Rwanda

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Mountain gorilla baby eyes

With barely a sound the 160 kilo/ 350 pound gorilla walked right in front of me on the jungle hill side. Mountain gorillas only exist in high terrains of south western Uganda and neighboring Congo and Rwanda. For some, having the opportunity to hike to a family of mountain gorillas is the trip of a life time. I was pinching myself that here I was standing next to more than a dozen gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Africa.

gorilla head

Mountain gorillas were hunted almost to extinction and are a critically endangered species. Within Volcanoes National Park there are eighteen different groups of gorillas.

baby eating celery

Eight are observed solely by researchers and ten of the groups are the groups visitors are allowed to be guided to. We were assigned to be led by our guide Eugene to the Umubano group which had thirteen members.

baby eyes

Gorillas are considered babies from ages zero to three, juvenile from ages three to six, adult ages six to eight and after age eight females are mature enough to start reproducing. Gestation period is for nine months and female gorillas will usually have about six babies in their lifetime.

silver back

Around age twelve the black back of a male mountain gorilla will turn silver, giving them the revered title as now being a silver back.

hand gripping

For diet, gorillas are vegetarian consuming around 2000 different species of plants. An adult will eat about 30 kilos of vegetation a day and they get all their water needs from the plants they eat. Gorillas make a new nest for themselves to sleep in every day, usually on the ground and will start constructing it around 5 pm or so.

side profile

With their immense strength, visitors are often nervous to be in the jungle with these wild animals. Rest assured, the gorillas usually want nothing to do with you. They are too preoccupied with feeding, socializing and taking care of their babies. You are with guides, guards and trackers the entire time who are familiar with all of the gorillas. As long as you do what you guide tells you to do and do not use flash, (which applies for almost all wildlife photography in Africa) you will have an amazing time.

momma eyes

I couldn’t imagine having gone to Africa without having had the experience observing mountain gorillas. Looking at the faces and reactions of people when they come back from sharing the space with these gentle giants, they are impacted. Viewing wild gorillas changes you. Eugene, our guide thanked us all for coming and  told us how much our park fees are instrumental in helping the gorilla population increase. The park can pay for gorilla doctors and if an animal does get sick, usually the medicine cost a minimum of $1000.

chin up

If you want to help conserve mountain gorillas – go see them for yourself. In Rwanda it appeared that the park fees were being put to good use as poaching was down and gorilla numbers have increased from 500 to 900.

baby going for ride

With these fees the park can continue employing rangers who patrol and monitor for poachers. Among our group, some people had chosen to hire a porter (someone who will carry your bag) for the day. Eugene did not say whom specifically, but some of the porters who were hired used to be poachers in the park. Now instead of killing gorillas, they were earning an income from tourists coming to see the gorillas in a safe environment. Learning that around us were would be poachers that were now accepted and welcomed as porters, really drove home to me how impactful responsible tourism combined with effective leadership and park management can be. Seeing how the park was being run gave me hope that the mountain gorillas may have a chance to keep striving in these jungle hillsides.

mom w baby

The opportunity to view gorillas in their home was a fairytale-like adventure. Hopefully the conservation effort will continue to move forward in such a way that gorillas never become animals the next generation can only read about in a fairy tale book, but hike to for themselves and view these animals striving in their home as the magnificent creatures they are.

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For more information:

 Volcanoes National Park

We stayed at a church mission called Centre Pastoral Notre Dame de Fatima. It was very nice, clean and well located.

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The concept of time often becomes irrelevant when travelling as magical moments can happen in seconds, hours or days.  Despite only spending a week in Rwanda, it provided some of the most memorable moments of my life and is a place I hope to visit again.

It is a thought-provoking nation, a country of contrasts and one that creates conflicting emotions.  I experienced the thrill of getting up close and personal with mountain gorillas yet feared for the future of these endangered creatures.  I was mesmerised by the stunning lush landscape and pleasant climate but was aware of the significant poverty that plagues so many of the people.  And I saw signs that Rwanda is developing as a nation as it recovers from the brutal atrocities of 1994, but learned that there were still hoards of prisoners awaiting trial for the part they played.

The Rwandan genocide is like a black cloud that remains after a storm in an otherwise blue sky.

But this sky is getting brighter and Rwanda is a country that has so much to offer a traveller with an open mind and adventurous spirit.

Mountain Gorilla Trek

Joining a trek to spend an hour viewing these endangered creatures in their natural habitat is the main reason most travellers visit Rwanda and I was no exception.  I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it.  Encountering a family who acknowledge your presence with a passing glance that borders on boredom, turning around to find an intimidating silverback approaching you and observing a large female with an infant on her back climb a tree with an agility that contradicts her powerful build is an unbelievable experience.  Getting up close and personal with creatures who are 98% similar to the human race and realising the main reason they are endangered is because of actions of that same human race is very thought-provoking.

There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance and importance of the human race’s role in the bigger picture.  This was one of those moments.

Genocide Museum

The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 saw the mass murder of over 20% of the population in just 100 days.  It was the murder of Rwandans by Rwandans.  I was 20 years old and whilst I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember much about it at the time, sadly I am not alone.  Unfortunately there were people who WERE aware of it but chose inaction as a course of action.  The international community’s lack of response to what was happening in 1994 was shameful.

A visit to the Genocide Museum is a heart-breaking but essential experience for anyone traveling in Rwanda.  In addition to serving as a memorial to help locals’ grieve, it is an educational centre that raises awareness of acts of genocide both in Rwanda and other parts of the world in the hope that education leads to the prevention of future tragedy

It’s difficult to leave the Museum with a dry eye and my head was plagued with so many conflicting thoughts.  It’s difficult to comprehend the brutal atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on each other but it’s also difficult to judge the actions of those who turned on their own neighbours.  How would I act in such an impossible situation?  I’m thankful I’ve never been in the position to find out.

Cultural Village

Ruhengeri is the closest town to the mountain gorilla trek headquarters and receives a number of foreign visitors as a result.  In an effort to make a living from tourism in the area, a group of locals have created a Cultural Village.

It is a staged village where no one lives.  Its sole purpose is to illustrate the Rwandan village lifestyle through demonstrations of housing, hunting, cooking, music, dancing and a very entertaining medicine man who was only upstaged by a characteristic Pygmy.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day and not only provided some interesting background on the Rwandan countryside lifestyle but was an opportunity to mix with friendly and entertaining locals through general conversation, banter and of course the obligatory group dance at the end!

Travellers can sometimes get a bit jaded by ‘touristy’ moments and we sometimes forget the importance of tourism as an income in developing countries.

There was something incredibly energising about being in a country that had been through so much and yet was full of survivors.  I felt inspired by the strength of the human race, I felt inspired by the beauty of the rolling green hills surrounding me and I felt inspired by the encounter I had with the majestic mountain gorillas.

Don’t let Rwanda’s traumatic history deter you. This is a country in recovery, a country that is relatively safe for tourists and a country full of beautiful people.  Almost all Rwandans I met begged me to ‘spread the word’ about how beautiful their country is and to encourage my friends to visit.  They recognise the value of tourism to their country and they are proud of their landscape, culture and wildlife.

You won’t be disappointed!

GorillalandGreg Cummings’ Gorillaland describes a compelling and terrifying trip through the heart of Africa. The reader is treated to a cast of characters like individual strings in a Byzantine intrigue, from the pristine to the corrupt, to the archetypal and historical. When each is tightened into place and woven more completely together the story’s tapestry reveals the chaos, greed, natural beauty and power of Earth’s largest continent.

While following the story of minerals like diamonds and coltan, Cummings work exhibits a remarkable level of understanding of the issues. Richard Katz, the “Jewish” Diamond King from South Africa to New York, Natalie, the up and coming young NGO executive from WorldWatch, Derek, the rebel cowboy guide complete with boots are like Broadway Musical stars waiting for their solo to share their side of the story. Their arguments with each other pale when they become entangled with the rebel general and warlord Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba who has killed not hundreds, as the International Criminal Court in the Hague says, but thousands. Nearly all the characters are chasing the chance to restore the honor of a family member, an opportunity for bloodline healing. Lions are not the only predators in this story; crocs, revenge, and the past all come back to bite you in this story.

 

gorillaThe setting of this story is the Congo, “The place is fantastical, with all its erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, impenetrable jungles and, of course, the river. Add human suffering to the mix and you have the perfect setting for a movie.” The issues of saving silverback gorillas, who are being hunted as food and for witchcraft rituals, as well as the drama of how to remove resources from the Earth and what constitutes fair trade are enough for a blockbuster. But add in centuries of African struggle and conflict of religion, culture and the story really takes off. The additional issues of international aid from foreign countries, corruption in the military, and various feuds, boils this story into a cauldron that must erupt nearly as certainly as the possible explosion of Lake Kivu!

gregThe anecdotes and life stories of the main characters explain the hardship and devastation of this vast land. Using the characters’ personal histories as context ….. Pedro’s loss of his entire Rwandan family living in Uganda due to the ravages of AIDS. The reader learns without feeling lectured. The “Lost Boys” tragedy of being torn from family or watching them suffer reveal how this army of young soldiers has been twisted into place. The ever present and lovely-looking yet nefarious Madame Nshuti, with a curious scar under her wig, a poorly ended affair with Derek, shows this Michele Obama of the Kivu to be a survivor but is she also a killer, and double crosser?

Natalie’s evolution is apparent when she yells at Cosmo while in the jungle, “You don’t frighten me. You disgust me. You think you rule the Congo? You don’t. When the real rain of progress falls on this country, murderers like you and Duke will simply melt away in the jungle, never to be seen again.” Many of the characters are forced to reconsider their life-long attitudes of hate to others especially Duke, who “was sworn to hate the Hamites.” Yet after interactions with Pedro, a Tutsi, he must alter his thoughts.

The moments for key players to cross and double-cross each other with arms deals, mineral wealth and loss of life seems to the reader like watching a tennis match. Which side is winning? Will evil overtake all? Just when you think you know what will happen next, some natural disaster like looming lava or great earthquakes disrupt all especially those on the river in their iroko pirogues.

In our technically-evolved world, we forget that nations have found ways to speak to each other. “Hakuna raisaux,’ said a Mai Mai soldier wearing the mane of a bush pig on his head, ‘we have no (cell) network here, but you can drum him a message, and it will reach that side now-now. I speak Balanga drum.” From far away, it is hard to understand or even imagine the jungle world of the Congo; this story brings light to so many critical elements of Africa that we should learn to understand.

Derek sums it up at one point, “You have to hand it to the Congalese for remaining so optimistic in the face of such adversity. I mean, these people have nothing: no government, no institutions, no infrastructure, nothing. Yet they still have a touching belief that great things will happen in Congo.”

Lisa Niver Rajna, Greg Cummings, Batman and Richard Bangs

On a personal note, I met the author, Greg Cummings, at a private screening in Bel Air. His astonishing first-hand knowledge of Africa, the gorillas and all the players in the madhouse of the jungle make this moving story very real. I know that his efforts to improve mining conditions and also help the gorillas have made for some of the best on-the-ground advocacy from the region. My elementary school students and I were fortunate to have him come and share his passionate intensity with us. We look forward to being part of the grassroots solution with creating more gorilla-friendly electronic devices, like cell phones and computers. Perhaps we can help to save this unique animal and even learn how to save ourselves.

Article first published as Gorillaland by Greg Cummings on Technorati.