100 Words From a San Diego Teen for Her Ugandan Tribe

A Rancho Bernardo teen's short essay landed her in the New York Times.

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

One hundred words. That’s all 17-year-old Joyce Orishaba of Rancho Bernardo was allowed to use to convey the most powerful memories in her life.

And it got her published in the New York Times.

Orishaba, a junior at the Poway to Palomar Middle College School, was born in Uganda and was raised by relatives after her parents died. An American humanitarian adopted her and brought her to the United States when she was 11.

“It was really tough for me being that far away from them. It still is,” said the teenager.

Orishaba recently dug deep into those memories while working on an entry for a New York Times essay contest: A 100-word essay about your life. Orishaba said it was very difficult because she had so much to share. She said one page was whittled down to 200 words, then 100.

I am six years old, sleeping with nothing but a banana leaf over my shoulders to keep me warm,” begins Orishaba’s essay about her life as a child within her Batwa tribe.

She thought about their struggles and her 13-year-old aunt.

“She was there for me every second. She was basically my mom,” said Orishaba.

Tears fall as I see the fear and uncertainty in my aunt’s eyes. She is 13. She is my mom now, and we are lost,” she continued to write.

Orishaba said her Batwa tribe was forced from the land they shared for generations with Uganda’s native mountain gorillas. The tribe had to move when a preserve was created to protect the animals.

“[Historians] never mention that about the Batwa. It’s like we’re just forgotten,” scowled Orishaba.

“The indigenous Batwa lost our home, the rainforest, to the mountain gorillas. We are forgotten while the gorillas are celebrated. Lost to save the species. As the sun rises the next day, I run to Munyaga River and watch it become stronger and stronger.”

The essay called "A River Runs Through Me" is a brief glimpse into Orishaba’s life. Imagine her surprise when her adopted mom, Wendee Nicole, broke the news.

“‘Your story is getting published for the New York Times,’” she recalled her mom saying. “I was like, I was shocked.”

Nicole said Orishaba was one of 13 winners out of roughly 12,000 submissions.

“This is the beginning for my people to get noticed. This is where my program is going to start,” explained Orishaba.

The high schooler wants to start an education and awareness program called Discover the Lost Tribe. A bold initiative that started with 100 words.

“I will be the river for my people. I am the future,” concluded her essay.

Orishaba emphasized her people are not anti-gorilla. She said they shared the land with the mountain gorillas for generations before poachers started attacking the animals.

She said she dreams of one day working for the United Nations in international relations.

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