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Published: August 14th 2014
This little guy was none the worse for wear after a dust up with the older silverbacks.
Help me Rwanda...I can’t get you out of my heart.
Uganda was all about the breathtaking landscapes and wildlife safaris but as we cross the border into Rwanda, the vibe drastically changes. This is going to be an emotional awakening. I just know it.
Rwanda is truly a dark emerald set in a band of sparkling gold.
When I was twenty, my best friend Syd and I saw that movie Gorillas in the Mist. Up until then, I had no idea about Rwanda or the crisis in Congo for that matter, I remember being touched by the movie’s tragic tale but I shrugged it off indifferently. "Like when was I ever going to trek the jungles of far away Africa to see mountain gorillas?
That notion must have buried itself deep in the recess of my subconscious…fast forward twenty-six years and I’m at the exact spot as Diane Fossey was, Syd disappointingly absent.
Our overland truck has become a strange mobile laundry. Clothes are fashioned on lines crisscrossing the aisle, and you can barely see out the windows. If my own underwear weren’t swaying to and fro, I’d be furious. Our group is a fun loving bunch
A big cheer for the beautiful lake with volcano backdrop
so therefore we must torment the only Brit on the bus with our mindless Aussie-Canuck banter, as we traverse the twisty hillsides for countless hours on end.
I’m pretty sure Kigali means “chaos” in Rwandan. Although their capital is not particularly menacing on its own, I did feel under siege by the smells and noises swirling around me as we drove through the city. Tin houses hang precariously to the hillsides while a modern skyline gains on us. A million people bustle in every direction on foot. Motorized gangs of mutatu and bodabodas honk and swerve into our road space as we attempt to get across town unscathed so we can pay our respects at the Kigali genocide memorial site. That is when I realize one of the young Australians has gone all quiet, and upon closer inspection, has tears streaming down his cheeks. The book I lent him, ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ appears to have hit a raw nerve. Luckily I couldn’t quite bring myself to read it, yet and for that I’m glad. I don’t want to lose my shit this afternoon.
The stifling midday air is unfriendly, and despite having the best view of
Going to school
I tried my crappy french out on the children and had the most luck.
the Kigali cityscape, this sombre park is an oasis of loss. Slabs of cold concrete mark mass graves for the thousands of souls lost during the massacre. Back in July of 1994, Rwanda’s civil war culminated after 800,000 innocent people had been slaughtered. I was somewhat aware of the brutal history from seeing films like Hotel Rwanda but it wasn’t until this exact moment I truly grasped the horrors of what went on here. One ethnic group pitted against the other after years of propaganda campaigns for radical beliefs on a caste system. The Hutus and Tutsi had always lived and worked together in harmony, married and had children together but then the violence commenced, and the Hutu resolute to rid Rwanda of the Tutsi.
Any Hutu that tried to save a Tutsi met the same fate.
I find a reflective bench under a shady fig to covet the light breeze that seems to accompany soulful sounds drifting up from a choir of women singing in the courtyard. They are all wearing identical grey chiffon dresses and yellow ribbons over their breasts. As they sing their uplifting songs, it strikes me that they are probably Hutu and Tutsi,
Diane Fossey lives
YEp. I loved the gorillas and it was incredible to be in the same mountains as her, maybe Digits great great relatives?
singing together. There is no hatred on their faces, only forgiveness and hope. Every so often, a family member strolls by and places a basket of flowers on the tomb with painful respect. I am caught up in it.
We travel to the town of Ruhengeri, our home base for the next week. Here, we are hosted by a catholic mission located in the centre of town. The compound of orange cinder blocks is bizarre but oddly comforting, the nuns and priests glide around the manicured grounds as we are served alcoholic beverages on their rooftop bar and put up in unisex dorms with communal showers.
Insert shrug here.
We explore Ruhengeri to see what kind of trouble we can get into. Everyone is walking downhill to their destinations, past our lodgings. Men appear to not do any ‘planning’ activities. Women dressed in bright colours balance impossible things on their heads as they sashay gracefully down the dusty streets. Kids in school uniforms swarm us frantically yelling bonjour! bonjour!
It feels like the colour blue here. Is that possible? Maybe it’s the dawn mist as it hastily retreats from the morning sun. Ruhengeri is at an
Meet the S family
Our gorilla troop we trekked to meet.
elevation that allows for a perpetual springtime. Breathtakingly simple, tiny terraced fields roll along endless hills that drop into blue crater lakes, volcanic mountains loom in the backdrop, while deep forests of pine and cedar are contained by wild chrysanthemum hedges.
Today is the birthday for one of the Australians. It will be a crazy wonderful day. First, we hire bodabodas, the young motormen are beyond thrilled to have our fare. As we head off for the countryside, they yell at everyone they know ‘Look! We’ve got Mzungus!’ We then have to stop and get off to pose for random pictures with their friends. Next, an unscheduled stop to each of the homes of the bodaboda boys to meet their family before we are whisked off to our final destination, a lake I still don’t know the name of. We spend the afternoon meandering around on a barge ferry marvelling at the volcanoes and waving at random children working the fields, who stare in shock as we drift by.
For dinner, we find a small ex-pat pizzeria slash bakery and the staff hustle to cook us up some fantastic fare, including a promise to bring out a cake
Birthday Roman Candle
One of the Australians got more than she bargained for when they put a firework on her cake!
for our birthday girl. Imagine our surprise when the cake arrives with a roman candle burning hot on top. We hit the deck as icing, chunks of cake, and sparks explode all around us. Gah! How many balls of fire are in this particular firework!?! Six. There were six fireballs. We almost set the restaurant on fire, but laughed our fool heads off.
This is Africa.
As the night progresses the music gets louder and the restaurant staff end up dancing with us in close quarters. A quick wander down the street lands us in a drinking establishment. No one is there except a DJ slash bartender, so we make our own party. But that’s the thing about cell phones nowadays. Word spreads like lightening that there are Mzungus having a dance off, and suddenly the whole town comes out to watch it. I leave fairly early because I want to be fresh for the morning. I desperately cling to my bodaboda driver as we kamikaze through town, he drops me off at the gates and I tip toe to my cot with that almighty catholic guilt.
Dawn sneaks up fast. I am so excited I can
barely stand myself.
Today, I’m finally going to trek to see the mountain gorillas! Syd texts me an obscene picture, she’s a bit jealous. The Australians have been rustling about in their personal items trying to be quiet for the past hour. I open one eye to look at my travel clock. 5 am. Don’t they know trying to be quiet makes you the noisiest? One of them, I swear, was eating potato chips. We find the birthday girl propped up at the entranceway snoring, and missing a thong (gah, ok ok flipflop you freakin' Aussies).
Ah, it’s not like a good sleep was possible anyways, I’ve been brimming with anticipation for days now, so the fact that my mattress sags in the middle causing me a neck crimp, and the snoring symphony of twenty Australians unblockable by earplugs, and now my one leg I kicked out from the safety zone of the mosquito net covered in welts, I will not be detered.
I find solace at the entrance of our dorm room and stretch it out, the cool cement pleasing on my bare feet, birds chirp while nuns silently hang miles of laundry in the inner
Heart breaking to think there are only a few of these left in the wild
courtyard. No traffic noises, I realize just how bloody peaceful it is here.
Animal has the coffee on and there will be no soggy weetabix today. He hunches over a vat of oil to make his special African donuts (or bannock as we call it in Canada). This doughy fried treat is drenched in liquid sugar. I take two. At this rate, I’ll do cartwheels up the gorilla mountain. Animal gets annoyed with us as we try to dish flap, and rushes us off like we are late for the school bus. We all climb aboard an open jeep with wooden benches and bounce along an incredibly steep goat trail until the road ends. After hiking through terraced potato fields on a sharp hill with mobs of uniformed children dancing along beside us, we come to the edge of the impenetrable jungle and clamber over a rock hedge.
Our hike may be up to seven hours to find the Sabyinyo family group. The rangers flank us as we ascend into the thickets of century old bamboo. Sharp to grab, the bamboo spines dig into your palms as you wrestle to free your hiking boots from mud that has
Rwandans were so very welcoming and happy.
the consistency of wet cement. Clanging machetes advance us farther into the darkness. It is eerie, exhilarating, and stifling hot. Every so often we come to a clearing of stinging nettles and ferns to take a rest. My clothes are sopping and I kick the sticky mud off my shoes, making sure my socks go back over my pant legs so stinging ants don’t get up in my junk. One of the rangers tells me in French that he learned just this morning one of his coworkers was shot and killed yesterday by poachers. The DRC border is only a few miles that way, and the seriousness of trekking through this danger zone makes me beyond hyper-vigilant.
Suddenly, we are upon our troop of gorillas in the midst of a dust up. Their screams echo sharply off the surrounding cliffs, something bad is happening. All the hairs on my arms stand on end as this gigantic silverback swipes past me in pursuit of a juvenile. I glance back to see the park rangers, weapons readied, frantically signalling for me to crouch down and avert my eyes. More shrieking and intense scurrying in every direction, it is difficult to make
Everything in the boat
How do you get a cow across a lake, well, here's your answer.
out what is going on through the deep shadows of the bamboo thicket. Black figures dart this way and that. Intense chest pounding infiltrates the eardrums. I realize I am beside a young mother gorilla with her toddler, we make eye contact. Both are as terrified as I am. Our interpreter Jolie beckons for me to move towards our group. Safety in numbers. I don’t need to be told twice. I move like I’m in a scene from Apocalypse Now
as the bamboo cracks off like gun shots all around me. The tension is as thick as the humidity.
Then it’s all over. Within minutes the entire group of gorillas is calm and foraging. We get the all clear from the rangers, and get down to the business of observing. A group of females, each with an adorable baby, are lazing about while Number 2 silverback is resting on his laurels munching bamboo shoots about a metre away from me. Nobody seems worse for wear.
Just being in the presence of such majestic beasts is overwhelming. Shutter clicks go off all around me and I realize that I too should be taking pictures. I don’t care. Number 2
Our little translator and gorilla officianato was such a joy to meet and trek with. She was so happy to share with us her love for gorillas and Rwanda in general.
silverback stares thoughtfully in my direction as I wipe the tears from my cheeks. He seems to know I’m beset with emotion, and we sit silently together in a spiritual connection. What does he think of his albino cousins that appear like ghosts, make odd clicking noises, and then disappear?
We offer him nothing, yet he seems so acceptingly indifferent.
One gorilla toddler decides to put on a demonstration of his mad circus skills, using his mother’s forehead as a launching pad. The more amused our group is, the more difficult the tricks become. As a finale, he stands and proudly pounds his tiny chest. The gorilla mum finally shuts down the whole production with one swoop of her thick hairy arm.
She is flanked by an elderly son picking things off her, he looks sickly with his bald head. Our group is concerned but Jolie explains that it’s a rare skin condition and he is in good health otherwise. But the poor guy seems to know he is different from the other gorillas, and huddles close to his mother for solace. Not to be outdone, his little brother sidles over and sticks a finger in his
Visiting a school
Layla finds herself swarmed when we dropped in on the school near our homestay.
Guhonda is the Number 1 man and has absolutely no interest in us. He hangs out in his nest and farts and belches between ripping handfuls of leafs and stuffing them into his mouth. He reminds me of a Roman Emperor in a bathhouse being fed grapes. So strong yet, incredibly gentle. At 500 kg his head is a massive block with funny little ears and that distinctive silver shine prominent down his back. Apparently he should be smoking a congratulatory cigar, as one of his females just gave birth an hour before we showed up.
We didn’t see the newborn, but the rangers suspect a curious male may have caused that brouhaha.
As quickly as we arrive, it is time to go. Besides we have a three hour hike back and the day is getting away from us. For this privilege I paid $1000, which I felt a little extravagant at the time, but now I am defcom 3 Diane Fossey obsessed
with mountain gorillas. It seems like such a small price to pay for such a wonderful experience. Knowing my permit money will go towards conservation efforts is humbling, although it isn’t enough. Only
The Big Dude
Casually watching over his troop, igoring us white gorillas, chewing and farting bamboo.
480 gorillas exist here in the Virunga territory which includes the often unstable countries of Congo, and Uganda. I find myself in emotional turmoil. War is one thing but the beautiful people of Rwanda are just trying to survive, yet they are fast encroaching on the remaining habitat left for the gorillas. I get it, they got to eat. But why, oh why do the gorillas have to go? Like the rest of Africa, I feel this overwhelming defeat trying to work out a solution. My favourite blogger “The Oatmeal” summed it up best, “I don’t want you to save the world I just want you to put your arms around me when it ends.”
For the rest of the trip we interact with the local Rwandans. They are all very shy but polite and fall over friendly, especially here in the township of Ruhengeri. Everyone we encounter invites us to visit their homes and go with them to their workplaces. I’ve travelled a lot in my life so I’m a little leery of locals stopping me on the streets just to chat, but it didn’t take long to realize their motivations were genuine. This country is still trying
Oh the kids in Rwanda were so happy and friendly. It was great!
to recover from years of travesty, and the ever present threat of war. You’d never know it though. Streams of smiling pedestrians file down from the hillsides every morning after completing their civic duties which include helping their neighbours, sweeping their streets clean, and picking up garbage. Even the President joins in and does his part as a show of unity and pride.
The Brit and the Afrikaner want to visit the Gorilla doctor’s headquarters in Musanze, so I tag along. Here we see the brutal side of poaching including wire traps found just yesterday wrapped around a gorillas leg. We play with the two orphan gorillas and take turns feeding them. Our guide translates some of the tragic stories told by the helpers. The vet on call is up the mountain.
I’m tearing up again, and I never cry.
Later that day, a headmaster from a nearby school shows up at the Mission and invites us to visit. We are celebrities somewhat but hadn't thought to bring any school supplies or toys with us so the Brit and Canadians opt out. I go anyways. The kids sing us songs and try to teach us some of
The Gorilla Doctors
Removing wire snares, patching gun shot wounds, and giving general care for each individual is hard work. I am in awe of these people and their commitment.
their language of Kinyarwanda. These children have lovely dreams for their future. It was only one generation prior that saw their entire family wiped off the map. Those individuals we meet on the street in their twenties and thirties tell of being raised by a grandmother or a distant relative. They want to facebook friend us. Some remember the horrors, some don’t. Although you wonder if they could be easily recruited back into a new war by the Rwandan Patriotic Front especially with all the government corruption and politics, at least this new generation have a hopeful start with a fresh pair of eyes.
Our last activity of the week is a hike up the active volcano Bisoke to an altitude of 3711m with an armed escort. It was super challenging but our new friends were brimming with excitement to show us the view. Unfortunately, the Rwandan mist rolled in and we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. To make up for the seven gruelling hours, we are invited back to their village to have a BBQ dinner with their extended families. It was a great time and our last night in Rwanda.
Habitat going going gone
So sad to see agriculture encroaching further into prime Gorilla habit.
believe it’s time to go. I don’t want to go. But I have so many more places to visit prior to returning to my job and life in Canada. Interestingly, I didn’t allow myself to digest all that I experienced while in Rwanda, another ‘live in the moment’
Maybe that’s a coping mechanism I have built in. Maybe that’s how I prevent myself from throwing in the FTW towel and permanently moving here.
Next stop Tanzania.
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