Uganda Batwa Pygmies

The tropical rain forests of sub-Saharan Africa are incredibly lush environments with trees forming a canopy 100-200 feet in the air. The undergrowth is exceedingly dense and difficult to traverse and supports a vast array of wildlife found nowhere else on the planet. A unique and remote portion of this forest is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest located in S.W. Uganda adjoining the Democratic Republic of Congo. This forest is home to and incredible array of mammals, birds and plant life and with its boundaries lays one half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas. Along with this perfusion of wildlife the forest also contained an indigenous people-the pygmies.

The connotation “pygmy” has been appreciated as being a derogatory appellation however the group we work with (Batwa) are proud of their heritage and uniqueness and see themselves as possessing skills and powers that the subsequent immigrants do not have. They would prefer being called by their given name however as a group take pride in being pygmies. The term pygmy denotes the ancient dwellers of the forest. The first records of pygmies were made by the Egyptians over 4000 years ago. They described short stature people living near the “Mountains of the Moon” extolling their abilities as dancers and story tellers. Homer and Aristotle also made mention of them. Significantly both the pygmies and the “recent inhabitants” of the last 600 years (the Bantu) believe the pygmies to be the ancient dwellers of the forest. Physically they are short averaging four to five feet in height. They survive by hunting small game using poison tipped arrows or nets and gathering various plants and fruit that the forest naturally supplies. Small temporary huts constructed with leaves and branches serve as their dwellings, which are abandoned after a few months when they relocate to another part of the forest in search of fresh supplies of food. Their tools remarkably remain pre-stone age. They use sharpened sticks for digging and cutting and arrow tips are just fire-hardened sharpened wood. Occasionally they utilize an iron knife for slashing the underbrush. Until recently these people seem to exist in this exotic forest much as they have for the last thousands of years.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was gazetted as a national park and world heritage site in 1992 to protect the 350 endangered mountain gorillas within its confines. Good news for the gorillas but bad news for the pygmies, for in the process the 2000 Batwa pygmies who had lived within this area were evicted. In August 2000 we were invited by Episcopal Medical Missions Foundation to perform a medical needs survey on these pygmies. Our results were shocking: a neonatal mortality rate of 18% contrasted with that in the US of 0.7% and an under five mortality of 38% compared with a US statistic of 0.8% and a Ugandan average of 18%. This was compounded by the fact that the pygmies’ fertility rate is low for as hunter/gatherers they produce another child only when the youngest is a toddler. It was readily apparent that if something was not done forthwith that these people would soon cease to exist. We were profoundly impressed that they bore no malice toward those who removed them from their ancestral home. They also retained a very intact sense of community and a surprising lack of interest in personal gain so prevalent in the western world.

Although our medical needs survey had identified an incredible mortality rate we had not yet ascertained all of the causes involved. Upon returning to Uganda to live we found clean water, sanitation, adequate food, access to health care, and education sorely lacking. There existed the additional problems of land and food security as well as the overarching issue of preservation of the integrity of the pygmy culture. Their language (Rukiga) was an interesting indicator of their life. There was no word for “saving” and no word for “goal” except kicking a soccer ball into the net. They rarely used the past or future tense conversing almost exclusively in the present. They essentially had no terminology or vocabulary for transitioning to the 21st century.

One might think of these people as primitive and unable to adapt to the nuances of the modern world; however, a 5000 year cultural history bespeaks to an innate survivability and attendant adaptability. We were pleasantly surprised by discovering how well the pygmy children adapted to the rigors of the classroom. When competing with the Bantus who have been attending school for generations the pygmies are consistently in the upper one-half of their class, frequently occupying the top positions. Were they able to assimilate into the class in spite of their forest heritage or because of it? Perhaps the variances and challenges of forest life were applicable to facing the challenges of the modern world.

Attempting to learn of the pygmy’s view of the world we had been collecting their ancient stories, legends and myths, all of which revolved around life in the forest. Their appreciation of the world at large became evident during the renovation of a building for a school. A visiting artist from North America was willing to undertake the task of painting a map of the world on the rear wall of the classroom. Several budding artist were recruited to assist, a pygmy woman named Abias was particularly adept. She was able to paint with one hand while holding a nursing infant in another! The room was packed with curious onlookers held in rapt attention as the world grew before their eyes. Abias was painting Russia which by the projection had the country divided and lying on either end of the map. She painted one side and asked which color to use on the other. “The same color” she was told. Abias thought for awhile and then asked if this was the same country? When the response was affirmative she raced over to the mass of pygmies and they excitedly conversed. Abius returned and then enquired “do you mean that the world is round like an ‘amozi’- a pumpkin?” The room became electric with the realization of a spherical world. An onslaught of questions ensued, “What’s on the inside? What’s on the outside? We want to know- teach us!” This encounter was the genesis of an adult education program. Between 2001and 2005 we have constructed one primary school and renovated another and have a total of 200 students in classes. We also sponsor another 75 pygmies who attend other institutions. Two pygmies are now attending secondary school. One pygmy, Keneth, is studying at the most prestigious secondary school in Uganda after graduating from primary school the top student in the district. He aspires to become a physician and eventually return to assist his people.

We have constructed a primary health clinic at one settlement and are in the process of completing a hospital at another. The 25 beds of our maternity/pediatrics unit are routinely full and a surgical operating theatre is to be constructed in early 2006 with an additional 25 bed unit to handle the increasing patient volume. We hope to build a kitchen facility soon to better meet the needs of those hospitalized. We currently have the only operational x-ray in the district of 250,000 inhabitants.

Recently we surveyed the approximately 800 pygmies in our catchments area to ascertain if we had made any inroads into diminishing their death rate. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that with the provision of clean water, sanitation, immunizations, health education and access to health care the death rate for age under 5 was reduced from 38% in 2000 to 18% in 2004. We would hope in the future to expand these services to the additional 1000 pygmies living in more remote locations.

The survey did however; reveal a significant problem in those pygmies who remained landless. The children under age 5 in this sub-group had a mortality of 59%. Almost 6 in 10 children died before attaining their fifth birthday if their families had no land. Consequently we have been actively involved in the acquisition of land for these unfortunate pygmies. Recently we obtained ownership for the pygmies of several plots of land. One parcel recently purchased consists of 150 acres of old growth forest adjacent to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where the pygmies can harvest their medicinal plants and re-establish their connection to the jungle.

Much work remains to be done. The schools need to be enlarged and more facilities constructed at the remote pygmy settlements. Likewise the health care delivery to these remote locals needs improvement with fixed and mobile clinics. Much more land will need to be acquired as there are still many landless pygmies. Our vocational programs also need to be strengthened and replicated at other pygmy settlements. The pygmy traditions passed on by stories and lore need to be compiled for as these people are catapulted from hunter/gatherer to the 21st century much of their ancient way of life is being lost.

The last five years living with these people has been an incredible adventure for us, we feel as if we have learned as much from the pygmies as they have learned from us.


Turnbull, Colin


Schebesta, Paul


Kabananyuke, K


Nzita, R


Kidd, Chris

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