Tracing the Batwa in Semuliki

King Geoffery Nzitu (R) and other members of the royal family preparing for the tour. PHOTOs by EMMANUEL AINEBYOONA

What you need to know:

Though displaced from the forest, their natural habitat, the Batwa still observe and respect their culture

Dressed in their cultural regalia, bark cloth hats, feathered-spears, bowls and arrows in their hands, the Batwa cut the image of the forest people.

But for the changing times, the little people, as they prefer to be called, have since put up their settlements at the foot of Mountain Rwenzori and adapted to living alongside other tribes like the Bakonjo, Bamba, Banyabindi and Basongora.

The forest now remains a reminder of their past and a symbol of their rich heritage, one they proudly show off as tour guides along the Batwa track in Semuliki National Park where their king, Geoffery Nzitu, 45, leads the pack. Other members comprise of the prince, Wilson Kaita, and five others of the royal family. A recent visit with a team of other journalists led to a discovery of many interesting facts about the Batwa.

The new Batwa settlement is only separated from Semuliki National Park by the recently constructed Fort Portal-Bundibugyo highway. They were resettled by government and other development partners in early 2000.
We started with the Batwa track; a two-hour nature walk in the Semuliki forest that hosts the Semuliki River, which separates the park from the famous Ituri Forest on the Democratic Republic of Congo side.

After a 10-minute walk, we arrived at the Batwa kings’ burial grounds (Kaweelo), that also acts as a burial ground for all members of the royal family. A very tiny grass-thatched hut of about 50cm covers the deceased king’s grave.
“We come here for blessings when we have challenges like diseases,” says Kaita, before adding that the Batwa have reduced in number, following the outbreak of diseases like cholera, malaria and sleeping sickness that claimed their lives while still staying in the jungle. The Batwa population currently stands at less than 300 persons in the entire country, with others living in the Kigezi sub-region in south-western Uganda between Kabale and Kisoro districts. This makes them one of the most endangered human races on the African continent.

Still at the king’s grave, the Batwa show us some of their crafts like a small pot in the hut. The clay pot is used to keep offertory from the people who visit the site. Another craft was the three-holed smoking pipe.
“This pipe is used to smoke opium by the men for extra energies before they set off for hunting and doing other activities in the forest,” says King Nzitu, as he demonstrates with the pipe stuck onto his lips how they smoke it.
Our next tour was the medicinal track, a track within the thick forest where the Batwa get herbs to treat most diseases, including one that boosts men’s sexual capabilities, so we are told. While at the site, we are shown a tree that produces poisonous substances used on the spears to kill dangerous wild animals in case of an attack.

The group also reveals that the Batwa circumcise their male which as a symbol of strength and pride.
As we head to the king’s palace, we stop at a beehive that has some cultural significance to the Batwa. According to our guides, the hive serves as remedy to any possibility of bad luck for anyone in the Batwa community who commits murder. “When you kill someone and you rush to this point, you get cleansed. Prince Kaita explains that the killer uses the tool used in committing the crime to pierce the hive, causing the bees to sting his entire body as a ritual of requesting for forgiveness.

When the Batwa are mourning a loved one, they spend four days without bathing. “The family of the deceased is taken to the river for cleansing after four days,” observes Kaita.

The king’s palace

As we get closer to the king’s palace, we come across the dancing place, which is demarcated into two zones, one for the males (Bengo) and the other for the females’ (Muleku).
At the males dancing place, the Batwa men play their music as they dance to the tunes and the females also dance their different cultural dances at an adjacent location.
“Young men who are looking for marriage partners come here to choose their suitors as the young girls dance,” says the king. The dance is known as Muredu. Batwa girls get married at 17-18 years.

The king’s palace is the symbol of the Batwa powers. A huge tall tree with roots protruding out of the ground forms the king and the queen’s seat. King Nzitu has three children with one wife, the queen. At this point, we are told that the Batwa don’t marry many wives.
“The ideal man marries one woman and at the extreme, they marry only two,” says King Nzitu.

While the king and his subjects were still living in the forest, the palace was heavily guarded by warriors with spears, bowls and arrows. The king’s subjects would come to the his palace for advice and for settlement of the family wrangles in their homes.
Most of the Batwa sites have been demarcated by the Semuliki National Park management with small signposts leading to the various locations along the foot path navigating the forest. The king’s palace is located deep in the forest.

About the park

Residents. Semuliki National Park, besides serving as home to the Batwa cultural sites, hosts the Sempaya Hot springs, the male (Bitente), female (Nyansimbi) and the son. The three hot springs excrete hot water from the inner earth crust. Water at the female hot spring boils at 103 degrees whereas, the one at male hot spring boils at 1O6 degrees. The park is also home to various tree types, butterfly and bird species considered to be endangered in most parts of Africa.

Charges. For a guided tour of the park, Ugandans pay Shs10,000 and non Ugandans part with $15 (about Shs38,000).