Audio tour with Sylvia Kokunda

In this online tour, Sylvia Kokunda, from the Batwa community in Uganda, shares her perspective and insights into our exhibition, ‘Rooted Beings’.

Sylvia is also part of Land Body Ecologies, a global research group that explores impacts of environmental change. Land Body Ecologies are currently residents at the Hub in Wellcome Collection.

The images from Uganda mentioned in the audio tour can be seen in the Large Print transcript available in the exhibition gallery.

Rooted Beings audio tour with Sylvia Kokunda
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00:00 – 02:06 

(Opens with sounds of crickets in the background, interspersed with the sound of birds) 

Welcome to this online tour. My name is Sylvia Kokunda. I am the Executive Director of Action for Batwa Empowerment Group, an NGO supporting the indigenous Batwa community to which I belong, in Uganda. I am also a part of Land Body Ecologies, a global research group that explores mental health impacts of environmental change and are in residence at The Hub in the Wellcome Collection building.  

The Batwa indigenous community is a community that was forcefully evicted from their ancestral forest in Uganda.  Action for Batwa empowerment Group (ABEG) is a women and Batwa-led organisation under the stewardship of their own child, Kokunda Sylvia. 

I am connecting with you from Kanungu district in southwestern Uganda today, to share my perspective and insights into the exhibition ‘Rooted Beings’. I’m outside, the weather is hot, so we are in the summer. 

I hold a Master’s degree in Organisational Leadership and Management. I represent my community at human rights forums regionally and internationally, speaking out against all marginalisation and injustices that the Batwa continue to suffer. Our suffering today can be traced back from our eviction from our ancestral land, what is known now as Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  

Following the online tour that I took, most of the artworks in the gallery were appreciated and I do thank everyone who combined efforts to participate. I made some observations on some of the work and related it to our work and situations of Batwa people which I want to comment about.  

The Ground Opening 

02:06 – 03:50  

The first I can comment about is “The Ground Opening”.  

In the same article, I learned that everything is important not to be wasted or taken advantage of. According to MatterGallery.com, Gözde Ilkin, the materials she uses and stories she tells out of her artwork tells us that most things on this earth are inseparable. Just like one cannot separate soul from the body, thus it is very harmful to separate human beings from nature.  

More so, the art gallery creates a market for products during the exhibitions and events which is a very big challenge to Batwa who make their products and don’t get market for their products.  

(The sound of roosters crow and birds sing) 

This is a reflection from Livera, a weaving artist. She says: 

“We used to get weaving materials from the forest but now we can't access the forest since we were evicted...So now I continue the crafts to make sure I get an income.  Now, we have to go work for some people to get income to pay for these materials and equipment. 

We also don't have markets to sell our products, so it takes months before we can sell something, unless we have one tourist coming to buy a basket, which means we will get income. It is very challenging to have enough income to look after our families.” 

- Livera Turyomurugyendo (Weaver artist of Batwa Community) 


03:50 – 04:37 

Then I move to the work of Joseca. 

The experience of the Yanomami relates to that one of Batwa.  Just like Batwa were forest-keepers and hunter gatherers who lived in the forests and protected it, living in harmony and now here comes colonialists who led to the eviction of the Batwa from their ancestral home (forest) for conservation.  This makes us live in misery where we have been used as tourist attractions by individuals who use us to achieve their goals.  

“Our hearts are bitter with the game played, but we have nothing to do because we want to survive.” 

The Colonial Violence and Indigenous knowledge (by Patricia) 

04:37 – 09:37 

(Sounds of crickets and roosters) 

Making a reflection of the Cinchona tree, the source of quinine that was used to treat malaria, it reminds me of our historical plants and places which made us rooted in the forest which is our ancestral home as Batwa. 

We also had some specific plants and places which were miraculous to our lives, like a ficus tree which served many functions while we stayed in the forest before a colonial conservation project led to our eviction, thus leading to the loss of many things to us.  A ficus tree served as a place of worship/shrine where our spiritual god lived. In case we needed blessings from god (small god), in our local language called “Nyabingyi”, we could go to the tree and worship before going hunting in hopes of a successful hunt. The same tree served as a medicinal plant for many complicated diseases like skin disease (skin rash), in our local language called “Kibugu”. We used to get the bark of the tree, boil it, and wash your skin with it. It is the same tree where we got our clothes from, from peeling the bark of the tree, drying it, and then distributing it amongst the family members.  Due to colonial conservation that led us Batwa to be displaced from our home, we regret losing our culture and connection to the plants and animals.   

We also have a plant used for medicinal and colour dying of basket weaving materials. “ngaro-itano”. 

[Images of the ficus tree and ngaro-itano can be seen in the Large Print transcript available in the exhibition]

The insights in Matrix Vegetal (Wellcome Collection) talks about the relationship between people, and plants, and their connections.  The speaker considers using plants to repair, heal and shift perspectives. Just in the same way, colonialism led to the struggle of indigenous cultures to use plants for healing due to disconnections from their natural habitats. The relationship we have with flora and fauna, makes us rooted beings with nature. The Batwa learned many skills from animals as well as they also learned from us for example, the relationship of a Chimp and Batwa. 

"One day a Batwa went hunting and in his traps he trapped a chimpanzee and he killed it. When he reached his snare, he found an animal which almost resembled a human being. He checked the hands and they were like his, the nose and the mouth, almost everything, and he detected the animal not to be edible, he left it there and went to set another trap. Another day he met the same animal, it was climbing a tree where it had detected honey in the tree. Batwa had never thought that bees can be found up in trees, the chimp spotted the direction where the bee had fled to, then it climbed the tree. While the Batwa was looking at it and saw everything the chimp did he used the same techniques to keep looking for and harvesting honey from the forest". 

Because in the forest there were no beehives, so it was a matter of tracing it from the forest where the bees are flying from. From there, the chimp and Gorillas were referred to as cousins of Batwa. 

When we think of our lifestyle in the forest, what we used to eat (like meat and fruits), drink, and our medicinal herbs which can’t be accessed now, all this is now lost. This leads to Batwa trauma. By drawing, playing music and singing, it can be a source of remembering. If we don’t keep reminding ourselves, our memories can fade thus losing our culture as Batwa. Batwa involve themselves in different art-crafts like basket-weaving, wood carving and cultural performing, however, it has turned to business for survival. 

In the photos [available in the Large Print transcript in the exhibition] there is the Batwa artists, the baskets they weave, and Loyce Owamazima with a calabash pot which was used for drinking water and keeping honey in the forest.

Batwa survived on making crafts as a way of keeping themselves connected to the forest because of the relationship they had with the forest and plants. 


09:37 – 10:02 

We move to the Wildness by Ingela (#1 on floor plan). 

The natural dyes we use for our basket weaving are taken from natural plants, a collection of plants, leaves, and the bark of the tree are used for different colours when it comes to craft making. Even in some trees we get back clothes from the bark of trees.  

SOP (#6 on the floorplan) 

10:02 – 11:48 

More so, I learned that we should keep prepared for the future,  

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists.”  

– Arundhati Roy. 

As Batwa, if we were prepared, the colonial conservation would have not caused a lot of change to us. When we were in the forest we were not thinking that one day we could be evicted from our homes. This unexpected eviction meant that we came out with nothing. The eviction has led to many changes to our lives including ways of living and surviving. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda was declared a national park in 1991 to protect and preserve a range of species, most famously one of the world's last remaining populations of the mountain gorilla. The creation of the park, which sits on the ancestral land of the Batwa community, was carried out without the community’s free, prior and informed consent. To make way for this conservation project, the Batwa were forcefully evicted from their ancestral forest, and since then have been left landless and living in settlements on the margins of the forest, where they face extreme discrimination and marginalization from wider society.  

RESOLVE Collective (#7 on the floor plan) 

11:48 – 13:35 

My observation on Resolve, is that since it is an interdisciplinary collective it gives room for production of new knowledge and ideas. They have people with different skills which helps them to learn from each other.   

This calls for connection and exploring other new ideas and skills, not keeping your minds fixed at one place. In other words, it calls for collaboration with different skills in different fields.  When you compare the team that is involved with artists, curators and different countries, they learn from one another when it is said that the art techniques enable our modern understanding of ecology, climate change, extinction and the threats to biodiversity. Just like us Batwa, when involved in the art techniques, we get to learn all these. It also keeps our memories, where we use different arts to tell stories of our past and current.  

In Jack Halberstom’s movie 'Wild Things', he identified how nature relates with human art where different colours refer to different personalities. Red is referred to as an indigenous perspective. The reference of artworks by different people, indigenous art is represented as primitive.  She also talks about the relationship people have with animals. In the same way Batwa lived in the forest with animals and had a close relationship with it.   


13:35 – 14:39 

(Cricket sounds playing) 

I take the honour to thank the Wellcome Collection for setting up a Rooted Beings Perspective Tour and inviting me to participate. I have learned a lot in the tour and the insights encountered. I have compared it with the story of Batwa. It has got some connections and similar meanings, most especially the effects of colonial conservation.  

The pictures show cupboards where we use to store fruits and other things for safety. Then the wild fruits which we used to take in the forest. Then another photo, there is an African giant fan plant. Its leaves are used for making a shelter and a bed. At the same time, we also used its branches as a hair comb.   

[All images can be seen in the Large Print transcript available in the exhibition gallery.]

By Sylvia Kokunda
Founder and Director ABEG. 

About the guide

Head and shoulders black and white photograph of Sylvia Kokunda

Sylvia Kokunda

Sylvia Kokunda is the leader of Action for Batwa Empowerment Group, a Ugandan NGO supporting the indigenous Batwa community, to which she belongs. She represents her community at human rights forums regionally and internationally, speaking out against all marginalisation and injustices the Batwa continue to suffer. Sylvia holds a Master’s degree in Organisational Leadership and Management.