In loving Memory of Stephen Blackie Gonsalves, Husband to our fellow Ugandan, Dorothy Musoke Gonsalves, and a great Advocate of the Batwa in Bwindi

Posted August 30, 2012 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Batwa ~ 9,456 views


Dear friends, Uganda has lost a great friend and loving Activist, Stephen Blackie Gonsalves: He was a great photographer and a committed advocate to helping the Batwa attain a better future, education and a path from poverty to self sufficiency. He passed away on August 24th, 2012, and he’s survived by his wife Dorothy N. Gonsalves. Let’s join together to support his legacy and his Wife Dorothy, who is determined to carry on his vision and Batwa plight awareness work.

Below is an article originally published in 2008 about his Journey to Uganda. You can see more Batwa photos that Blackie took during his time in Uganda at this website:



South Shore man takes on project in African forest
| South Shore photographer Blackie Gonsalves set out to help deliver supplies to a health center in Africa but ended up spending a year in Uganda working to preserve a fading culture.

Gonsalves has been a professional photographer at Lake Tahoe for 29 years, minus the year he just spent in Uganda with the Batwa Pygmies.

“It was one of the best years of my life. In fact, I would feel very fortunate to have more years like this past one,” he said.

Gonsalves spent the first six months of 2006 on the telephone and the Internet looking for a nongovernmental organization to work with in Africa.

“I’ve had a desire to go to Africa for quite a few years, and I just wanted to go for a year or so and help somebody. I loved my work but wasn’t getting any personal satisfaction from it. I didn’t feel I was really making a difference.”

Gonsalves has been a member of the Tahoe Douglas Rotary Club since 1988, and through his involvement with the club made a connection with the Nevada City Rotary Club to accompany a container of supplies the club was sending to a health center in Bwindi. He planned to help unload the supplies and move on. However, the container was two months late in arriving at Bwindi, and during the wait, he became aware of the immense needs of the Batwa Pygmies.

“I spent 11 months in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda doing volunteer work with a tribe of Pygmies to create a cultural preservation center. I worked as a handyman and visited the settlements with an interpreter, where I helped build homes,” he said.

Pygmies have been the ancient dwellers of the forest since time immemorial. The Egyptians made the first record more than 4,000 years ago. They described the people of short stature living near the source of the Nile, extolling their abilities as dancers and storytellers. For ages, the Batwa Pygmies resided within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

“Sadly, the Batwa Pygmies have been removed from their ancient home,” Gonsalves explained.

“The Bwindi is home to the mountain gorilla. There are 650 mountain gorillas worldwide, and 350 live within the confines of the Bwindi. In 1991, the park was selected as a world heritage site for the protection of the gorilla. Good news for the gorilla but bad news for the Pygmies, for they were evicted from the park despite having never hunted the gorilla. They have no title to land and were given no compensation.”

The 2,500 Pygmies were thrust into a world where they had little survival skills. The path from forest dweller and hunter/gatherer to agrarian stability would not be undertaken over many generations, but rather in a blink of an eye. They now have become conservation refugees. The Pygmies, however, bear no malice toward those who removed them from their ancestral home.

“Dr. Scott Kellerman and his wife, Carol, of Nevada City started a health center for the Batwa Pygmies six years ago. Along with all the wonderful medical work that is being done at the health center, two years ago Kellerman purchased 200 acres adjacent to the forest for the development of a cultural preservation center for the Batwa Pygmies,” Gonsalves said.

When the Batwa were removed from the forest, most of them were placed in settlements near the forest, but they are not allowed to enter the forest. No one is allowed to enter the forest without a permit, a park guide and an armed military escort. The forest also is patrolled by Uganda military to protect the gorilla population from poaching, the community from rebel activity and deforestation.

“In other words, to keep everyone the heck out. The Pygmies who lived in the forest are now starting to die off – their life expectancy is about 30 years,” Gonsalves said. “Their culture is thousands of years old and dying fast.”

The first phase of the Cultural Preservation Center project involves the collection of stories from the Batwa of their life in the forest, their traditions, their knowledge of medicines from plants and trees in the forest, their dances, where they slept, and how they hunted, cooked and played – everything that was part of their life in the forest.

“This has already been started, but, unfortunately, we are not in time to save their language, which is lost forever. Without this effort, their culture will be lost to the world, but more importantly, it will be lost to their children,” Gonsalves said.

The Cultural Preservation Center will serve as a communal neighborhood where families can come to collect, share and pass down this knowledge to their children. About 20 houses will be built on the site, where both permanent and visiting families will live. The property consists of natural forest and land cleared for agriculture.

The benefit to the Batwa in the first phase will be threefold: to pass down their culture to their children; to use the forested area for collection of wild honey and wild yams – which were a major part of their diet in the forest – along with sharing stories and legends of their gods, which can only be told in the forest; and to learn new agricultural techniques to take back to their own settlements.

The second phase will help make the Batwa self-sufficient. Ultimately, there will be 20 families living and working on the land, and the site will be opened to the public. It will be limited to four to six visitors per day, who will pay a fee to spend a day with the Batwa, go into the forest with them, see how they hunted, cooked and slept, shoot bows and arrows with them, eat with them and dance with them. This will be a tremendous experience for the guests and a financial, self-sustaining project for the entire tribe of Batwa.

“We work hand-in-hand with the Batwa through the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda. This organization is run and made up of the Batwa Pygmies, and everything we do is with their consent, guidance and involvement.”

Gonsalves plans to return to Biwindi on Feb. 20. He said he will stay 12 to 15 months or until the Cultural Preservation Center is up and running. He also will oversee a Rotary International 3H Grant of $300,000 for a clean-water and goat-raising project.

“We are trying to build the trust of the Batwa Pygmies. They have seen groups come in and promise help, then leave. It will help gain their confidence when they actually see me return to help,” Gonsalves said.

Although there is much unrest in Africa, Gonsalves said he is not concerned about his safety.

“It’s fairly stable there, and soldiers from the Ugandan military patrol the area,” he said.

Although most of the funding for the Health Center and the Cultural Preservation Center comes through the Kellerman Foundation, Gonsalves is planning a spaghetti dinner fundraiser Feb. 1 at the South Lake Tahoe Senior Center to raise money for the cultural center. The cost is $50 per plate, and since it is sponsored by Tahoe Douglas Rotary Club, every cent raised will go to the center.

“I feel like I’m turning on a little light in a dark room in trying to help the Batwa Pygmies. Please help pay the electric bill,” Gonsalves said.


About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


    Andrew Walusimbi

    This is a very touching experience. I am glad to know that through this foundation, the Batwa people still have some hope even after the eviction from thier home setting. It’s very evident they have a rich culture and its only important that its preserved for thier own and also for History’s sake. We are very glad that somebody has taken this as thier own action through the Batwa plight awareness work for these people to have a better life. May the Almighty God bless the works or your hands. To Blackie, May he rest in eternal peace, we know u are in better hands now. To Dorothy, we love you and and are very proud of your work, please stay strong.

    Fred Nizeyimana

    Sad to hear that Stephen passed on! Every time I pass via the Batwa village near Bwindi forest I remember at least 4 people of compassion; Scott, Carol, Richard and Stephen. And lately Paschale! All from USA. There are many more people who have done great works contributing to the welfare of the Batwa and I do salute them. Unfortunately in Uganda we tend to demonise, despise and segregate against Batwa. My hope is that Stephen’s and others’ dream of re-born Batwa community will be a reality, Stephen’s legacy.

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