Batwa pygmies traditional fire lighting method

The Batwa people live in the area around Bwindi Mgahinga National Park. This park is significant because it houses half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. The Batwa were the last tribe permitted to hunt in this national park before they were forced to leave between 1991 and 1994. During this time, the forest was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With a population of less than 7,000 individuals, the Batwa are known for their strength and short stature. They are one of the few remaining tribes in Uganda that has held onto their traditions and history.

Traditional Fire Lighting Method of the Batwa Pygmies

The Batwa pygmies have been using the hand drill friction fire method to make fire, and they continue to do so as of November 2023. This technique was widely employed in the past across Eastern and Southern Africa. However, in today’s world, most people in this region use disposable Butane gas lighters to start fires. It is important to preserve the knowledge of the traditional fire lighting method still practiced by the Batwa pygmies and to compare it with the techniques of other ancient tribes, such as the bushmen in Southern Africa.

Shape and size of fire sticks

The spindle and hearth of the fire sticks are both approximately 40 cm (abt. 16 inches) long. The spindle is as thick as a human’s middle finger, while the hearth is comparable to a human’s thumb in thickness. Both sticks are ideally obtained from the same shrub, ensuring they have the same wood hardness.

To meet the requirements for hand drilling, both sticks must be straight, dry, free of wormholes, and have the bark removed. The necessary wood hardness is determined by pressing a fingernail into the area to be used, forming a groove approximately 1 mm (abt. 1/32 inches) deep.

These size and wood specifications apply to both the Batwa Pygmy and Jul/hoansi Bushmen hand drill fire lighting methods.

Material used for fire sticks

The fire sticks used by the Batwa pygmies, both the hearth and spindle, are crafted from the same type of wood. This wood is typically Triumfetta rhomboidea or a related species known by various English common names such as Burbark, Burweed, Hibiscus burr, and many others. The Batwa pygmies refer to it as ‘Obusingo.’ You can find a selection of its common names worldwide through this link.

Triumfetta rhomboidea; Picture by Wikipedia, J.M.Garg, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Triumfetta is the second largest genus in the subfamily Grewioideae within the Malvaceae family. It includes around 150 species that are spread across tropical regions in America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Burbark, is a highly prevalent weed found worldwide and is particularly widespread in tropical areas.

Distribution of Triumfetta rhomboidea; Map by CABI Digital Library at this link.

In Southern Africa, the raisin bush (Grewia bicolor) holds significant importance for friction fire lighting. Notably, all Grewia species, including raisin bush, belong to the same botanical sub-family as the Triumfetta species. This close botanical relationship suggests a shared tradition between the Batwa pygmies and Jul/hoansi Bushmen. This connection is further evidenced by the similarities in the shape and material of their firesticks.

Preferred tinder

Tinder plays a crucial role in igniting an ember generated through drilling into a flame. In African evergreen forests, specifically in Tropical Rainforest or Semi-deciduous Tropical Forest biomes, the environment is often very humid. Consequently, dead wood tends to rot quickly and may not be readily available in a dry state for use as tinder. In earlier times, the Batwa pygmies relied on the inner bark of certain trees and the shavings of wood borer larvae found within tree trunks for tinder.

Removing bark from Ficus trees

Notably, the inner bark of Ficus trees possesses desirable qualities for tinder. It is stringy, durable, and easily dried. The Batwa pygmies, who use Ficus tree inner bark for crafting their bark cloth, which they wrap around their heads, also traditionally utilized this inner bark as tinder.

In contemporary times, Batwa pygmies have gained access to agricultural areas, enabling them to conveniently use bundles of millet straw or straw from other grains as tinder. This represents a shift from traditional methods, demonstrating their adaptability to changing environments and resources.

Hand drilling set-up

Before beginning the hand drilling process, the Batwa pygmies flatten the upper side of the hearth stick and create a depression for securely holding the spindle. The hearth stick is then either placed directly on a tinder nest, or a fixed ember receptacle is used. This receptacle can take the form of a wood shaving, a knife, an ax head, or similar items, as illustrated in the picture above.

Hand drilling procedure

In their unique hand drilling procedure, Batwa pygmies engage two people, but only one person rotates the spindle. The second person’s role is to hold the hearth stick in position, taking over the drilling only when the first person becomes fatigued.

Interestingly, most other ethnic tribes globally employ different methods. They typically use either one foot, both feet, or a knee to secure the hearth stick in place. When two people are involved, both individuals rotate the spindle during one stroke each. The process involves person A rotating the spindle and pressing it downwards. Once at the lowest point, person A holds the spindle in the groove, and person B takes over by rotating the spindle from the top. This rotation and exchange continue until a usable ember is formed.

It is also interesting to observe, that Batwa pygmies encourage some naturalistic spirits to help create fire by constantly shouting a certain phrase. A very similar encouragement is used by Ju://hoansi bushmen. This chanting of bushmen can be heard in the video on another article here on the Bushguide101 website

Once the ember is successfully formed through hand drilling, the next step involves transferring it into the tinder bundle. This bundle is then carefully blown upon to bring the ember to life. This is a common technique used in all hand drilling operations. This process is crucial for transforming the ember into a flame, enabling the ignition of the fire.

Key Insights from the Batwa Pygmies Fire Lighting Method:

  1. Similarity in Fire Stick Shape:
    • Both the bushmen and pygmies exhibit a close resemblance in the shape of their firesticks.
  2. Shared Taxonomic Sub-family:
    • Both ethnic groups utilize wood for their firesticks from plants belonging to the same taxonomic subfamily.
  3. Historical Tinder Usage:
    • In the past, Batwa pygmies primarily used the inner bark of fig trees as tinder for their fire lighting.
  4. Contemporary Tinder Choice:
    • In modern times, Batwa pygmies have shifted to using straw for creating tinder bundles.

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