Beyond the gorillas, in Batwa

While many visitors come just long enough to see the gorillas, we’ve booked three nights near Bwindi. That gives us plenty of time to stroll through Mahogany Springs’ bougainvillea-and-ginger-filled garden and lounge on our private balcony, taking in a crayon box of birds with blue heads or yellow chests or bright crimson wings.

Time, too, for visiting nearby villages. Among them is a small community of Batwa, more popularly known as pygmies and the poaching villains of “Gorillas in the Mist.” Today the Batwa are the victims. To protect the gorillas, the government coaxed the Batwa from the forest with promises of free land and education. Those promises, says our cultural guide, have not been kept.

The people we meet are lithe but elderly. The village’s oldest man died just a week before, at 96; his widow is among those who greet us in bark outfits and regale us with demonstrations of traditional forest life and dances. The presentation is slightly contrived but still worthwhile; the money from such visits is all these now-poor people have. The presentations are likely the last vestiges of a culture that will soon disappear.

Other encounters are equally heartfelt and more uplifting. People are welcoming, gracious — often hopeful. At a local soda stand, the Husband hoists a beer while I chat in a rustic shop, admiring the work of a twentysomething artist who hopes to study in the capital. We wander down the dirt road, gathering a host of giggling child escorts who want no more than to play and sing.

It’s Sunday, and the mud paths are filled with children running to church in their Sunday best, little girls in flounced dresses and boys in bow ties, to join parents and grands for the weekly service. A group of parents rests in the shade of a poinciana tree, their children playing with toys made from bark and old tins.

A young man named Smith leads us across a stream, through a valley and up the hill beyond our hotel, past fields cultivated with sunflowers and the protectively bitter tea. A gaggle of children runs to greet us, waving and smiling, the girls often balancing younger siblings on a hip.

We stop in to chat with the medicine man, a traditional healer whose remedies for bellyache and arthritic knees are mixed from local herbs and served in a dried calabash marked with dosages for young and old. Though visitors to his village clinic find him wearing a fur hat and vest, a blue hospital coat hangs in the corner for his visits to the local professional clinic, where he confers with modern medical practitioners when herbal remedies aren’t enough.

Under the wooden hut of the banana wine “distillery,” a local woman continues the business begun by her husband’s family generations ago. Here, bananas are smashed in a long wooden canoe-like vessel, then fermented and jarred into the popular local spirit with a surprisingly pleasing taste. She and her family also grow coffee, shaking the husks from the beans, to sell for roasting. In this rugged life, no one sits still.

At the Buhoma hospital, the positive power of tourism is on full display. Founded in 2003 by a visiting American, the Bwindi Community Hospital now holds 112 beds, including a children’s ward, dental services and meeting space for HIV education. By western standards the place is rustic at best; there’s no food cafeteria or sodium-regulated food delivery (patient, or family, go to a communal kitchen to cook their own food). The newly delivered X-ray machine is housed in the specialized shipping container in which it was delivered. But the facility is a model of medical outreach in Uganda, serving a remote populace of 100,000. Budget cuts have diminished the number of motorbike nurses who ride out into the community, delivering care to those who can’t make it to town, from seven to only three. A nurse earns $310 a month — a modest price for saving lives.

We stop at a child-care facility, built to educate children from outlying villages where schools are few and residents are poorer than those near Bwindi. Even basic education in Uganda requires fees beyond the ability of many parents; this facility and others encourage contributions from visitors to foot the bill. Here, a few hundred dollars a year can literally change a life.

When Cameron, the San Francisco consultant, came to Uganda the first time, she decided to try to do just that. She and her partner committed to sponsoring four children until each had graduated. The price for two meals a day and schooling: $100 per student per year.

Now, 11 years later, one of her students was finishing the third year of advanced education. Another had two children and had lost three more in childbirth. Yet another had gone to the capital of Kampala to study business at the university.

“The fourth was my greatest sadness,” she said. “He was completely orphaned … . his uncle and aunties couldn’t keep him in school.” Today he is illiterate, she found. She is working to get him into welding courses to give him “a bit of a future.”

For so many here, the future here is limited. But it is brighter than it once was, thanks to the gorillas.


(Jane Wooldridge, business editor of the Miami Herald, is a past winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year Award. Recent stories chronicle adventures in Antarctica and a Danube River cruise. Follow her travels at and on instagram @janewooldridge.)