After a long and bumpy ride from the low-lying Queen Elizabeth National Park, we arrived at Ruhija Village, situated on the periphery of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in western Uganda. At an altitude of 2350m, it made a refreshing change from the balmy temperatures of the savannah. Ruhija was to be our base for a few days as we ventured into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to observe the mountain gorillas, as well as participating in various community projects.
On arrival we drove slowly along the bumpy road that lead us through the village towards our lodge. On either side of the road were small wooden shacks which included small local shops, a tiny bar and a tailors. The locals were curiously observing us as we passed them by for the first time. But within a day of being in Ruhija we had quickly become familiar with many of the villagers and were always welcomed with warm smiles. The level of poverty was immediately clear – locals earn very little and those who rely on tourism struggle as very few tourists make it up this far. We were all very keen to help the community as much as we could whilst staying here.
Once we’d been shown to our bungalows, and after a lovely cup of Ugandan tea, most of those I was with decided to head down to the village to have a wonder around. I stayed back at the lodge as I’d heard the sound of distant thunder rolling across the valley and thought it could make for an interesting recording. I grabbed my gear and setup my mics on the edge of a hillside that dropped steeply down to the valley floor. The storm was on the other side of the valley and the shape of the hillsides and valley trough made for some interesting acoustics. It was nice to capture a dry storm (sound of thunder without rain) and the soundscape also featured a nice mix of the early evening cricket chorus and some local children who were playing further down the hillside.
A day or so into our stay we visited the local orphanage. Our visit had been planned in advance and the excited children greeted us with song and dance. Their enthusiasm was overwhelming and considering these children had all lost their parents, they were radiating joy and happiness – dancing and singing with them was literally infectious!
As I have already mentioned, very few tourists come to Ruhija Village so for these kids it was a moment of shared happiness to perform for us. Before we left they performed a last song as a way to say goodbye – the experience with these children had really touched us all.
Early on in our trip we’d noticed that many of the local kids were playing football with a ball made from rolled up banana skins. We knew we’d be visiting areas where there was a high level of poverty so a couple of us decided to buy some good quality Adidas leather footballs to give away. When we got back to the lodge in Ruhija after our visit to the orphanage, we agreed that we should head back later that evening and give them one of the balls. The kids had been waiting for us when we first visited them earlier in the afternoon, but this second visit was a total surprise. On our way we also stopped in to a local shop and bought a sack of maize flour (the main food served at the orphanage) as well as some drinks and sweets. When we arrived, the kids were so excited – and when we shouted out “who wants a football” they all erupted into a frenzy! As I’m writing this I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck are standing as I think back to this moment. We spent an amazing hour or so playing football with them in the courtyard of the orphanage (almost in pitch dark). This amazing evening would go on to be my most memorable in Uganda!
The Batwa, often called Pigmies, were originally forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers and are widely accepted as the original inhabitants of the Great Lakes region of central Africa. In 1991, the Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks were established principally to help protect the rapidly disappearing mountain gorillas. The protected status of the forests allowed the authorities to evict the Batwa definitively from living in the forest. Although re-housed, the Batwa live on the edges of society.
No longer able to live off the forest’s resources, today the Batwa are forced to survive using other means. One way they make money is by welcoming tourists to their camp, demonstrating how they live. One such camp is situated just outside Ruhija village and we visited them during our stay there. The Batwa live in small huts mainly made from sticks and grass and, although re-housed on the outskirts of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, they maintain their lifestyles as before. Music, dance and story telling play a big part of their lives and they welcomed us in traditional fashion.
Although it was fascinating to see how the Batwa live, it felt a little strange to be with them. They dont speak english, so all communication was done through a guide and it wasn’t clear how well they were being treated. Maybe I’m overly suspicious, but it was a feeling all in our group had. It was raining heavily when we arrived and they initially wanted us (with our waterproof clothing) to stay under a shelter they had built, whilst they all stood under the pouring rain. They had young children, one of whom was clearly very sick, and it all felt a little bit forced, like they were obliged to treat us differently. I did appreciate their hospitality, I only wish I could have communicated with them directly, rather than through a guide.
The Batwa experience was nice, but I mostly enjoyed the exchanges I had with the local villagers. Even walking around in the lush countryside was a real pleasure. Many villagers in Ruhija are subsistence farmers. As we walked around the village, we would pass through muddy farmland and would often come across animals that were grazing. Each day during our stay I passed the same black pig who would always greet me with a few grunts. Even the pigs in Ruhija Village were friendly! On our third day I stopped to record him.
My stay in Ruhija village was a memorable one. It was incredible to visit this beautiful part of Uganda. I had the chance to meet some amazing people, all of whom were kind, welcoming and excited to share and exchange thoughts, opinions and ideas. I left Ruhija determined to encourage others to visit, and can only speak highly of this beautifully simple mountain village.