I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that we were in Rwanda. Rwanda, Africa, as in genocide…
A lot has changed in the 23 years since then. And what an amazing transformation they’ve been through.
When we made plans to go to Rwanda, it was to see the Silverback Mountain Gorillas, not to learn about the genocide, but learn about it, we did. I believe most tours that go to Kigali start at the Genocide Museum. They want the world to know what happened, and how they’ve recovered.
It was an incredibly disturbing, emotional experience, but one I’m glad we had. Part of the benefit of traveling is seeing how other people live. It seriously does change your world view. We live such sheltered lives here.
I had considered just skipping writing about this, and getting right to the animals, but I would be doing an incredible disservice to an amazing people if I did that. And there were some pretty scary parallels with what is happening in America with the “us and them” stuff that seems to be accelerating. So bear with me.
I don’t want to give you a history lesson. If you’re interested, it’s easy enough to look up. Its WORTH looking up. Somehow, I slept through it as it occurred.
The bottom line is, about 1,000,000 Tutsi men, women and children were slaughtered. Many thousands of additional Tutsi women were raped and infected with HIV, many giving birth to HIV infected babies. Children who had gone into hiding were left as heads of households. Our guide for our time in Rwanda lost an aunt, uncle and brother. He was 16 at the time, and took us for lunch at the hotel where he was hidden.
The genocide lasted about 3 months, and by the time it was over the country was shell-shocked.
The new President told the people the the only way the country would ever heal, would be if they forgave the perpetrators, and they did. They worked together and put the country back together, everyone working for the good of the whole. Amazingly, Rwanda has become one of the success stories in Africa, with a comparatively vibrant economy. The people are hard-working, industrious. Saturdays are community days and everyone works to clean up there community. It is rare to find a piece of trash on the ground, and women can be seen sweeping the dirt roads and pathways all over the villages.
And now, tourism is very important to their economy, and the gorillas are at the heart of it. 80 passes per day to see them are sold every day. They need to be purchased well in advance. The price just increased from $750 US dollars to $1500, and does not seem to be having a negative impact on the sale of passes. The money is spent protecting the gorillas, and a portion is divided among the the local communities to fund education and social services.
There are 20 gorilla families, but only 10 are available for people to visit. The rest are set aside for studying. Each of the 10 families have a group of 8 people visit them each day for 1 hour. The rest of the time they are left alone to do what gorillas do… eat, rest, travel. Each family is composed of a silverback and his “harem” and their children.
Trackers follow the gorilla families through the jungles, both to protect them from poachers, and to report to camp where they are. Then the determination is made as to how difficult it is to get to them, and groups are formed based on the participant’s physical ability to get to them… easy, medium or difficult.
We were encouraged to do a “medium” trek the first day, going to see the Sabyinio family.
But as the gorillas traveled it was actually a “high side of medium,” much more challenging than I expected. Some of the inclines over large rocks were daunting. The porters carrying our backpacks were incredibly helpful. They were determined that they would get us to the gorillas, offering boosts up, and a steadying hand. There were some places where the rocks we were climbing on were almost like climbing straight up a ladder. I honestly don’t know how I made it up.
But, just as the articles I read predicted, once you see the gorillas, it all feels so worth it, and you forget how much you hurt.
The gorillas are completely uninterested in people. They go about their business, barely even noticing you are there. But just in case, the guide taught us a few submissive positions to assume and sounds to make, should they get alarmed. And they ARE wild animals, so the trackers carry guns to fire warning shots if need be. We never felt at all like we were in danger.
We couldn’t believe how close we were able to get to them. My camera had a hard time with the low light conditions, so my photos aren’t the greatest, but you’ll get the idea. Our first look was just jaw-dropping.
We saw the gorillas feeding, mamas nursing their babies, and “teenagers” swinging in the trees. Our hour flew by, and before we knew it, it was time to head back down the mountain.
Getting back down was much easier, and of course, we were higher than kites having witnessed something so special. But we were exhausted.
During the night, it occurred to me that there was no way I would be able to do it again the next day. I tossed and turned, fretting all night. In the morning, I suggested that we not go on the planned 2nd day. Mr. Tattered jumped on the idea, and we broke the news to our guide. He suggested we do a cave visit that started from the same place. BUT, when we got there, he found out that a new family that didn’t even have an official name yet was right inside the park and much easier to get to, so they put together a group to see that family, and we got to be a part of it.
What a remarkable difference. There was still quite a bit of walking, but it was rolling hills instead of straight up, and we did fine. This family was headed by a silverback who had killed 2 other silverbacks in an attempt to take over their families, but both sets of females refused to follow him. He ended up stealing a couple of women from other families and starting his own family. His history was slightly unnerving, but he seemed so mellow.
The trackers for this group were so accommodating. They cut down bamboo to help us get better photos, and were constantly changing our positions so we could get closer. It was an all around much better experience than the day before. We were SOOOO glad we went! The photos are MUCH better, AND, they were taken with my iPhone instead of my fancy camera!
The baby was goofing around, and
swung right onto Mama’s head!
And my very favorite photo…
It was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives, and I’m so glad we did it, but it won’t be one we’ll be repeating!