The forest has always been his safe space. There, among the soaring trees, dense foliage and cool glades, he’s found refuge from the taunts and torments he’s been subjected to all his life.
Zanziman Ellie doesn’t look like other people. He has an abnormally small head and his ears are large. His face is unusual and he doesn’t speak. People call him an ape and a monkey.
The Rwandan-born 22-year-old was born with microcephaly, a condition that manifests in an underdeveloped head. Zanziman has lived much of his life as a recluse in the forest, hiding from the villagers who bullied him.
He’s been likened to Mowgli, the wild child from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, who was raised by animals in the forest.
“When he sees people, all he does is run from them,” his mother says.
Zanziman, who’s believed to have learning disabilities, would hike for about 32km a day in the jungle. His mother would spend up to three hours a day searching for him, terrified that one day he might not return.
But Zanziman’s fortunes have turned around now, thanks to a global fundraising campaign set up in the wake of a documentary about him.
And finally, after more than two decades of hell, there’s hope for the shy man of the forest as he enters a gentler world where he’s being given every opportunity to thrive.
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Zansiman's plight first came to public attention in 2020 after a heart-breaking video on his life.
In the documentary by Afrimax TV, a disorientated, scared and confused Zanziman can be spotted hiding behind bushes trying to avoid all human interaction. The wide-eyed boy peers curiously at the cameras before fearfully darting back into the jungle for refuge.
“He doesn’t like food. He prefers eating bananas. He doesn’t know anything, he can’t do anything,” his mother, who isn’t named, says in the doccie.
She adds she even resorted to unconventional ways of feeding him. “I always grazed him as an animal,” she said. “He feeds on grass. Everyone knows he’s different.”
“We’ve never seen another person who can graze on the field and rely on pasture,” a neighbour says. “He can survive in the forest.”
Zanziman’s family history is sketchy. His father is dead and his mother is the only family he has left. He was born in 1999 after his parents mysteriously lost all five of their children, which is why his mother believes he’s still her greatest blessing.
“After losing our five children we asked God to at least give us a disabled child, as long as he doesn’t die as early as the previous ones.”
Zanziman was born with a head the size of a tennis ball and his mom worried about his chances of survival. But that didn’t stop her from loving him. “When I delivered my son, I knew he was a response from heaven,” she says.
After being examined shortly after his birth, doctors confirmed that Zanziman had microcephaly. During a normal pregnancy, a baby’s head grows in relation to the growth of the brain – but in the case of microcephaly the brain is underdeveloped, and this can lead to an array of health problems.
These include developmental milestone delays such as walking, standing and sitting, decreased learning and intellectual ability, seizures, feeding difficulties and trouble with movement and balance.
Microcephaly can be caused by malnutrition, exposure to toxic substances such as drugs, harmful chemicals or alcohol, constriction of blood supply to the baby’s brain during pregnancy and certain infections such as the Zika virus.
In Zanziman’s case, experts believe that since he’s from a subtropical East African country teeming with infectious mosquitoes, his mother might have contracted the Zika virus, which led to her son’s birth defect. Mosquitoes are the main spreaders of the Zika virus.
Zanziman’s mother, who lives in one of the world’s poorest countries, struggled to provide her son with a sustainable life and due to her son’s condition he was denied access to education.
Things went from bad to worse when the boy became a constant target for abuse and ridicule by villagers.
“This hurts me so much, when my child goes and comes back and he’s been beaten,” his mom says. “They yell at him and call him monkey. It makes me so sad.”
Adults and children bully him alike, she adds. “They make me lose my temper. They don’t see him as a human being, only an animal.”
In the year since the documentary aired, Zanziman’s life has been completely transformed thanks to generous strangers around the world who contributed to his GoFundMe page.
Benefactors have not only helped Zanziman get a better life but an education too. He now attends a school for children with special needs at the Ubumwe Community Centre in Rwanda, where he’s been introduced to other differently abled young people.
On his first day at school, Zanziman exchanged his worn-out clothes for more formal attire after he made the long journey from his village to school. Clad in a crisp white suit with a matching coat, he immediately hit it off with his classmates.
This was his mother’s proudest moment. Even though her son had to wait until he was 22 for his first day of school, it brought her great joy to see him in a classroom.
“He was experiencing a bad life, I was always running after him and now he’s at school with others,” she says.
“I’m so happy about this. My son is finally having a good life. I thank everyone who helped.”
According to Justin Nyshiyimiyimana, the programme coordinator at centre, the school’s mission is to provide a safe haven for the most vulnerable.
Justin watched the documentary about Zanziman and was deeply touched by it – so when the young man joined his school he was delighted.
While it may take time for Zanziman to fully integrate into society with his peers, Justin is committed to ensuring the school supports him every step of the way.
“It will be a process,” he admits. “But we believe the youngster will make everyone proud, especially his mother. As time goes by, I hope step by step, year after year, we might see a different Zanziman.”
After being ostracised and ridiculed most of his life, Zanziman is now something of a star in his community. His story, Justin says, hasn’t only taught others the importance of not discriminating against others but also to always choose kindness.
Sources: thesun.co.uk, metro.co.uk, mirror.co.uk, unilad.co.uk, youtube.com/afrimax, afro.who.int, cdc.gov