Wow! Everyone that had been to East Africa kept telling me I had to go and see the gorillas. Boy were they right. It was truly an incredible experience and some of the best money I’ve ever spent. I think if you are going to Africa, you really should add gorilla trekking to your itinerary.
Initially the plan was to just go to Rwanda. But Rwanda recently doubled the permit fees, so I flew into Rwanda then crossed the border (on foot – more on that later) into Uganda and went to see the gorillas there. Luckily Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya offer an East African visa that is good for all three countries for 90 days and multiple entries. My flight to Rwanda took me to Kenya and then Burundi before landing in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Our flight out of Burundi was delayed slightly because there were a number of heads of state flying out of Kigali due to the swearing in of the Rwanda president earlier in the day. Paul Kagame was re-elected.
Right off the back I was impressed with Rwanda, and that impression only increased over the four days. The airport had great wifi, and you didn’t have to fill out any paper work at immigrations. It was all done electronically. I think even when you are coming back into the US, we are still making people fill out a piece of paper. It was late so I just got to the hotel and prepared for the next day.
My guide from African Adventure Safaris met me Saturday morning, and our first stop was the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. The museum and educational program is extremely well done thanks to the Aegis Trust, but it is also absolutely heart breaking. In 1999, land for the memorial was acquired and construction began. The process of burying the victims began in 2001, and the centre was opened in 2004, the 10th anniversary of the genocide. Today the memorial serves as the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the genocide. Every year, more people are brought to the memorial for a dignified burial as the remains of victims in unmarked graves continue to be uncovered around the country. Many of those buried at the memorial remain unidentified. There is a wall of remembrance that lists the names of the identified bodies, but it only has a few thousand names, if that.
For those that don’t recall, here is a brief synopsis based on what I remember, have read, and saw at the centre. The genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis began in April 1994. In a matter of weeks (3 months) over a million Tutsis were killed and tens of thousands more raped, tortured, mutilated, and permanently disabled from machete wounds. The original Rwandans were Twa. They were gradually displaced by larger migrating groups, the Hutu tribes and later the Tutsi tribes.
The authority of the Rwandan king and the system of feudalism that developed in Rwanda was unsurpassed in Africa other than Ethiopia. When the Belgians took over as colonizers from the Germans after World War I, they added the ethnic status to identification cards. By providing advantages and more privileged positions to the Tutsis, the minority (approx. 15%), the Belgian government exacerbated ethnicity divisions and a culture of haves and have nots. When the Rwandan king started calling for fast tracking Rwandan independence in 1956, the Belgians began switching their allegiance to the Hutu majority who wanted to introduce democracy before separating from Belgian. Following the death of the king in 1959, clashes between the two tribes marked the start of ethnic conflicts that culminated in the genocide.
In 1961, the first prime minister created the Parmehutu, a party for the emancipation of the Hutus. The following year Rwanda gained independence and became a single party country where Tutsis were isolated and resettled. The Hutu majority government introduced quotas for Tutsis, limiting opportunities for education and work. More than 700,000 Tutsis fled or were forced to leave the country between 1959-1973. Some of those who fled joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front which invaded Rwanda in the fall of 1990. The intent of the party was to establish equal rights and rule of law as well as an opportunity for all of the refugees to return. There had been cross border raids by both sides in the intervening years.
Around the same time the Hutus published in a local paper called the Kangura, the Hutu Ten Commandments. The propaganda machine was in full force and the UN military advisers on the ground reported to New York that Hutu youth (the Interahamwe, which was established by the Rwandan president) were being militarized, but the international community didn’t take action leading up to the genocide. Even when they still had an opportunity to restore order, UN military officers were ordered to stand down. The trigger that ultimately pushed events to spiral out of control is when the president’s plane was shot down returning from peace talks on April 6, 1994.
Although there is controversy as to who shot the plane down, many believe Hutu extremist were responsible because within an hour of the president’s death there were roadblocks throughout neighborhoods in Kigali and across the country. Members of the Interahamwe were working from already compiled lists of identified Tutsis and using id cards at the road blocks to check ethnicity, which had remained on the cards since the Belgians began the practice in the early 1930s. All Tutsis and moderate Hutus were under attack. Many fled to churches seeking refuge. Some of the clergy and nuns were extremely brave and compassionate, while others provided information to the Interahamwe. Some of the most horrific massacres took place inside churches.
By the end of the genocide there were over 1 million dead, 300,000 orphans and over 85,000 children were now heads of households. A UNICEF trauma survey found that 80% of Rwanda’s children experienced a death of a family member and 70% witnessed someone being killed.
In Rwanda today, ethnic identities are out. Everyone now just considers themselves Rwandan.
As I said, the museum and memorial are extremely well done. It is both peaceful and reflective, while at the same time horrifying that we as the international community did nothing. There are beautiful stain glass windows, but when you look at them closely you realize there are skulls woven throughout the glass. They do a very good job of talking about the genocide from the perspective of survivors and victims today, but also look at it from the perspective of Hutus that have also suffered as the result of the actions of family members and the larger community. There is one quote by Apollon Kabahizi that has stayed with me: “When they said ‘never again’ after the holocaust was it meant for some people and not for others.”
It definitely took me a while to bounce back from the start of the day. Luckily we had a five hour drive ahead of us to clear my mind. Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills.” It is a beautiful country, extremely green, fertile, and lush. Rwandans have mastered the art of farming vertically on the hills. As we traveled northwest to Uganda the soil is nourished by volcanic ash and rocks from the Virunga volcanos. The other plus about Rwanda was that their main roads are nicely paved.
When we came to the border, I was forced to get out of the car and walk. I’m not really sure why, but that is the primary mode of crossing the border for the locals so I think that is just how they structured the system to process everyone. Although I had to wait in line for a bit, it was easier than I suspected and only involved having to go to two different windows to get my passport stamped and complete the biometrics.
As you cross the border you switch driving sides and time zones. Rwandan’s drive on the same side as us in the States. Uganda, like Tanzania, were under British rule at one point, so they drive on the other side of the road. From the border we drove another 2 ½ hours to right outside the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Uganda is known as “the pearl of Africa.” It is a much larger country than Rwanda, but the portion we visited in the southwest was very similar to Rwanda in terms of landscape. It was potato harvest time so as we were driving on the dirt roads, sometimes very close to the edge of the hills (yes back to African massage days) you would see people in the fields or by the roads with large bags of potatoes. By the time we got to the lodge it was late afternoon. I didn’t do much other than relax (they give you a hand massage on arrival!) and enjoy the thunderstorm. It was the first thunderstorm I’ve experienced here in Africa. Another nice touch was the hot water bottle that was tucked under my sheets when I returned from dinner. It was so nice climbing into a warm bed. Being up in the hills with the rain, it cools off very quickly and turns cold easily.
After a quick breakfast we were off to the park for a briefing by the rangers. There were probably another 40 people or so trekking that day as well. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to 28 gorilla groups, almost half of the world’s approximately 700 surviving mountain gorillas. The park is also a World Heritage site. In addition to the gorillas, it has more mammal species (120) than any other park in Uganda, but because of the dense forest it is very hard to see any of them.
You are all grouped together for a briefing by the rangers and then split up (I suspect based on our appearance and physical stamina) into separate groups. There can be no more than 8 people in a group. Of the 28 gorilla groups, nine of them have been habituated to humans. Trackers were already out in the field, starting with the last place the gorillas were the day before and tracking them from there. They then radio back to the various guides as to where to bring us. There is always a chance you don’t find the gorillas. In fact, we started out going one way and the trackers then realized the gorilla group we were tracking had crossed the river and circled back closer to our starting point.
Each group is sent with two rangers that carry guns in addition to the machetes that all rangers carry. The guns are for the elephants. The jungle is so dense that you really can’t see anything in front of you other than green, and it is possible to startle the elephants. We didn’t come across any elephants, but the rangers would have fired a shot in the air scaring them off if we had. I loved hiking through the jungle. You had no idea what you were stepping on because you couldn’t see the ground with all of the plant growth. Sometimes it was sturdy, sometimes you were just stepping into a bunch of vines, other times you were in mud up to your shins.
We heard the gorillas long before we actually saw them. Once we finally found them, a number were in the trees and several were on the ground. The group we were assigned had two silverbacks and two babies. There really aren’t words to describe that hour long experience. It was incredible. At one point, a silverback crossed within 5 feet of me as he was coming down the trees and joining the others on the ground. One ranger was a bit too close for the silverback’s preference, so the gorilla turned back around and got in a threatening position until the ranger backed up. It was absolutely amazing. They are such magnificent animals. They eat leaves the way we would pull rosemary off the stem, run your fingers down the vine and pull off all the leaves. Watching the babies play and make mistakes was pure delight.
Before you know it, and way before you are ready, your hour is up. The permits only allow you to spend an hour with the gorillas and that is tightly enforced. It takes about two years to habituate a gorilla group to humans. Treks are only carried out in the morning when the gorillas are on the move and eating, and no gorilla group is exposed to humans any more than one hour each day. Today gorillas are only found in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).
I seriously considered skipping my flight and staying another day to go out the next morning. It is beyond incredible to see these animals in their natural habitat. It is not a cheap undertaking, but when you realize a large portion of the permit fee is going to protecting these animals and preserving their habitat it is so worth it. Now having had this experience, I can say it is totally worth it no matter the cost.
We followed the same path to return to Kigali. I still had to get out of the car to cross the border, but once again didn’t have to fill out any paperwork for immigration on the Rwandan side. It was all computerized. I returned to the hotel and had a direct flight back to Tanzania in the morning.
I was sad to be leaving. Although I only spent a short time in each country, I felt extremely comfortable and could have stayed much longer. Who knows maybe a future trip…
It struck me as I was filling out the immigration card to come back into Tanzania that I only have 15 days left here. I can’t believe my 2 ½ months are almost up. My last day of volunteering is Wednesday, August 30. On Thursday, I start hiking Mount Meru. I’ll be back to the hotel on Sunday, September 3, and then I leave the next day for Kenya and my second volunteer stint with Kakenya’s school for girls.
By the way, thanks for all the feedback on my question about the jewelry vs. the mountain. I was surprised by how many of you said go for the jewelry. There were a few wise souls that said to do both. I’ve decided all of you can’t be wrong. I should splurge on both a tangible item and an experience. So in addition to packing up and making my round of goodbyes this weekend, there will be some jewelry shopping on the agenda.
If I can’t get a post up once I get down the mountain, the next time you’ll hear from me I’ll be in Kenya.