

Alexander explained it takes about five years for a coffee tree to bear its first full crop of beans.

Coffee plant in bloom
Coffee beans drying before they are ground.

When the coffee berries (beans) turn red, they are ready to harvest then laid out on the ground to dry before they are ground and packaged.

The dried coffee beans are ready to be ground.

Grinding coffee beans in preparation for them to be packaged to sell.
This beautiful woman greeted us with "Agande."
Banana trees are plentiful in Bwindi.

Bananas are the staple food throughout much of Uganda and a primary source of food. They are steamed, mashed, roasted, fried, and turned into juice, beer and spirits.

This native was getting bananas ready to make banana beer. Ripe bananas (but not overly ripe ones) are put in a pit lined with dried banana leaves. A fire is lit in a small ditch next to the hole and the heat from the fire enters the hole containing the bananas. Fresh banana leaves are then laid on top of the hole and more unripe bananas, leaves and trunks are added.

After 4 to 6 days, the bananas are ripe enough to be peeled and mashed to produce banana juice which is then put into a cut out log to ferment. The juice is then filtered and diluted with one part water to three parts juice. Ground sorgham flour is lightly roasted and then added to the juice which acts as a leavening agent that produces gas bubbles and causes the juice to ferment. After 24 hours, it is filtered again then stored away from direct sunlight in a cool location. Banana beer is orange in color, sweet in flavor and about 5% alcohol but banana gin is clear and has a much higher alcohol content. This is a common drink for the natives.

Bananas fermenting to make beer.

Cooking beans and rice is part of every day life in Bwindi.

Villagers were most welcoming and allowed us to see inside their "kitchen". Cooking is very crude and their diet consists mainly of fruit, green banans, chipati (similar to a tortilla) and Kolo. Kolo is a root which is groud into flour, mixed with water and then cooked.

We visited a school on our walk. The director showed us all around and explained it was a school set up from donations and then asked for a donation. Three hundred and forty children are boarded here along with about 30 orphans.

Written on the blackboard were the words to the 1881 American tune, "Row, row, row your boat."

This orphan girl followed us along the way and we wished we could have spoken her language so we could communicate with her. I kept looking back at her while we were walking because I didn't want her to get lost. Alexander said I shouldn't worry and she was probably hoping we would give her money or some candy.

We made a short visit to the Bwindi Community Hospital and the School of Nursing.

Mural painted on the wall.

We saw this mother holding her newborn baby. It was interesting to learn that most of the patients admitted were having stomach problems, the common cause from eating too many green bananas.

When pregant women get close to delivering, they wait up to one week outside the hospital and sleep on the grass.

The hospital was pathetic! Patients must take their own food, bedding and a mattress because they are only provided a bed of uncovered springs . . . unbelievable to see!

As we continued our walk, we came across some men who had a handmade wooden bike. Talk about being inventive and resourceful! When I asked Alexander if I could ride it, I think he was surprised but asked the owner who was willing to let me try. I'm sure they thought it was hilarious to see an old lady trying to ride their bike because they were smiling from ear to ear.

The bike was so heavy I found it difficult to keep my balance and am sure I could go much faster on foot.

We came across this beautiful black tea farm.

Over recent years, the cultivation of tea has exploded in Uganda and has become an increasingly valuable export. Tea is considered a good "buffer crop" because gorillas and apes don't feed on it. The gorillas are now at a greater risk as tea farms will eventually obliterate the adjacent Kafuga Forest, located on the southern fringes of the national park. The Kafuga Forest is part of the buffer zone for the Bwindi National Park and the 200 newly established tea nurseries will deprive the gorillas of food, herbs, and clean water they need and can potentially expose them to disease. Unfortunately for the gorillas and their human neighbors, the species isn’t staying put and they are under threat from tea farming. Before the covid outbreak, tourism gave hope as it provided funding and enabled rangers and communities a solid line of protection. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, toursim has been suspended and has had huge financial implications for the parks. Right now they are in an even more desperate situation.

In my previous blog entry, I explained that the Inpenetrable National Park is an island of 128 miles

surrounded by a dense population of natives and with an estimated 400 of the silverback gorillas within the park’s borders. Anthropolgists are concerned this is going to have a great affect upon the population of the silverbacks in the future.

Farming black tea:

Alexander explained that only the new growth and most tender leaves were picked and a worker can earn about $9/day. The tea leaves are put into bags and weighed. Tea pickers are paid by the number of pounds and can fill about 8 - 9 bags each day.

After the leaves are picked, they are spread out on tarps or mats to dry before being packaged for shipment.

We saw pineapple, known as “Enanansi” and that sweet fruit generates a lot of income for farmers who grow it. Every meal we ate while staying in Bwindi consisted of fresh fruit and vegetables grown locally.

After several hours of walking, we are headed up the mountain to find where the pygmies live. The rain forest is so dense you can't see anything until you are almost upon it.

The tribe we were going to see was the Batwa pygmie tribe. Pyrgmies are believed to be some of the first inhabitants of the earth and the original inhabitants of East Africa’s Great Lakes. They were the protectors of the forest, the "hunter-gatherers" and literally the guardians or "keepers of the forest" before they were pushed to the outskirts of Bwindi forest. To the Batwa, the forest was everything. It provided them with meat, honey and fruits to eat, animal skins to keep them warm, herbs to treat their illnesses and they believe spirits of their ancestors were still there to protect them. They were friendly to the gorillas, never hunting them and lived side-by-side them in caves and trees for thousands of years. However, their snares and traps were dangerous to the gorillas and were feared to spread respiratory diseases.

In 1991, they were evicted from the forest and given refugee status. The marginalization of this ancient group was one of great sadness because they were only accustomed to living and surviving in the jungle and certainly not prepared for this change. They were never compensated with land by the government so most live as squatters to local landowners.

After about 3 hours hiking, we came to the area where this pygmie tribe lived. We were greeted by members of the tribe with great curiousity and it came as no surprise when they began begging for money. We assured them we would "donate" something but could not give them money. Alexander had warned us and said, "If you give them money, they will buy alcohol to get drunk." (Probably banana beer or gin?)

Alexander introduced us in Batwa language to this 73 year old woman. She was very small, her skin was weathered and it was obvious she had lived a very harsh life. There were about 35 in this tribe and this woman showed us inside her hut and took us all around their village.

Alexander said that this particular tribe was given a small plot of land and are not allowed to hunt outside the boundaries of it. They trade with neighboring farmers to acquire cultivated foods and other items and some work as laborers at surrounding farms.

Her hut was made of banana leaves, durable plants, sticks, vines and leaves. When a structure becomes no longer livable, they build another one. It rains often and with blowing winds, it is easy to understand that these structures aren't very durable to weather the elements.

The hut was very small and even she had to bend down to walk inside. I doubt we have ever seen anything more third-world than this! She showed us all around and when we asked where their Chief was, she said he was in the tree sleeping.

The Chief of the tribe always sits higher than those in his tribe. They have no religion but when they gather together, this native showed us where the chief sits. He pretty much stays in his tree all day long. Hmmm. . .I wonder if rain falls from the tree like it did when we visited the silverback gorillas? :)

The chief was not available because he was in a drunken sleep. He has four wives and any or all the money they earn is usually spent on alcohol.

They hunt antelope which they call "bambooties."

This tribesman showed us how he hunts with a bow and poison arrow. Pygmies don't use guns because they are afraid of them. Most contemporary Pygmy groups are only partially foragers and trade with neighbouring farmers to acquire cultivated foods and other material items. Survival is based on hunting bush meat and gathering edible fruits from their surroundings.

This was the hut of another pygmie and much larger than the first one we saw. It was also built with bamboo and palm leaves which made it stronger.

This is how they start a fire and it reminded me of the reality show, "Naked and Afraid."

A pygmie's height is unusually short where adult men average less than 4' 11" tall. There are various theories that explain their short stature. One theory suggests that it could be related to adaptation to low ultraviolet light levels in the rain forests. This might mean that relatively little Vitamin D can be made in humans, therefore limiting calcuim from their diet for bone growth and leading to their small skeletal size.

Pygmies are very shy and do not speak English so Alexander interpreted for us. They are illiterate and have no education. In 2007, an American couple donated $2,000 to build them a shelter for the tribe when it rains heavily. There they gather and to be protected. It had a tin roof and a few logs for benches. It was merely a shelter with a tin roof, no sides and some log benches where they could sit. We could not imagine this make-shift shelter could have cost $2,000 and we speculated the rest was spent on alcohol?

Alexander told us the tribe was prepared to entertain us with music and dancing so we went inside the lean-to shelter and sat down.

The pygmies sang and danced and were accompanied by drums made from hollowed out logs or gourds. It was all very interesting!

We saw only 15 pygmies and were told the others were out working.

"Give me five!"

After the program, the pygmies showed us some homemade crafts which we purchased: two dolls and a woven basket. Notice our height difference: Garth is 6' and I am 5' 7".

When leaving the tribe, we told them we would donate some food so a pygmie lead us to a small store in a village about one mile away. That was the only store in the area where natives could buy supplies. Notice the fresh eggs stashed in the bucket.

Bwindi's Walmart store

We paid $20 for a 20 lb. bag of flour and the pygmie put it on his head and carried it off. It gave me a headache just looking at him!

The pygmie was happy to get a bag of flour for his tribe.

What an amazing and most unforgettable day in Bwindi. In one day we saw the silverback gorillas, hiked to places where vehicles could never drive, visited a hospital, a school, a blacksmith, visited a pygmie village and experienced what every day life is like for natives who live in the surrounding area of Bwindi.

After walking 5 hours in the heat, we headed back to our room for a little supper and some rest. We were exhausted but thrilled by what we had experienced!

Alexander charged us $100 to take us to the pygmie village and said he gives 50% back to them so that one day they'll have enough money to build one good house for the tribe. (That is, if they don't give in and buy alcohol!)

 A great day with Alexander, our guide, in Bwindi.
We had a great day!

"Everyone has a purpose in life, a unique gift or special talent to give to others. And . . .when we blend this unique talent with service to others, we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals." Deepak Chopra

The next day we prepared for an eleven hour drive back to Kampala and to see some sites along the way before we returned to Arizona.

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