The Twa or Batwa lived in Zambia prior to the main Bantu invasions of the 1600s. It is possible that they were from a very early migration from the Luba empire, but it is possible that they arrived even earlier.
Not much is known of their lives before then but after the coming of the Bantu they moved to three territories in Zambia – the swamplands of Bangweulu, Lukanga Swamps and Kafue Flats. They lived off the land, had no domestic animals nor grew crops. They lived on fish, wildlife – notably the lechwe, sitatunga and otter – and vegetables from the swamps – mostly lily plants.
They did not have chiefs, living in their small communities in the swamps, but when the British administration came in there was one chief recognised, Chief Shikafwe, in the Kafue area. At that time there were 6,000 people listed as Twa in the Kafue Flats. The British also enforced land settlement instead of the papyrus islands, so gradually the Twa intermarried with neighbouring tribes and their life-style disappeared, until it no longer existed.
Eric von Rosen visited the Twa in 1914 in Bangweulu and told us some of their story and gave us some photographs.
The Twa were very shy, rarely allowing anyone else to come close. If frightened and unable to flee they would quickly spear the interloper. They lived on Sudd – a floating mass of papyrus, on which they built grass huts.
Eric von Rosen reached one of the floating villages on the edge of Bangweulu but all the people had disappeared. After waiting a long time, a youth appears paddling a canoe cautiously towards him. He is being enticed by beads which Eric von Rosen is holding up.
His skin is dark-brown, without tattooing; he has a snake-skin belt round his waist to which two small tiger-cat skins are fastened. He has brought with him a long bow of beautiful shape. It is entirely covered with snake-skin, a suitable adornment for the weapons of the swamp-dwellers. I give him a handful of glass beads and point to the bow, which, to my surprise, he immediately hands to me.
The youth paddles away and, although Eric von Rosen waits again, no more Twa want to meet him.
He goes and returns later. The youth again comes to meet him and allows him into his tiny canoe – there is no room to sit, so Eric von Rosen stands as the youth paddles to his village.
We arrive at the island without mishap, and I go on land. To say land is, however, an incorrect expression, for the island consists entirely of quagmire, which is made firmer by layers of bunches of grass and reeds, and at every step the ground shakes and water and mire often rise above the ankles.
Eric von Rosen is allowed into one of the huts where he finds a clay pot over a fire in which porridge has been made from the roots of the water-lily.
A bow and dagger, both ornamented with snake skin, hang from the ceiling and arrows are stuck into the walls. The arrows are poisoned and have barbs as sharp as needles. … On the walls there are also some lechwe and sitatunga horns, ornamented with strips of skin, pieces of wood, &c. They are fetiches and bring good luck in hunting.
He returns outside:
Outside the hut there are hippopotamus and fish harpoons, also long spears with reed handles. With these spears they kill the lechwe and sitatunga antelopes, and also the enormous pythons, which are to be found in the swamps.
The Batwa know how to poison the waters in the swamps, so that the fish become unconscious and float to the top. I was present at such a fishing expedition in which we caught 119 fish in three-quarters of an hour. The poison which is used for stupefying the fishes in prepared from a vegetable of the pea species, which they obtain from the Babisa living on the mainland.
When the British administration came in to being the Twa were made to settle on land. One area of Bangweulu, Kasenga, was one Twa homeland, but now it is Ushiland.
From Ian Manning who lived and worked in Bangweulu:
Hobito hailed from N’gungwa, a small muscular man with a Hitler moustache and toes that ended all in a line as though evolution had restructured his feet according to Lamarckian principles. I would often remind him of the common belief of mainland people that the people of the swamps had webbed feet. Although he spoke little English, his reaction was always to raise his hand to his mouth, cover his teeth, and giggle while trying to hide one foot behind the other. Although he now lived in N’gungwa, in Bisa country (Chief Chiundaponde under Paramount Chief Kopa), his people are the original inhabitants of Bangweulu, people long settled there prior to the arrival of the main wave of Bantu in the late 17th Century from the Congo Basin; yet forced by them to take up a secretive life in the swamps where they lived like sitatunga on beds of floating reeds or on small termite islands like Mbo Yalubambe where the purest strain of baTwa (wild men) live, a people of pygmy origin.