I saw wild Gorillas the other day. After seeing these majestic creatures in their habitat- I couldn’t help but feel such strong sadness for all the ones kept in zoos. These are wild massive beasts that roam the jungle grazing on plants and roots. Their heavy set eyes and deep stare leave you feeling like they are either sad or disappointed in something you did. When the silver back looked sideways and made eye contact with me, I couldn’t help but look down. A bit ashamed almost, like he said to me “what do you want?” Maybe they really were looking at me with these feelings. Maybe, to them, all humans are representative of the massive killings and kidnappings we have enforced upon their species.
In order to find the Gorillas we had to hike almost 4 hours through the thickest bush I have ever traversed. We had a guide and two men with semi-automatic guns in front and behind our group. While the gorilla families we set out to find were used to human beings, there were a few more families in the forest that were not, and accidentally encountering them or the jungle elephants- was a situation too dangerous to be left unarmed, apparently. I felt terrible at the thought that such a majestic creature might lose its’ life over a stupid curious human who once again, intrudes in their space and blames them for defending their rights.
The thickness of the jungle most certainly brings forth the feeling that we no longer belong there. The last humans that inhabited this jungle were the Batwa people, said to be one of the oldest indigenous populations still alive. The Batwa were kicked out of the jungles when Uganda made the Impenetrable Forest, Bwindi, a national park.
The Batwa look physically different than most Ugandans. They are smaller in stature and their facial features are very distinctive of their tribe. They exist all over Uganda now that they have been evicted from their homes as of a few years ago. They used to graze the forest barefoot, surviving on foraged foods. Upon their eviction, they were giving land to toil and live off of, despite the fact they were never taught to farm. Almost all Ugandans look down on the Batwa people, considering them less intelligent and unfit for most things. The handful of Ugandans that have mentioned the Batwa to me, has talked about them as if they were aliens. Their lack of farming skills is almost unforgivable in such an agricultural society. However, the Batwa never farmed because they lived off the fruits naturally provided by the land. Their intelligence made sense in this jungle, where most of us can not survive over a week.
We were briefed prior to our descent into Bwindi. There were several groups of humans there, each seeing a different family of gorillas. A man did a general briefing before we divided up into groups. He pointed out that the Impenetrable Forest housed 3 of the great apes on this planet. “The chimpanzees live towards the north, the Gorillas live here and can anyone guess who the third apes are?” He paused for a moment waiting for a response. “It’s the humans,” he said. “The Batwa people were the 3rd, but they no longer live there.” My jaw dropped. Yes, this man just compared one of the oldest native tribes on the planet to apes in front of all these people. Surely apes and humans have similar genetic make up, but comparing unlike species just seemed completely out of line.
I was hoping to see one of the projects that focused on the Batwa people on my trip to Uganda. Mainly out of respect that I knew that I would be trekking on their land. Two of our grantees that have been doing projects with the Batwa people were unavailable. One was just in a serious car accident while the other was halfway across the country at the time I was down south. And so, at this point, I’m afraid I will be leaving without meeting a part of this community. Our guide, whose name I can’t remember, turned out to be their ally. And after a series of questions, about the Batwa, he told me that he was helping some of his Batwa colleagues get their own organization going. “There are many organizations that have come to help the Batwa, but they raise money and it all goes in their pockets,” He tapped his pockets. “It never goes back to the Batwa. If the Batwa make an organization, they can raise their own money, and it will go back to the community. It’s no good the way the way it is done now.”
There in the jungle- whispering out of fear of being attacked by something wilder than I’ve ever been, I told him about The Pollination Project and our grant opportunity. He smiled- and exclaimed how all they need is recognition. “They feel they are below us, and they are ashamed. They do not smile.” He said somberly. “They need to feel proud.”
Shortly after this conversation, we met the Gorilla family. It was 5 people in our group, not counting the guides. It was intimate enough to feel extremely vulnerable and scared. Several males in the group charged us a couple of times. Each time, the guides reminded us not to turn and run, but to walk backwards slowly and avoid eye contact. I wondered how the Batwa people co-existed with these larger creatures. They did not have a semi-automatic weapon, that’s for sure. It’s terrible how we have condemned so many of the living creatures on this planet to live lives we feel are better fit for us. I was teary eyed during my entire visit with the Gorillas. Knowing that there are less than 900 left on this planet and their only chance of survival was having daily visitors, for one hour a day, taking pictures and gawking at them in hopes that we can tell the rest of the world, “Don’t kill this species, these ones are worth saving.”
I guess everyone needs an advocate, it’s just sad that it comes at the price of treating them like aliens.