The sun has barely risen when we pile into a rickety old van and head out on a bumpy ten-hour drive across Uganda, careful to finish our journey before sunset. (The roads are not safe after dark.) Only in the last two hours do we reach the perilous mountain roads leading to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This is where the Batwa Pygmy community used to reside; today the community is exiled to the edge of the forest.
We wind along an uneven gravel path with women and children on the roadside, bashing rocks into gravel for a livelihood. Toddlers crawl around unsupervised between cliff and road as the mothers and older children sit on a pile of endless work. The road is steep. The landscape changes from brown to a lush green and, as the sun sets, we arrive at the edge of Bwindi Forest—nature in its rawest form.
The next morning, we set out on footpaths that look as though no one has traversed them in months. Our guide uses a machete to cut the path ahead of us, which has overgrown from the day before. We use walking sticks and gloves to brace our falls in thorny thickets. We walk in a forest elephant’s tracks, filled with muddy water.
The Batwa were a traditional hunter-gatherer tribe until the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was designated as a National Park in 1991 and the Batwa were evicted without compensation.1 Now, they are allowed to live at the edge of the forest and can go on the roads that cut through the forest, making gravel, but they are not allowed to set foot in the forest itself.
Since their forest exile, countless Batwa have died from malnutrition and violence. It is said that the people sometimes go back into the forest out of desperation for their old way of life, but the rangers are said to shoot and kill any Batwa who enters the forest for any reason. We were told that many Batwa go into the forest and never return. At the time of this writing, I cannot say whether this is a local myth or whether it is fact.
What is known is that the forest-dwelling Batwa had an abundance of food and never required a financial system or agricultural system to ensure their ancestral way of life. Although they ate fruits for the three to four months they were available, honey in season, root vegetables like wild yam and taro and a wide range of medicinal herbs, they primarily relied on daily meat and organs from the wild pig and dik-dik (a small antelope). They did not store food for tomorrow or for the next season because there was no sense of a lack or a need to hoard.
The truly “impenetrable” forest is where Nyiramagoli Prisika spent her first ninety years of life, before the creation of the National Park. Prisika is the matriarch of the Batwa Pygmy community. At one hundred twenty years of age, and as the local elder, she has six generations below her.
Prisika states that previously, “We lived in the trees eating meat three times a day. We now eat meat one to three times a year. My parents’ generation had no illness. They died in their sleep when they were very old. Now, we catch infections frequently. We drink the same water, but we eat different food. We are not allowed to hunt, and we do not have access to our medicinal plants.”
Currently, the Batwa are subsisting on foods that are new to them and not part of their traditional ancestral diet. These newly introduced foods are maize, rice, beans, cassava, plantain, Irish potato, millet and sorghum. The only foods they have been able to maintain from their traditional diet are taro, sweet potato and small amounts of pork—just twice a year; prior to their exile, pork was part of their daily diet.
From what I could assess, their diet is lacking in essential fats, fat-soluble vitamins and protein. Most of the vegetables they eat are cooked in water rather than their traditional lard. They grow these vegetables on the edge of the forest, yards away from where they used to live. Further, the maize upon which they have become reliant has not undergone the multistep process needed to release niacin. As such, the consumption of maize can create nutritional deficiencies and other conditions of high caloric malnutrition. As we walked through the village, we saw many children in the corn fields chewing on raw corn stalks for breakfast, spitting out the fiber and drinking the juices.
We visited several households and watched the women and children cook. One elderly lady was cooking cassava—not for herself but for her pigs. She said, “When we fed the pigs the uncooked cassava and corn stalks, the pigs got sick and died. Now, we cook the vegetables for the pigs.” It was clear that they were learning through experience how to neutralize plant toxins (cooking cassava in water helps to reduce both cyanide and oxalates).
The few pigs in the village are free-roaming and are not kept in stalls. If a family is lucky, it may have one pig. The pigs are slaughtered only once or twice a year, and these are often the only times that the Batwa eat meat. They all reminisced over the days when meat was abundant. When asked what their favorite food was, the answer was always “meat.”
This is where things get interesting. The story of the Batwa turns out to be a story of phenomenal resilience.
In my research on similar hunter-gatherers, I have found, like Dr. Weston A. Price and Dr. Francis Pottenger, that as soon as the “displacing foods of modern commerce” (namely, corn and vegetable oil) are brought into the diet, health declines rapidly. In the first generation that eats such foods, one sees a lack of immunity to infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis and malaria. In the second generation, one starts to see chronic disease develop—namely, type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease—in those seventy and older. In the third generation, chronic disease such as arthritis sets in, and individuals in their fifties get diabetes, cancer and heart disease. By the fourth generation, you see the same health issues we see in the U.S.; mental health problems abound, autoimmunity comes in, children are born disabled, infertility becomes common, chronic disease is seen in those in their twenties and thirties and dental health is poor.
The Batwa, however, seem to be far more resilient and do not fit this pattern. Only in the sixth generation are we seeing these major downward shifts in their health, which makes them far more resilient than other tribes.
Our guide, Remegious, grew up in the neighboring agricultural village and played with the Batwa as a child. As a result, he grew up speaking the Batwa language fluently, which allowed us to ask more specific and more personal questions than if we had used a Swahili guide.
We interviewed Nyiramagoli Prisika’s six-generation family, along with her sister Maria and the other elders. As we did so, the rest of the village circled round and nodded their heads in agreement with the elders as they answered our questions, while the children played underfoot and snuggled up on our laps.
One thing was evident: fertility was not a problem here. Women who appeared to be in their fifties had infants nursing as we spoke. We asked them whether any of the Batwa women had experienced infertility, cramps with their periods or difficulty in childbirth. The answers were a solid “no,” accompanied by puzzled looks and questions: “Can your women not have children? Your women’s periods are painful?”
We asked if anyone had any body pain. Again, they looked at us quizzically and after a long while said, “You mean after an injury? Yes. If I injure my leg, it will hurt.” However, they had no chronic back pain, headaches or arthritis.
We asked whether anyone had trouble sleeping at night. They thought this question was very funny! “What do you mean, your people can’t sleep? We have never heard of that!”
We asked whether anyone had lost a tooth or had a tooth infection. The answer was “no” to tooth infections, and they had only heard of elderly people losing a tooth. Even then, it would typically only be one tooth, and not several from the same person.
Old Age and the Batwa
Watching the villagers and the elders dance, it was impossible not to notice the perfect posture, robust energy, proper circulation to the extremities and lack of western old-age problems such as toenail fungus. During all the time that we asked questions—over the course of a few days, compiling several hours of video footage—the elderly never sat down. They were upright with perfect posture for our entire series of interviews. The elderly ladies also hiked and danced at the same pace as the children and needed no time to catch their breath after welcoming us with three back-to-back dances that consisted of constant and aggressive stomping. I joined in on the last dance and was very out of breath by the end!
Death for the Batwa is a significant event. When a clan member dies, the clan collapses the house on the member who has passed, and the entire village moves to a new location. In fact, the Batwa celebrate all life events, from birthdays to weddings (the Batwa are monogamous). Although this may sound normal to you and me, it is unusual in the context of my previous tribal experiences. Most tribes I have spent time with do not celebrate or track birthdays, but the Batwa do. They love to celebrate!
We asked what their family members died of. Tribe members stated that before they left the forest, everyone died when they were “very very old,” and typically in their sleep. When we asked them to reference “very very old,” they all pointed at Prisika. Apparently, her ninety-year-old daughter was not old enough to serve as an example!
We also asked what death was like for the elderly in former times. Were they sick for a week or a month before passing away? The answer was “No, we would not know they were about to die. It would often happen in their sleep.” We asked, “Do your elderly ever forget words or get lost?” Again, the answer was no. When we asked whether anyone ever died from injuries, they answered, “Yes, but it is not common. Very rare.”
The Batwa stated that no one experienced any kind of illness when they were living in the forest—not even infectious illness. However, when they were taken from their homes, many of their family members died. They stated that now, malaria has become a problem. There is a current theory that malaria is simply not as prevalent in the forest as on the forest edge. However, given my time spent with other tribes, and the prevalent pattern of rising infection as nutrient-density declines, my personal theory is that the lack of traditional foods available to them has depressed their immune systems, allowing infections to take hold.
We visited the school to see more children and look for overt signs of mental or physical disease. They all made eye contact, were highly social and athletic and had generous smiles. We heard and saw no temper tantrums during our entire stay with the Batwa. Instead, the children were calm and helpful. Even two-year olds were given big knives to peel potatoes, and they cooked over the fire without supervision.
In contrast to the impressive health of the school-age children and the adults, young children (seeming to be under the age of four) often had swollen bellies. With their fleshy faces and bright eyes, we could see that they were not starving; rather, they were infected. There is a tight relationship between malaria and the microbiome;2,3 I hypothesize that because mothers are experiencing malaria with greater frequency, this may be reshaping the maternal microbiome in ways that are making younger children less robust.
We interviewed a local nurse who confirmed that parasites were an issue in the young children. Discussing her monthly hikes into the village, she stated, “The previous Batwa generations do not catch the parasites, but for some reason, this last generation of children is very prone to the infections. I treat most of the children once a month.”
The nurse took us to her apothecary and went through each medication with us. She exclusively stocked antimicrobials (mainly antiparasitics and antivirals). She had no need for chronic disease treatments, as there were no chronic diseases in the village, and she had little need for antibiotics.
The Batwa are renowned for their traditional herbal medicines. All around the village, I noticed medicinal plants that have shown benefit for many of the common infections the Batwa experience. Studies have identified dozens of local medicinal plants used by the group, many of which contain active compounds against diseases such as malaria, diarrhea and intestinal worms.4 However, when I asked them if they used wormwood (a common antimalarial growing wild within the village) for medicine, they did not know what it was for. It was clear (at least to me) that the plants outside the forest were very different from the forest plants about which they held such deep knowledge.
Challenges Ahead for Batwa Villagers
The Batwa have many struggles ahead.5 They are new to agriculture, and as such, they have not been able to keep up financially with neighboring villages. Their water source is a muddy brown water that must be hauled long distances through rough terrain. They often get thirsty before reaching home and drink the water prior to boiling. They are also poorly educated and have not adjusted to a modern way of life.
The Batwa have yet to experience most of the health conditions we in the west now consider “normal”: autism, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, autoimmunity, allergies, arthritis, dental decay, insomnia, infertility, anxiety, depression and so on. However, they are living in an area rife with deadly infectious agents, with little protection from the elements, no clean water and little means to buy proper, nutrient-dense food. It is clear to me that the Batwa’s microbiome is becoming weaker with each generation, ultimately leaving them susceptible to infections. I fear it is only a matter of time before they start experiencing the same chronic conditions so common to most of us.
On the other hand, their ancestral diet up until thirty years ago seems to have protected their immune systems and microbiomes far more than in other regions of the world. Their attitudes are positive, too. They want to work. They want to guide tourists into their homeland to see the gorillas and teach others their knowledge of medicinal plants. They are generous and joyful, and they dance frequently.
Right now, it seems that the Batwa are in dire need of the fat-soluble vitamins that animal-based nutrition can provide. From what I could tell, they were consuming pork just twice a year, and no meat otherwise. I left feeling a deep sense of responsibility to help preserve their traditional way of life. Their uncanny resilience to their edge-of-forest environment is fading away with each new generation. Unless the tide can be turned soon, their brilliant example of what natural health actually is will be lost to us as quickly as a footpath in the Bwindi Forest.
- Kiwanuka M. Batwa win a case against Uganda government over Bwindi & Mgahinga National Parks. Press release, Aug. 24, 2021. https://headlineplus.com/batwa-win-a-case-against-uganda-government-over-bwindi-mgahinga-national-parks/
- Ippolito MM, Denny JE, Langelier C, et al. Malaria and the microbiome: a systematic review. Clin Infect Dis. 2018;67(12):1831-1839.
- Villarino NF, LeCleir GR, Denny JE, et al. Composition of the gut microbiota modulates the severity of malaria. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016;113(8):2235-2240.
- Cunningham AB. People, park and plant use: Recommendations for multiple-use zones and development alternatives around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. People and Plants Working Paper, No. 4. Paris: UNESCO, 1996.
- Osman P. The Batwa: 25 years after eviction from the forest. Capital FM Kampala, Feb. 27, 2019. https://capitalradio.co.ug/news/2019-02-27-the-batwa-25-years-after-eviction-from-the-forest/
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2021🖨️ Print post