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I n late March this year, Esther Mbabazi left behind Kampala, the chaotic capital of Uganda, and headed for the hills, forests, swamps and grasslands of Bwindi Impenetrable national park an eight-hour drive to the west. She went to find the communities of the Batwa people, who live on the park’s green, rainy edges.

Mbabazi, 26, had always been curious about the Batwa and wanted to find out how one of the most marginalised communities in east Africa had coped with the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent months she had been working on gruelling stories about human rights abuses following the disputed election in Uganda in January, and this new project, sponsored by the Magnum Foundation, was a welcome change.

  • Bwindi Impenetrable national park is home to half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. In 1991 the government declared the forest a protected area, forcing the Batwa people out of their homes

  • The Batwa lived side by side with the gorillas and hunted such as antelopes, bush pigs and guinea fowls

  • During the pandemic and the early lockdowns in 2020, tourists did not come to the forest. With the reopening of the country to tourists, the government lowered prices for gorilla tracking from $700 to $400 for non-residents, and the tourism industry is slowly picking up again

“I stayed away from politics but did two stories in two months about abductions [of opposition activists]. It was so disturbing, so painful,” says Mbabazi, who grew up and is based in Kampala.

“Even most Ugandans don’t know about the Batwa … they just hear about ‘pygmies’ who live in the forest.”

  • A bar owned by Kesande Charity, a Mutwa businesswoman in Buhoma, Bwindi (Mutwa is the singular word for Batwa). There is a high alcoholism rate in the Batwa community and many people do not have opportunities for work or land to live off

  • Charity started the bar in 2018 after saving up money from working as a translator and guide

I like my community and the support we give each other. My people always check on me, with or without money Kesande Charity

The Batwa are nomadic hunter-gatherers who once roamed widely across the forest areas stretching across much of what is now Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Forced into smaller and smaller areas of the forest over the centuries by other ethnic groups who were farmers and who cleared the trees, the Batwa populations managed to preserve their traditional way of life until relatively recently.

  • A dance performance at the Batwa settlement in Munyaga, Buhoma. The performances and traditional tours are meant to preserve and share the history of the Batwa. Paid tours are what is left for the Batwa to continue their traditional ways as they did in the forest. The Covid blow to tourism has greatly affected the incomes of many performers in the settlements.

We are a social kind. We support each other because not many of us are out there. That is why we come to this specific bar – to support our person’s business. Hope Kyolimpa

In 1991 the Ugandan government created formal conservation areas in the Virunga hills and in nearby Bwindi. The Batwa, forced to live on the edges of the national parks, were unable to return to hunt small animals, collect wild honey or gather fruit, and found their traditional skills and vast knowledge of the forest ill-suited to life outside it. There was no effort to obtain the consent of the Batwa, or even to explain what was happening.

Nor was there any compensation, as the Batwa had never sought to own the land they lived on and from. Though some received land from the government, most are now squatters working their neighbours’ fields for a pittance while watching as tourists arrive with $600 government permits to visit the mountain gorillas in the wooded hills and valleys that were once home. They are among the poorest inhabitants of one of the world’s poorest countries. The community, estimated at 6,000, is so disadvantaged that when two years ago a Mutwa graduated from university, it made headlines in national newspapers.

  • A portrait of the acting king, Kanyamugara, 86, at the Batwa settlement in Munyaga, Buhoma.

Mbabazi photographed and interviewed several families over five days. “I got a tour guide and told him I wanted to go and visit the Batwa, but spend time with them and see their lives,” she says.

“The elderly were worried about the future of their tribe … The young people just wanted the same opportunities that all other Ugandans do. Many had never lived in the forest and I didn’t get a strong sense that they were struggling to keep their traditions.”

  • Iron smelting at a settlement in Buhoma

Uganda has the world’s second youngest population, with a median age of 16. Such demographics are having a political impact, with many young people supporting the prominent opposition leader Bobi Wine in the recent polls. They are likely to have a social impact too.

Uganda’s economy has suffered badly in the pandemic. Authorities ordered a severe lockdown last year when Covid began to spread in Africa, but have since loosened restrictions. With limited vaccines available on the continent, an end to the pandemic is still far away and the death toll continues to mount.

We had lots of land – land we peacefully shared with wildlife. I used to miss the wild meat a lot, but now I mostly miss the wild fruits. Baleku Flora, 88
  • Baleku Flora, 88, was born in the forest and left with her parents when the government started conserving the forest for mountain gorillas. She later went back to live on the outskirts of the forest with her husband, who died before the government forced every Mutwa from the forest in 1991. She now lives in Buhoma, a village bordering the park

Mbabazi found the lockdown deeply frustrating. “Not working and that feeling you can’t create was very difficult, especially at the beginning,” she says.

Mbabazi wanted to be a journalist from when she was very young, and learned her skills from workshops and other photographers. She says she tried to “get away from the tourist gaze” when working on her essay on the Batwa.

  • Baleku Flora and her family walk through Buhoma, a village bordering the national park

  • Batwa parents dedicate their newborn child, Janette, at Assemblies of God church in Buhoma. The service is mainly held in Lukiga, from the dominant tribe in the area, with praise and worship songs in Luganda, the majority language of central Uganda

  • A child plays with a bow and arrow while adults smelt iron at a settlement in Buhoma

“A big part of the story is the forest, the gorillas and the people,” says Mbabazi. “I would like to go back and spend more time with the community, especially the elderly who lived in the forest and saw it change. They were so happy to talk. There’s a lot more to record before it is too late.”

Magnum Foundation is a nonprofit organisation that aims to expand creativity and diversity in documentary photography. Through grantmaking and mentorship, Magnum Foundation supports a global network of social justice- and human rights-focused photographers and experiments with new models for storytelling

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