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How a Batwa pygmy tribe is returning to its forest traditions

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, displaced Batwa people are building a new home in the form of an eco-village. A year after first interviewing Mama Na Bana, an organisation which has helped this Indigenous Pygmy group build a new home, Lush Times writer Katie Dancey-Downs catches up with them again to find out how the project has changed

The powerful chest of a solitaire gorilla rises and falls as he sleeps on the forest floor of the Kahuzi Biega National Park. He stirs, and turns his head to see the visiting group of Batwa people standing about five metres away. The gorilla, known as Mugaruka, is serene and calm. He knows his strength, and he doesn’t need to show it. If he gets angry, some of the Batwa say, none of them will stand a chance.

This meeting with the gorilla has been a long time in the making. As the park ranger helps the Batwa find the gorilla using GPS, most of the Batwa walk through the forest barefoot, just like they would have when their people lived here in the past. Even now, after living outside the forest for so long, they are moving quicker than those in shoes. Their inherent connection to the forest is evident.

Around 40 years ago, the Batwa used to live in this forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), side-by-side with gorillas like Mugaruka. They were forced out by the Government in a bid to protect these gorillas, and the Batwa have since been subject to a number of human rights violations. Economically vulnerable, the people have been exploited for decades, often victims of armed conflict, slavery, or working long hours on farms in exchange for a minimum amount of food.

André Zigabe, a Bantu person (the ethnicity which these Batwa now live alongside), was with the Batwa when the park ranger took them to meet the gorilla. André is the project coordinator at Mama Na Bana, a group which is helping the Batwa to develop an eco-village nearby, which is serving as their new home.

“For them it is a reconnection to where they came from,” André explains.

“We do all we can for them to have a decent life, but the best thing to do for the Batwa would be to have them go back into the forest, but it’s not feasible due to the laws the Government adopted.”

The Batwa have been living outside the park for so long, André explains, that they have had to find ways to adapt to other cultures.

Roughly four kilometres from the park, is the eco-village that Mama Na Bana has helped the Batwa create. The land was purchased under Mama Na Bana’s name, with some of the Batwa on the deeds, but it will soon all be passed over to a legal entity representing the Batwa, called Muuma Atanyaka ‘O.M.A.’, which means “One person cannot succeed on their own.”

The project is being supported by Lush through its regenerative fund Re:Fund until the end of 2019, when it is hoped that the Batwa will be in a position to produce their own food, without external support.

Ecovillage in 2017

Becoming Caretakers of the Forest

“The Batwa are aware that they are the owners of the park. They know that. Even though there is a director of the park, they know the park belongs to them,” André says.

“But they also know that going back to the park is not easy. All they wish for, is to work in partnership with the park.”

While a complete return to the park is doubtful, there have been some promising developments. Mama Na Bana has been developing a relationship with the park director, who has said he now wants to visit the eco-village.

“He’s open to anything that is good for the project and the Batwa. I’m not just hopeful, I feel like something is going to be arranged with the park,” André says.

André hopes that, like some of the other Batwa in the region, people from the village might be employed as rangers or guards in the park, allowing them to be close to the forest and animals.

The park director has recently made a bold decision. He has agreed that the Batwa have permission to collect flora from the forest, so that they can create their own food forest at the eco-village. Mama Na Bana now wants to take this further, and explore opportunities for legislation that will properly protect their right to access the forest. This could be the start of protecting not only the Batwa, but other Indigenous communities.

This is also good news for Richard Cibulula, a Mama Na Bana team member who is working on the food production plan. Mama Na Bana had always hoped to build a food forest - a system of agroforestry designed to reflect the forest’s natural growth patterns and provide edible crops. Until now, this idea didn’t seem possible, but the park director’s decision has changed everything, and a food forest can finally become part of the plans.

“We want to create a small forest at the village,” he says, as André translates from French. “Once the forest is there, it will be a source of seeds for anyone who would like to plant somewhere else.”

Richard explains that the forest will be composed of four different height levels, where the plants complement each other, and are planted in amongst anything that is already growing. There will not only be food like passionfruit, guava and plum trees, but also plants that act as natural pesticides, and others which can be used for medicine to treat flu and stomach aches. There are already some useful plants growing; some seeds will be bought, and other seeds will be collected from the Batwa’s traditional home - the National Park.

Respecting Batwa Traditions

Last year, The Lush Times reported on the setting up of the eco-village, and the challenges the Batwa were facing. Since then, Mama Na Bana has welcomed Indigenous expert and rural development technician Achille Biffumbu along to train them in Pygmy culture, which has caused them to change some of their plans.

With these hunter gatherers no longer able to live in the forest, Achille explains that the Batwa have no choice but to adapt to agriculture. However, this transition needs to take their culture into consideration, he says. In particular, anyone working with the Batwa needs to understand how they use their time.

Traditionally, he explains, the Batwa travel a lot, and they don’t have time to spend on tending to vegetables. Life in the forest used to produce an abundance of food, and whatever was collected was eaten on that same day. Storage is simply not a factor in Batwa culture, and they share what is available at the time, rather than saving anything for later.

“All this must be kept in the minds of the people working with them,” Achille says.

With Achille’s teachings at the front of their minds, the Mama Na Bana team has taken another look at the plan, with the Batwa, as always, involved in every decision.

Before Achille’s training, the focus was on storing and preserving food in the rainy season. Instead, water will now be made available at all times of the year - even during the dry season - so that the Batwa can water their crops and harvest food every day.

There was a risk that this project could become a source of conflict between local Bantu and the Batwa, but Achille says the relationship has only strengthened since both the project to provide water and a school for the Batwa were implemented. Crucially, these were both designed to also support neighbouring villages, meaning they too benefit. The upcoming food forest will work towards the same goal.

André has had an unexpected personal reaction to Achille’s training, and has found himself reflecting on his own culture. As he watched a Batwa man pick up a guitar and play it - a man who had never learnt to play the guitar, but who simply decided to play - he was reminded of the Batwa’s rich culture, and began thinking about his own.

“Life is pushing me into a more European lifestyle, even in my clothes,” he says. “The Batwa still have something original. The training really helped me to acknowledge those things. But there is a threat, because the Batwa are also tending to change their lifestyle, and become like us.”

Something worth preserving

However, the solutions to this problem must come from the Batwa themselves, he says. But he’s desperate for them to understand that they have something precious worth preserving.

“This is not only about their culture, but any people of any culture, especially African people. We have to be aware that while we need to work to survive, if we keep on losing our culture we don’t have any value,” he says.

With the financial support for the eco-village coming to an end next year, the focus now has to be on how to put the final plans into place, and then for both Mama Na Bana and Lush to be able to step away.

“When we think about the exit strategy, we must think about how to empower the Batwa. If this doesn’t happen it will be seen as a Lush project or a Mama Na Bana project, not a Pygmy project,” Achille says.

André is clear that the time for experimenting is over. Now is the time to make sure the plan is going to work, so that once Lush and Mama Na Bana do step away, they leave behind a thriving Pygmy-led project.

Want to hear about more Re:Fund supported projects? Find out how a group in Uganda is transforming refugee camps

Images courtesy of Mama Na Bana

The Batwa were forced out of their forest home by the Government in a bid to protect gorillas, and have since been subject to a number of human rights violations

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