Gateja revives the arts among Uganda’s Batwa

Saturday June 17 2017

The multicoloured Nyamuraza baskets are popular

The multicoloured Nyamuraza baskets are popular and they come in different sizes. PHOTO COURTESY | SANAA GATEJA 

By Kari Mutu

The Batwa people of Uganda have inhabited the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for generations, sharing the forest with the now endangered mountain gorilla.

But from around 20 years ago, the Batwa, also referred as pygmies, have been forced out of the forest because of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s ecological and tourism importance.

Now, many of them live impoverished lives on the fringes of the forest.

To make a living, some Batwa women are now learning creative skills from Ugandan artist Sanaa Gateja.

“Most of the women I work with are primary-school educated, a few are secondary-school educated,” said Gateja. “Also, many families are headed by women, because men will usually have more than one wife.”

In partnership with the Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Trust, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme in Uganda, and the Responsible Tourism Partnership of the UK, Gateja conducts workshops to train women in making marketable goods.

“I get these women to look at their traditional products, we improve them or I introduce new skills in making baskets, carvings, and Batwa music instruments,” he said.

The multicoloured nyamuraza baskets are popular and they come in different sizes. They are made from raffia palm and a type of grass found around homes.

The colour pattern of the baskets imitates terraced hillsides under cultivation in a cycle of planting, harvesting or lying fallow. The dyes are all naturally sourced and extracted by the women.

Pounded roots produce a yellow dye, and the fresh bark from a local plant is used to create an orange colour. The ishigwa vegetable gives a green colour, and with the addition of ash it produces a purple dye.

Men are also trained in weaving and wood carving, but Gateja’s focus has been on the women who are “the backbone of family”, he says, adding that, “women have more control with their hands, they have patience.”

From the proceeds of their businesses, the women pay school fees and supplement their domestic needs. By giving select teams of Batwa women foundational skills that they can replicate in their villages, Gateja hopes to equip them with a viable trade that will survive beyond his intervention.