Local teen describes plight of her Ugandan tribe in 100 words

Joyce Orishaba in July 2022.
(Wendee Nicole)

Joyce Orishaba is one of 13 winners in The New York Times 100-word Personal Narrative Contest

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When Joyce Orishaba was 6, her life could not have been more different than it is now.

She was an orphan in Uganda, “sleeping with nothing but a banana leaf over my shoulders to keep me warm,” recalled Orishaba, now 17 and living in 4S Ranch.

Those memories, of her fear and uncertainty under the care of her 13-year-old aunt Loyce, are what Orishaba wrote about in “A river runs through me.” She entered the essay in The New York Times 100-word Personal Narrative Contest.

Out of 12,448 student essays from around the world, hers was among 13 selected as winners and published on Dec. 7. The essays by the winners can be read at tinyurl.com/NYTessays22. They were among 82 finalists, also including 23 runners-up and 46 honorable mentions.

The students — all teenagers — wrote about big and small moments in their lives. Some were heartwarming. Others were funny. Orishaba said she decided to write about this moment to introduce people to her indigenous Batwa tribe, which was removed from its homeland in the rainforest to create a preserve for mountain gorillas.

“We are forgotten while the gorillas are celebrated. Lost to save the species,” she wrote.

The junior at Poway to Palomar Middle College in Rancho Bernardo — Poway Unified’s new program with Palomar College for high school juniors and seniors — said she was encouraged to enter the contest by her adoptive mother, Wendee Nicole.

“Mom found out and she encouraged me. Said I should do it,” Orishaba said. “I did not really want to because I am not a big fan of writing. But I like to tell stories.”

Writing about this moment in her life 11 years ago was a way to introduce herself and her people to a wider audience, she said. While in a desperate situation at that time, she was also hopeful.

“I will be the river for my people. I am the future,” she wrote to conclude her essay.

Joyce Orishaba, right, with her aunt Loyce in Uganda in 2016.
(Wendee Nicole)

Narrowing down what she wanted to say to just 100 words was a challenge, Orishaba said. It took her a few days and many rewrites. She consulted with teachers, her mother and grandparents before the final version was completed a couple months ago.

Orishaba found out via email that she was a finalist last week, but not that she was among the 13 winners until the article was published.

“I was really excited ... I was very shocked,” Orishaba said upon learning she was a winner.

“I was over the moon, so excited,” Nicole said about learning her daughter had won.

Nicole said writing a short essay is much harder than writing a long one. She should know, being a professional science writer and editor herself.

“I know her past is not what most Americans go through,” Nicole said. “She has overcome a lot, including language barriers.”

“It’s my daughter’s beautiful personal story about how it is affecting an individual,” she added. “Even after moving to the U.S., she feels the weight of the world on her shoulders of responsibility that is both hers and not hers. It’s a heavy burden for a child to carry.”

According to Orishaba, the forest gorillas were dying in the 1980s and her tribe was held responsible by the Ugandan government.

“They were blaming my people, saying we were killing and eating them. But we do not eat gorilla,” she said.

Nicole described the tribe as hunter/gatherers who lived in the rainforest.

In 1991 Orishaba’s tribe was dispersed and placed in villages in Uganda, the Congo and Rwanda. Her home village is in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

“The people in my village were the lowest of the poorest,” she said.

Tourism is big in the region, but that money doesn’t trickle down to the Batwa.

“None goes to my people,” she said. Instead, they earn money by dancing and sharing their stories with tourists. They also sell the baskets and carvings tribe members make.

An orphan since age 4 after the death of her biological parents, Orishaba was under the care of her aunt who was only a few years older than herself.

In 2017 Orishaba was adopted by Nicole, founder and director of the Redemption Song Foundation Uganda, an organization that has worked with the tribe to build permanent homes instead of tepees, on a clean water project and education for children. Her village has about 55 residents, with more than half of them children. The average lifespan is 27.

Nicole had first moved to Uganda in 2014 with a journalism grant and lived there for three years. But her desire for her new daughter to have access to a better education prompted her to return to the United States.

They moved to Texas, but have gone back for visits with Orishaba’s relatives a few times since then. The pandemic affected their annual trips, which have become less frequent since 2020.

“Everyone in my tribe looks up to me, I am a good role model for them,” Orishaba said.

Joyce Orishaba in July 2022.
(Wendee Nicole)

The mother and daughter moved from Texas to 4S Ranch last March because Nicole has relatives in the area.

Orishaba spent the last few months of the 2021-22 school year at Del Norte High, but decided to enroll in the new program at Palomar College because she sees it as a way to earn college credits before graduation. That way she can return to Uganda for an extended stay before resuming her collegiate studies. Her current aspiration is to study international relations and eventually work for the United Nations.

She said she would like to go back to help her people.

“My people are smart, but have not had opportunities. So they are automatically dismissed, especially by those in Uganda,” Orishaba said.


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